Today comes Part IV of Ken Ward’s response to “The Death of Environmentalism,” in which he argues that some of The Reapers’ ire — nay, most of it — should have been reserved for environmental funders. The narrow focus, political ineptitude, and technocratic fixes come not from the environmental advocacy groups, he says, but from the foundations that fund them.

Good stuff today. (An edited version of this installment appears today in Soapbox.)

Don’t forget to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part V.

A Response to “Death of Environmentalism”: Part IV: The Problematic Role of Environmental Funders

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Why wasn’t the murderous instinct of S&N aimed at environmental foundations? The long list of sins committed by the major environmental oragnizations they noted — narrow policy perspectives, tech-oriented solutions, finely delineated problem statements, incremental approaches and the failure to draw bright lines — is a letter-perfect description of the conditions that attach to virtually every environmental foundation RFP (request for proposal).

The key role of a relatively small, intelligently invested funding stream in the right wing’s ascendancy to power has been well documented and widely discussed.[1] Lessons that can be drawn from this analysis have been circulating for a decade with no significant resulting change apparent in environmental foundation granting practices.

As S&N note, right-wing funders operate from a business perspective. They see themselves as investors in an entrepreneurial venture looking to control the political equivalent of emerging business sectors. They look for IPOs with strong management teams and a good business plan and they guarantee a flow of investment necessary to build infrastructure and support a product launch.

Environmental foundations boast total assets and annual grants that dwarf conservative funders. By one informed estimate, the total cost of the right-wing network of policy centers, advocacy groups, and media outlets that laid the foundation for seizing control of the national agenda was around $300 million[2]. Environmental program grants alone by just 25 of the most activist-oriented environmental foundations total $850 million annually, almost three times what conservatives spent on their entire apparatus.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The money is there, yet environmental foundations are unwilling, or unable, to undertake a similar approach toward building power.

The terrific mass of foundation money is like a black hole altering the political trajectory of all objects within its gravitational force. One could even argue that our power has been reduced by funders’ activity. The comparison with conservative foundations underscores that the myopic attention to narrowly defined, policy-oriented programs denies support to critical infrastructure and undermines power-oriented work.

One example is the experience of Green Corps — the only training school for environmental staff and a success by any standard. It was founded by staff of the State PIRGs and supported through several years of startup. Over the last decade, environmental groups have come to value Green Corps campaign fieldwork and vie to hire it’s graduates. Green Corps alumni are prominent in the ranks of our next generation of environmental leaders.

Other than one hefty two-year grant from the Beldon Fund, one of only a handful of our foundations which give general support, foundation grants account for less than one quarter of the Green Corps budget, and little of this support funds the training program itself. The bulk of the budget must be raised by contracting for field campaigns, and Green Corps curriculum must emphasize one type of campaigning as a result.

The Green Corps leadership are never freed from the tyranny of the annual funding cycle to explore new initiatives, like founding a graduate academy, or ensuring that graduates are up to speed on cutting edge networking technology,[3] and the average class size today is smaller than the first Green Corps class.

The total cost of Green Corps is peanuts, less than many single-issue environmental grants. The lack of ongoing support, let alone funding to expand the program’s 30 slots/year, stands in stark contrast to the right wing, which invested early and heavily in its systems for identifying, tracking, testing, training, inspiring, and placing thousands of emerging leaders.[4]

Utility De-Regulation

Funder-imposed policy — driven by short term political calculation and closed-loop conversations with weak institutional environmental groups — often reduces our power.

To address climate change, is it better to retain government control of the utility industry as a regulated monopoly, or would it be preferable to create a free market?

A credible response would be to argue for the nationalization of utilities as a necessary structural step to shift electricy generation away from fossil fuels. Instead, the lead funders on energy policy lent their considerable weight to the deregulation effort stage-managed by Enron.

As the drive for deregulation surfaced, state-level opposition coalesced throughout the country. In New Jersey, a broad-based coalition, which I helped found, began to grapple with how to frame a response. We decided to emphasize consumer opposition, but also to make the case that New Jersey should retain oversight over utilities to deal with long-range issues like climate change.

We were dumfounded to learn that staff from the major energy-policy foundations had made a decision to acquiesce to deregulation in exchange for the opportunity to propose set asides for renewables (RPS). The major players refused to consider arguments for opposing deregulation raised by advocates from around the country. Our political analysis that deregulation could be defeated outright in several states was dismissed and our suggestions on policy ignored[5]. Foundation staff made clear the view that state deregulation was a vehicle to win RPS, and that funding on energy issues was contingent on toeing this political line. A vigorous, grassroots opposition to deregulation was squelched by foundation hardball.

I’m told that there are slight shifts within the foundation world toward a broader view of power, more enthusiasm for funding scrappy initiatives and a hint of re-thinking the utility of depending too heavily on wholly owned subsidiaries. A quick glance at current funding guidelines and the latest list of grants by the key players in the Environmental Grantmakers Association, however, shows little evidence of change.

I believe the leading environmental advocacy groups go as far as they can within the limits that constrain them. Getting grants renewed is one major limiting factor, and the collapse of effective protest is another. If our foundations had distributed the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in climate-change program funding mentioned by S&N in the form of block grants, I think we would have seen very different and much stronger environmental work. Change how foundations function, and we would have a whole new ball game.

Ken Ward has 25 years leadership and campaigning experience with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, Greenpeace USA, Public Interest GRFX, and the National Environmental Law Center. He was a cofounder of the Fund for Public Interest Research, Environmental Endowment for New Jersey, and Green Corps.

[1] See, for example, The Buying of a Movement, a report by People for the American Way, which concluded, “Conservative foundations invest efficiently and effectively. They offer a clearly articulated vision of their plan for America, and they invest wisely to effect that vision. They are comprehensive in their funding strategies and extraordinarily generous in the size of their donations.”

[2] Rob Stein’s research, laid out in a PowerPoint presentation titled The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix, essentially makes the case that a handful of families — Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors and others — laid the foundation for a $300 million network of policy centers, advocacy groups and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. (Wiring the Vast left-Wing Conspiracy, New York Times, July 24, 2004).

[3] Green Corps ought to be able to offer top-of-the-line training in Internet organizing. Each incoming class should be provided with laptops containing the most advanced networking, communications & database software. The leading experts should be brought in as trainers (paying trainer fees, if necessary; currently all Green Corps trainers are pro bono), and Green Corps training campaigns should integrate web-based work. Green Corps graduates would then export these top-notch skills and leading-edge technology to the organizations where they are hired. The cost for such a program? Around $100,000 annually. I’m willing to bet that the cost-to-power-leveraged ratio of such a program would rank right up near the top of any such listing of environmental grant making.

[4] The right-wing funders place a premium on “cultivating the next generation of conservative leaders by supporting their undergraduate work, linking them with conservative networks and internships, placing them with think tanks and guiding them toward high-level government positions.” — People for the American Way

[5] To build power if utility deregulation is unavoidable, we ought to have campaigned to win a formal mechanism for aggregating individual consumers using the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) model. Using deregulation as a means to build CUBs would level the playing field in negotiations with producers and found a pro-consumer utility watchdog.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.