Thanks to a widespread sense of urgency around climate change, grassroots organizations sit at a nexus of opportunity to make a meaningful difference in building climate resilient communities. What is philanthropy’s role?
At a recent NPO Conversation with GMA Foundations, eight nonprofit leaders shared their ideas on how to seize this critical moment in driving change and, in doing so, shed light on key grantmaking approaches. Their organizations (listed below) operate in diverse fields, from city planning and housing development to youth services and advocacy.
Grantmakers have long known that environmental justice communities—a state designation calculated by determinants of income level, race, and English fluency—are disproportionately affected by climate change and the ill-effects of environmental degradation. For example, in 2014-15, the asthma emergency department visit rates among children living in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury were higher than in the rest of Boston. 
At a time of major legislative gains—from the federal jobs, infrastructure, and green energy proposal, to the 2021 Massachusetts climate bill and the City of Boston’s climate action plan—nonprofits working in environmental justice communities play a critical role.
Three Key Approaches to Change
Collaboration and Engagement
Resoundingly, the leaders we spoke with agreed that collaboration among and across public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors is essential. There needs to be a willingness to work across organizations and remove silos in order to maximize impact.
“How do we forge that kind of unity so that we’re not splintered around different priorities?” Janet Groat, Massachusetts organizing manager for Mothers Out Front, posited.
Grassroots work by these organizations has already led to deep, authentic community connection and engagement, which are pivotal to environmental justice efforts.
“We’re on the ground meeting people where they are,” says Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, executive director of Sociedad Latina. “We connect to people’s experience and everyday life-asking why it’s important to have healthy soil to grow these vegetables.”
Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets, underscores the importance of coalition- building. “We need to allow time for community process,” she says, pointing out that her organization’s Street Ambassador program is central to its work. Trained volunteers directly engage with people in neighborhoods to center their concerns in street improvement projects.
Engaging communities is also about conveying the bigger picture. “We want residents to see how policy and legislation connect to their areas of interest, how policy might relate to developing that piece of land, or how issues related to asthma translate in to broader policy.” says Gail Latimore, executive director of Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Our guests cautioned us to be wary of unsubstantiated “greenwashing,” and to be sure that communities disproportionately impacted by climate change do, in fact, have full representation in government decisions. This presents an opportunity for funders to support previously unheard voices.
“There is more money coming from government, but the people who are most marginalized and impacted now have only half a seat at the table,” says Thompson of LivableStreets.
Kate Dineen, executive vice president of A Better City, echoes these sentiments. “There needs to be a very thoughtful approach developed along with government. Let’s ensure that voices are heard and investments are made to uplift communities equitably across the state.”
Philanthropy is positioned to invest in the infrastructure of community-based organizing. The COVID-19 pandemic showed funders the value of general operating and capacity-building support, with few restrictions attached. This same lesson carries through to climate action, and could represent a template for funder action.
Mela Bush-Miles, transit-oriented development director for Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), says there’s an assumption that everyone has access to public transport or to the internet and smart phones with sufficient bandwidth and Wi-Fi. “We work to engage folks at every level we can. I think smaller foundations can look at funding more direct access to these things,” she says.
Phil Hall, GMA’s director of grantmaking, notes that the climate crisis, often addressed in terms of public policy and economic innovation, can be looked at through the people-centered lens with which donors are very familiar. “Community involvement is key to change. One way to build climate resilience is through the groups already doing great work in neighborhoods.”
As philanthropy’s role in supporting climate-resilient communities can take many forms, GMA is working to guide clients through learning, connecting with nonprofit leaders, and collaborating with other funders.
Organizations represented in the NPO Conversation at GMA
All of these groups also participated in the City of Boston’s 2019 Climate Action Plan:
- A Better City
- Alternative for Community & Environment (ACE)
- Boston Harbor Now
- Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp.
- Livable Streets Alliance
- Mothers Out Front
- Sociedad Latina