Show Me the Money

September 24, 2012

I often am asked about what philanthropy is investing in environmental health and environmental justice work:  how much there is, where it is going, where it comes from, and whether it is increasing or decreasing.

Here are my short answers:  I think it’s at least $100 million a year, based on available data.  It’s going into a diverse field and coming from a diversity of funders who care about health, the environment, justice, and communities.  I think investments are at least holding steady and probably increasing, but we don’t have enough data to know for sure.

These answers are honest but admittedly vague.  I also know my perspective seems at odds with the perceptions of many funders and grant-seekers struggling to keep good work going and watching some veteran funders leave the field.

Concerns about funding also are being fueled by recent reports suggesting low philanthropic support for environmental health and environmental justice.  The Environmental Grantmakers Association’s most recent Tracking the Field  report found that its members’ giving for environmental health, toxics, and environmental justice represented just 6% ($52 million) of their members’ 2009 grants, and less than 3%  ($36 million) of the larger pool of environmental grants tracked by the Foundation Center.

Recent analyses of social justice philanthropy have reported similarly low and declining giving for environmental justice.  A Foundation Center analysis  found that only 5% of social justice giving was going to environmental justice; another Foundation Center report concluded that social justice funders and funding were particularly hard-hit by the 2008 economic downturn.  A National Center for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) report found only 11% of environmental grant dollars were reported as advancing social justice.  A Catalyst Fund evaluation found grant support declining for women of color-led reproductive and environmental justice work.

This sounds like a lot of bad news.  The HEFN staff thinks that the reality of funding for environmental health and justice is more positive -- and complicated -- than these reports would suggest.

Where you look matters.  Grants analysis most commonly focuses on giving in a specific portfolio area (such as “environment”).  Because environmental threats to health and equity exist in many arenas, we have been intentionally engaging funders with concerns about toxics, local air and water quality, land use, transportation, climate and energy, agriculture, and human rights.  Analyses that look just at environmental funders’ grants will miss the significant and growing share of funding that is coming from health or other portfolios.  EGA’s grant-tracking team insightfully accounts for this by scouring foundation giving records for relevant grants across portfolio areas.  But since the EGA database tracks grants of its members, its Tracking the Field report totals do not capture relevant giving by foundations outside that environmental affinity group’s membership. Grants tracking efforts also often use the grantee type (e.g., “environmental”) as a clue to the project intent, especially when a grant is made as general support.  The strength of the environmental health and justice movement is its diversity, from learning and developmental disabilities groups, breast cancer survivors, to health care professionals, chemists, biologists, social scientists, nail salon and farm workers, and small business owners.  That also means that tracking the field by type of grantee will miss a lot.

What you call it matters.   Much of the work in HEFN’s arena offers benefits to health, the environment, and social equity.   With funders approaching the field from different entry points, they often characterize and report their investments in different ways.   A grant to reduce school bus diesel pollution in a low-income community, for instance, could be considered a climate, environmental justice, or children’s asthma prevention grant, if not all three.

The Foundation Center’s philanthropic data collection, grants analysis staff, and grants analysis are all impressive, as is the Center’s detailed taxonomy for coding grants.  But any grant analysis depends on the varied information foundations provide through 990s or voluntary e-reporting.  I recently looked at a small subset of Foundation Center grants data from HEFN participants and found considerable variability in whether grants HEFN would consider as related to “environmental health” were coded as such.  This however drew much more on my inside knowledge of those specific funders’ strategies than on the information provided in grant descriptions. I suspect that the true picture of environmental justice giving is even less clear.  At present, the Foundation Center has no environmental justice code in its taxonomy, making it harder to identify those investments; it also does not routinely track grants under $10,000, which means that many small grants to EJ and other grassroots groups are not being captured in the datasets.  The Center has begun working with some funder groups to improve data and its uses  in specific issue areas.

What we counted.  In HEFN’s last grants-tracking project, we collected 2007 grants lists totaling about $70 million from funders intentionally investing at the intersections of health and the environment.   We knew we had not captured investments for all of the relevant funders.  And, while some funders have exited or decreased spending, we have seen net growth in engaged philanthropies.   So I think the overall funding picture and trajectory may be more positive than many of the reports would suggest.

I do believe that the funding struggles being reported from the field are real – and sobering.   Some of this is due to actual shifts in funder support for specific pieces of work.  Ironically, it also may be a symptom of success.  The field has expanded significantly in recent years, and many grantees have grown their budgets and staff in response to new opportunities.  The field growth likely has outpaced the rate of growth in philanthropic support.    And the welcome diversification of engaged foundations makes it harder for grant-seekers to see the universe of potential support.

Environmental justice funding illustrates several of these phenomena.  An original core of funders committed to EJ has dwindled, while field efforts and funding have diversified in more issue areas.

Hearing that the overall pie may be expanding won’t help the growing numbers of groups looking to sustain great work.  Scaling up the level of investment in environmental health and environmental justice – to bring it more in line with the needs and opportunities in the field -- is a high priority for HEFN.

And my back-of-the-envelope notes about levels of investment are no substitute for solid data.  Having better ways to track and aggregate information on funding flows where health, environmental, and justice interests converge could help, whether one is making, seeking, or studying grants.

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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