Rising to the threat posed by global climate change will require a broad and sustained social movement. The legacy of the first Earth Day in 1970 reminds us that the environmental movement has been at its best when it is grassroots, community-based, and participatory. That first Earth Day, millions of people participated in over twelve thousand events across the country, and two-thirds of the members of Congress spoke at Earth Day events. Today, a new generation of anti-fossil fuel advocates is re-kindling this spirit. However, growing this movement will require a fundamental shift in the way philanthropists support environmental efforts, focusing more on grassroots mobilization and civic participation. Investing in this movement building will help philanthropists build the political power necessary to win meaningful climate legislation and move towards a sustainable economy.
Historically, the scale of political, economic, and social change demanded by climate change has only occurred when a broad cross-section of Americans have mobilized in their local communities. Fortunately, the seeds for a climate movement have already been planted. A new generation of climate activists is combining social media with grassroots organizing and direct action to move the United States away from fossil fuels. They have coalesced around efforts to block the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring “tar sands” oil from Canada into the United States. The #noKXL campaign, driven by 350.org and others, has organized a diverse constituency, elevated the issue in the national spotlight, and forced the Obama administration to carefully re-examine its assessment of the proposed pipeline. The efforts to block the pipeline also sparked the largest climate rally in US history. In addition, college students across the country are organizing to demand universities divest from fossil fuels. While this activism does not advance specific (or even “strategic”) policies, they have galvanized and energized an impassioned constituency around tangible and highly-visible targets.
Philanthropists have typically favored distinct and high-profile policy and legal battles—such as the cap-and-trade fight during Obama’s first term—in order to curb carbon emissions. Critics argue this top-down approach is too focused on near-term policy outcomes and comes at the expense of building a base of support. As a result, advocates lack the political power necessary to win significant policy battles. In order to grow a movement that can create the power shift necessary for climate action, funders need to invest in building an infrastructure for grassroots mobilization and in reinvigorating American democracy.
Building movement infrastructure: A movement infrastructure is more than a collection of organizations; it is an integrated, coordinated, and strategically-oriented network of different types of organizations representing diverse constituencies and issues. To help build this infrastructure, funders should:
- Grow the core constituency by supporting organizing centers, institutions, and networks that will serve as anchor organizations for broader mobilization. Funders can also provide general support and long-term grants that will enable organizers to begin the arduous process of building coalitions, along with supplemental grants for leadership development, staff training, collaboration among peer organizations, research and policy capacity, media outreach, and technology.
- Build a common vision and identity across stakeholders. As anchor organizations grow, funders can provide the means to broaden and deepen the organization’s networks outside their core constituency and develop shared values and goals that extend beyond those of any one constituent part. Funding across organizational partners and peer networks rather than through isolated organizations is also key.
- Partner with other funders. Donors will need to identify opportunities to collaborate with other funders, including those outside the traditional environmental movement. Arabella has published a guide for how environmental funders and those unaccustomed to working on the environment can successfully collaborate.
Investing in democracy: While building an infrastructure for grassroots mobilization is crucial for growing a movement, doing so in a climate of intense challenges to our democratic institutions is like planting seeds in a sandbox. My colleagues have written extensively on the need of funders to invest in strengthening American democracy. Most recently, Shoshana Buchholz-Miller suggested ways donors can help strengthen our democratic structures, including support for reforms to our campaign finance system, alternate modes of journalism, and electoral reform.
Philanthropic support for movement building requires patient capital and risk tolerance. Grassroots activism is messy, protracted, and hard to measure—the antithesis of strategic philanthropy. Yet it’s absolutely essential to creating the political power necessary to move to a zero carbon world.
Ryan Strode is an associate director at Arabella, where he works primarily with family and institutional clients to develop philanthropic strategies around climate change mitigation and adaptation, clean energy, and ecological conservation and restoration. He tweets from @ryanstrode.