Redefining climate strategies with an equity lens: Kresge’s story

Shamar Bibbins is a senior program officer for Environment at The Kresge Foundation and is featured in Candid’s new funder’s guide to climate justice, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy. This post is part of a series highlighting case studies featured in the guide. Learn more or download the guide here.

When I was looking to transition into climate philanthropy nearly 10 years ago, I must admit, I wasn’t convinced this was the space for me. I had worked for a national environmental and economic justice nonprofit organization for several years and wanted to bring my expertise and leadership to the philanthropic sector to continue supporting work at the intersection of environmental, economic, and racial justice. My commitment to work on climate change in ways that centered communities of color to advance holistic and integrated equitable climate solutions was clear. However, at that time, there were few national philanthropic organizations in the U.S. whose programmatic strategies aligned with my values.

Fortunately, that was about to change. In 2014, I joined The Kresge Foundation just a few months after its Board of Trustees approved a new strategic framework for the Environment Program that aligned with the Foundation’s urban opportunity framework. The new program strategy shifted a fairly traditional approach to addressing climate mitigation and climate adaptation to one that emphasized work at the intersection of adaptation and mitigation with opportunity for low-income communities at the forefront. This new strategy set the foundation for our current work focused on climate change, cities and equity.

Today, our goal is to help U.S. cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic justice. We help cities accelerate implementation of more equitable approaches to climate action, with a focus on transforming energy and water systems and addressing public health. We support municipal and public sector leaders in addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation while making sure that communities of color and low-wealth communities are included in the decision-making process and benefit from such work.

We invest in leaders of color, as well as equity- and justice-focused organizations, to influence climate change-related decision making at the local, regional, state, and national level. And, increasingly, we support collaborations that foster strengthened connections between and among government and community leaders.

A 10-year journey to change

Supporting Black, Indigenous, and other people of color-led (BIPOC) organizations that approach climate change work with a strong emphasis on equity and justice is core to our strategy. However, this wasn’t always the case. Ten years ago, less than 10 percent of Kresge’s climate grant funds went to BIPOC-led organizations. This year, we were pleased to report that 39 percent of Kresge’s 2021 climate change grant dollars went to such groups.

Since 2014, we have been deliberate about integrating equity across every aspect of our portfolio. As a result, we have not only significantly increased our climate change grant dollars that go to BIPOC-led organizations, but we have also expanded our approach to how we support advancing equity in climate work. This has at times required us to broaden our thinking of what constitutes work on climate change. We provide direct grant support to environmental and climate justice organizations and a range of other nonprofits that focus on community organizing and community capacity building; the development and application of community-driven frameworks and solutions; and support for regional and national movement-building networks.

We also provide grants that support capacity building and technical assistance for nonprofits and cities through strategic communications, technical and legal support, as well as support to grassroots and frontline organizations through movement intermediary organizations including The Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, and The Solutions Project. In addition, we foster connections and support peer-learning opportunities for our grantee partners funded through our Climate Change, Health, & Equity initiative and Climate Resilience and Equitable Water Systems initiatives.

Building power in communities of color

In February 2021, The Kresge Foundation was among the first climate change funders to take the Climate Funders Justice Pledge launched by the Donors of Color Network (DOCN). The DOCN is the first cross-racial community of donors committed to building the collective power of people of color, driving systems change and advancing racial equity. At that time, we committed to direct at least 30 percent of our climate change grantmaking dollars to BIPOC-led organizations and to publicly report our progress toward that goal on an annual basis.

To qualify as pledge eligible, the majority of both an organization’s board members and its senior staff must be people of color, and the organization must be committed to building power in communities of color.

As my colleague Lois DeBacker, managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program, has frequently said, “We took the pledge because we firmly believe that the nation – and the world – will not be successful in efforts to combat and adapt to climate change unless a powerful and diverse movement demands action and is resourced to lead. We need the voices and expertise of BIPOC leaders to be authentically represented in the local, state, national, and global venues at which climate change policies are designed and implemented. And those leaders and their organizations need to receive a greater share of philanthropic funding to bring their full talent to the table.”

A lot has changed in climate philanthropy over the last decade. There is a growing cadre of intermediary organizations and new and exciting models of participatory grantmaking that are providing critical resources and leadership to support frontline and grassroots climate justice work. There is an increased recognition among funders of the justice and equity implications of addressing climate change and the interconnections between structural racism, historical inequities, and the root causes of the climate crisis.

Black, Indigenous and other people of color-led organizations are leading the way and providing strong examples of what looks different when we support frontline leadership. We only need to look at recent policy wins in New York, Portland, and Illinois led by environmental justice and climate justice groups who worked to ensure that these policies not only brought investments in clean and renewable energy but also significant investments in housing, workforce development, and transportation to communities of color and low-wealth communities.

Philanthropy must step up

However, despite important gains, philanthropic support for climate justice remains woefully underfunded. Candid’s new guide for funders, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy, notes that of the approximately $1.6 billion dollars supporting climate mitigation efforts globally in 2019, only a small percentage (about $60 million) supported justice and equity-oriented efforts. In the U.S., a 2020 report found that less than 2% of funding among the largest environmental funders goes to BIPOC-led environmental justice groups who are contributing outsized impacts in the fight against climate change.

We can and must do better. The philanthropic community must take the lead in doing our part to address the climate crisis at the scale and magnitude of the challenge. Though the scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, having access to practical advice from funders and frontline organizations can help overcome analysis paralysis. Whether you are a funder who is just beginning to incorporate equity and justice into your grantmaking or a seasoned funder looking to deepen your practice, Candid’s new resource for funders, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy is a comprehensive guide designed to support your learning and practice. Hopefully, this guide will provide important insights and inspiration to help inform your grantmaking in support of equity and justice.

About the author(s)

Senior Program Officer for Environment
The Kresge Foundation