Beyond the Known Universe

December 3, 2012

For HEFN, expanding philanthropic support for environmental health and justice work is a top priority, if not an active obsession.  We are proud of having helped grow our funder community’s annual investments from just a few million to over a hundred million dollars of support for the field, and we intend to expand foundation investments and impact much further.

But we and our members also have started talking about what funders can do to lessen the field’s dependence on philanthropy.  At HEFN’s recent 2012 annual meeting in Chicago, discussions surfaced varied motives and ideas for finding resources beyond the known universe.

Broadening the base:  Although funding in this arena has grown, work and opportunities in the field have grown even faster.  And both funders and grantees worry about how many organizations are dependent on too few foundations.  This not only constrains growth.  It also can make good work quite vulnerable when foundations change, whether  to shift priorities, exit a field, or make recession-related reductions in grantmaking.  Some funders already have been making grants to help groups expand operations and/or lessen dependence on grant revenue.  For example, as it moved towards a planned spend-out, the Beldon Fund gave a challenge grant to a grantee to build its individual donor base. The group used those resources to expand its annual donor revenue from $50,000 to over one million dollars, mainly through online donations.

Putting expertise to work:  Funders also are realizing that some organizations they’ve supported have acquired information and expertise that has value beyond advocacy.  So, for instance, we are hearing about groups that have advanced understanding about how environmental exposures affect health, and groups developing tools to evaluate chemicals and materials for safety, that now are exploring trainings or other fees-for-service that could generate a new revenue stream.

Investing for impact: Along similar lines we hear increasing interest, albeit little experience yet, in steering more funder and donor resources into mission-related or impact investment in areas like green chemistry, renewable energy, healthy housing, and hazard remediation.

Engaging social networks:  As people talked at the HEFN 2012 meeting about building broader public broad public support for healthier environmental conditions, conversations turned to opportunities for online fundraising and crowd-funding.   Here too, grants to build online fundraising capacity might broaden and diversify the field’s resources.  Having watched so many funders get more committed to this field as they make and learn from investments, I also think the benefits of drawing more people into everyday “philanthropy” to protect public health and the environment could go way beyond new revenue generation.

These initial discussions raise new questions:  Are some new revenue options most appropriate for certain kinds of grantees?  Any resources funders and nonprofit groups have found particularly helpful? Where could past experience or successes in other arenas provide useful models or lessons learned?   For instance, could platforms like Kickstarter or Kiva work for domestic environmental health and justice projects?

We’re interested in learning more – and helping HEFN funders explore new ways for grantees to expand their resources outside the known philanthropic universe.

From our Blog

Blog posted on January 13, 2014
An updated look at trends and data in environmental health and environmental justice philanthropy from the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

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