money and grassMoney makes the grassroots grow.

Particularly since the failure of the climate bill, the strategies and tactics of the environmental movement have come in for a great deal of criticism. But there has been curiously little discussion of a set of players that have more influence than anyone over those strategies: the philanthropic organizations that fund the environmental movement.

It’s not surprising: Everyone can see environmental NGOs and assess their work. But environmental funders largely operate outside public view, with very little transparency and almost no accountability. I doubt most people, even dedicated greens, could name two or three big funders, much less assess their work.

So how exactly are environmental philanthropists shaping strategy?

There is a criticism of funders on the left that is so old and familiar as to have become cliché. It goes like this: The right’s funders have spent the last 30 years building a bottom-up movement. The wealthy conservatives who give money view the heads of movement institutions as trusted peers, so they are content to give without strings attached — their money is “patient.” The right now has institutions and infrastructure that recruit young people, pay them enough to live on, mentor and train them, and send them out into the courts, local politics, and think tanks.

The left’s funders, on the other hand, have pursued high-profile national legislative wins. Their money is impatient and results-based. Institutions receiving the money are treated like untrustworthy employees, forced to submit endless progress reports and beg anew for money every year or two. The result is short-term thinking and number-pumping. Young people are treated like chattel, given unpaid internships and asked to accept poverty. Grassroots organizing and local politics are neglected in favor of D.C.-focused lobbying meant to influence elites.

When it comes to environmental philanthropy, this familiar critique is, at least in broad outlines, correct. What’s more, environmental funding tends to be extremely siloed; there’s little overlap with broader issues of social and economic justice. Basically, a few big D.C.-based green groups get the bulk of the money, to be spent effecting federal legislation and policy, while smaller community-organizing groups go hungry.

A new report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy puts some numbers behind these concerns. It finds that “in 2009, environmental organizations with budgets of more than $5 million received half of all contributions” in environmental philanthropy, though they represent “only 2 percent of the nearly 29,000 environment and climate public charities in the country.” The available green money is highly concentrated on a top-down strategy.

The report didn’t exactly endear itself to me by starting off with a bunch of rehashed myths about cap-and-trade, but it seems to me its recommendations are hard to argue with: Spread the money out. Fund a larger number of smaller groups that are organizing affected communities. Diversify. Be patient. Build infrastructure.

NCRP recommends that grantmakers “provide at least 20 percent of grant dollars explicitly to benefit [marginalized] communities” and “invest at least 25 percent of grant dollars in grassroots advocacy, organizing and civic engagement.”

I don’t know the philanthropic world well enough to know if those numbers make sense, or what exactly they would mean in practical terms. But the proposals seem directionally right.

A few things I can say with confidence:

  • The top-down, elite-focused strategy that has come to dominate the environmental movement is not working. Progress in D.C., on both policy and politics, has all but ground to a halt. There hasn’t been major green legislation passed since the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
  • Environmentalism lacks political power because it is not backed by enough intensity at the grassroots level, particularly in non-coastal areas. Resources need to be diverted in that direction.
  • Environmentalism needs to connect with the working-class poor, minorities, and other communities most directly impacted by environmental problems.
  • Environmentalism is in for a century of fights. It badly needs to take the long view and start laying down infrastructure, starting with a foundation of community-level support.

This kind of shift won’t be possible without the support of the philanthropic community.

Recall two of the few successful environmental campaigns of the last several years: the anti-coal campaign and the anti-Keystone XL campaign. Both were born and nurtured at the grassroots level. Both thrived by connecting to the communities most likely to be directly affected. And both operated on a shoestring budget, largely neglected — particularly early on — by the philanthropic community.

It’s time for philanthropists to learn the lesson and take seriously the need for a bottom-up, community-based movement.