AERIAL VIEW OF flooding from Hurricane Matthew in Wilson, NC, 2016. William Howard/SHUTTERSTOCK

AERIAL VIEW OF flooding from Hurricane Matthew in Wilson, NC, 2016. William Howard/SHUTTERSTOCK

As the pandemic endures, so does the climate crisis, and many funders are keeping their eyes on environmental targets. In North Carolina, Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment recently received $20 million from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund, a donor-advised fund at the Chicago Community Trust.

This gift was given at the recommendation of an anonymous fund adviser and Duke alumnus. It follows a late 2018 grant to the same school of the same amount from the same fund—a gift Duke stated at the time was believed to be “one of the largest ever received by a school of the environment.” The new infusion of funds will support professorships with a focus on climate change and other pressing environmental issues.

And, as we recently explored, efforts to address the climate crisis and COVID-19 are not exactly isolated—they actually intersect in many ways. The pandemic and climate change are both brutal behemoths that impact many aspects of our lives. The disasters expose and inflame social and economic inequities. Both have disproportionate effects on communities of color.

Another notable tie-in here is the link between habitat destruction, the wildlife trade and the spread of zoonotic pandemics. And it’s crucial that green funders stay engaged as the Trump administration waives EPA regulations and rolls back auto emissions rules in the fog of pandemic.

The Pivotal Role of Alumni

Climate change and related resilience efforts constitute an active branch of environmental philanthropy, and other environmentally minded higher-ed givers have made their mark in this arena. But there is plenty of room for growth, given how dire and pervasive this challenge is. The Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) reported that in 2015, giving for climate accounted for about 9% of its members’ funding. Climate giving is still a small slice of overall philanthropy in the United States, but has been rising significantly in recent years.

A few hours northeast of Duke in Virginia are Old Dominion University and William & Mary, which recently received donations relating to climate resilience and interdisciplinary conservation, respectively. These commitments, made or recommended by alumni, come at a time when schools are increasingly reliant on private donors, as state support drags behind historical levels, despite some gains in recent years.

Charitable giving to colleges and universities continued to climb during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, when these institutions raised more than $49.6 billion, marking the 10th straight annual increase. The ongoing fallout and uncertainty of the pandemic in higher ed fundraising means the pre-crisis reliance on mega-donors is likely to continue, EAB Senior Director Jeff Martin recently said.

A Chicago DAF Backs Climate Resilience and College Access in the Southeast

The pandemic and the irregular, destructive weather patterns that accompany a changing climate both reveal the dangerous gaps in our national and community-level response capabilities, and how poor communities and those of color are often hit hardest and then sidelined in response efforts and funding. Both have drawn the topic of preparedness and resilience into the foreground. Climate resilience will be a focus for the new academic positions at Duke.

“These professorships will transform environmental research and education at Duke and will help advance our efforts to find adaptive and resilient responses to climate change—a vitally important priority for our university and the world,” Duke President Vincent E. Price said.

Research has also shown climate-focused work to be underfunded in the climate-vulnerable South, where Duke is based, a region large populations of Hispanic, Black and Indigenous people call home. While a diverse climate resiliency and justice movement is growing in this region, about half of all climate funding still goes to about 20 national organizations, which are overwhelmingly led by white men.

The 2018 gift of $20 million to Duke from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund actually had a racial-equity component; it went toward financial aid and fellowships for the environmental school, with a focus on first-generation and underrepresented groups, along with some research, academics and facilities. Diversifying the student body in universities’ environmental departments can potentially make waves in related sectors down the line. Green STEM fields are some of the least diverse in the scientific community.

“A more inclusive and diverse environmental field will result in better science and more effective practices for managing Earth’s resources and protecting its people and species,” Toddi Steelman, dean of the Nicholas School, said at the time. Students who rely on financial aid from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund to attend the Nicholas School may now be taught by professors financed by the same fund.

The Nicholas School runs a range of initiatives relating to climate, including cross-disciplinary climate research endeavors, a Climate Change Science and Applications program, related routes of study in ecology, environmental policy and health, and more. Duke’s main campus in Durham is about three hours inland from its coastal Marine Lab in Beaufort, where students study topics like marine science, conservation and environmental management.

Steelman told Inside Philanthropy that the new gift will focus on four areas: large-scale physical oceanography and climate change, environmental health, ecosystem restoration at the watershed and community level, and geophysical or geological investigations of near-surface processes “with linkages to geohazards” and/or earth resources like energy, minerals and water.

“Our school recently had a retreat to refine how most of our faculty touch on climate change work, either directly or indirectly,” she said. To have an impact, she said the school needs to “make advances in basic discovery science to understand the mechanisms underlying climate change, while also advancing solutions related to mitigation and adaptation.” She added that the new gift will help the school “imagine how we can move forward in these interdependent ways.”

This DAF has given numerous previous gifts to Duke, including for a program in natural resource finance, capital improvements to campuses, repairs to the Marine Lab after Hurricane Florence, and for the lab’s new vessel, the R/V Shearwater. Once known simply as Environment Hall, the main building of the Nicholas School is now dubbed Grainger Hall. The Grainger Family Descendants Fund also supported the work of faculty and students at Duke’s Orrin Pilkey Research Laboratory in Beaufort and the Juli Plant Grainger River Science Center in Durham.

This center is named for Juli Plant Grainger, who died in 2014. She was an officer of the Grainger Foundation and wife to David Grainger, the son of William W. Grainger, who founded W.W. Grainger, a Fortune 500 industrial supplier. The Graingers of Chicago’s family foundation supports higher education, especially engineering programs, among other causes.

It’s always hard to know for sure what exactly is going on behind the scenes with donor-advised funds, which operate under fewer transparency rules than foundations. But a connection between the Grainger Family Descendants Fund and the wealthy Grainger family and foundation in Illinois, both of which are linked to Duke’s environmental school, seems very likely. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chicago Community Trust and its DAF advisor had not provided a response to our inquiries for this article. The Grainger Foundation does not maintain an online presence.

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