Student activists participate in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in september. Jennifer M. Mason/shutterstock
Student activists participate in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in september. Jennifer M. Mason/shutterstock

Two weeks ago, my colleague and I covered the first leaked details about Jeff Bezos’s initial giving from his $10 billion climate fund. We were disappointed that the Amazon chief executive seemed to have chosen the environmental movement’s usual suspects, big green NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, which have long received the bulk of such giving.

This week, in a post on Instagram, Bezos announced all 16 recipient organizations. Many are pointing out that, indeed, the fund is showering the wealthiest green groups with hundreds of millions, almost two-thirds of the total. But the full list of grants delivers some encouraging surprises, and we have to give credit where credit is due. Five grants will go to movement organizations focused on organizing communities of color around climate action, an unprecedented injection of $151 million into a segment of the climate landscape that has long struggled to attract funding comparable to the well-known and mostly white-led environmental mainstays.

This funding, which in several cases appears to represent more than the organizations have ever before received, gives a boost to the climate justice movement just as a new president, who has explicitly prioritized not only climate change, but environmental justice, prepares to take office. Our concerns about Bezos’s enormous wealth and influence—and the much larger impact of his company, Amazon—persist. But it is heartening that he has put substantial and unrestricted resources toward bottom-up efforts that not only build popular support for climate action, but advance local, grassroots solutions.

It also signals a larger potential shift underway in the climate and climate funding arena. For years, Inside Philanthropy has joined many other voices calling on greater climate funding for grassroots movement-building and communities of color, and we’ve highlighted the work of almost all of these new Bezos grantees.

Specifically, the Bezos Earth Fund will give $43 million each to the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice and the Solutions Project. The trio are part of a growing number of climate intermediaries that specialize in regranting funds to grassroots organizations across the country, many focused, like these three, on working with frontline, typically non-white communities already impacted by climate change.

The fund will give an additional $12 million to NDN Collective, a multi-faceted, Indigenous-led organizing and grantmaking group, and $10 million to Green for All, a nonprofit founded by Van Jones that works on criminal justice reform, tech sector equity and mobilizing for the Green New Deal. NDN Collective has raised more than $30 million over the last few years from a broad range of foundations, but the grant to Green for All, which currently has six full-time employees, will double its size, according to the Washington Post.

Beyond organizations focused on movement building, two additional groups were named in the announcement, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and tree-planting initiative Eden Reforestation Projects, which will receive $30 million and $5 million, respectively. The Salk grant will support research on carbon sequestration and storage, another corner of climate action that critics have pointed to as underfunded. (To read about other grantees, see our earlier article.)

What is the significance of Bezos’ environmental justice gifts?

Conventional philanthropic wisdom suggests that grant size should be based on an organization’s past budget. Many observers, including Inside Philanthropy, have long urged foundations to take a more nuanced approach. Reasons to do so abound, not least of which is that good work should be rewarded regardless of past capacity.

As important, such practice reinforces funding inequities, particularly the well-documented underfunding of Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color-led organizations. As Beverly Wright of the National Black Environmental Justice Network told me earlier this year: “You have to have a million to get a million.”

With some of these gifts, Bezos is showing he’s willing to throw this rule out the window. Take the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, a celebrated intermediary that has picked up some big mainstream funders. Even so, since 2016, the fund has given away less than $20 million, including a projected $9.8 million this year, the largest amount it has granted in any single year. Bezos’ $43 million unrestricted gift, therefore, is more than twice the amount the fund has given out in its entire history.

The fund, whose grantmaking budget has doubled or tripled every year, was created with just this type of funding opportunity in mind. “The Equity Fund was created to partner with climate philanthropy to rapidly move resources at scale toward this type of transformative work,” reads the fund’s statement on the gift. Phased over three years, the support will allow the fund, which supported organizations across eight states in 2020, to more than double the number of states in which it works. The fund is in the process of identifying those new sites, Director Roger Kim said in an email.

For the Solutions Project, the shift in scale is even steeper. The organization was giving as much as $1.5 million annually a few years ago, but last year, it granted a total of just $673,000—one of its largest founding funders, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, reduced and then ended its support as its priorities shifted. Between its founding in 2014 and 2018, the organization took in about $13 million in donations from backers, according to its 990 forms. It appears Bezos’s gift will exceed, perhaps by a factor of two or three, the total amount the organization has ever received.

The gift may be a small step toward correcting a notorious imbalance in environmental funding. The Solutions Project, which recently appointed Gloria Walton as its president and CEO, aims to devote all its resources to climate justice, and overwhelmingly to organizations led by women and people of color. As the fund pointed out in its statement on the gift, only 0.6% of all foundation support is targeted at women and girls of color, who are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Last year, the organization gave 92% of its grants dollars to organizations led by people of color and 79% to groups led by a woman or non-binary persons. Its $43 million gift, parceled out over the next three years, will allow it to do that type of grantmaking at an unprecedented level.

“[We] look forward to showing what’s possible when hundreds of organizations that are grounded at the neighborhood level all across the country, in Puerto Rico and in sovereign Indigenous nations are resourced to win,” said The Solutions Project in a statement.

Bezos is following a trend in climate funding, but going much bigger

Bezos’s gifts to climate justice funds and groups follow an incipient trend of support for such organizations, which began with small, scrappy funders and then expanded into mainstream climate philanthropy over the last few years. Such groups are still light-years away from accounting for a substantial slice of the funding pie. Yet this new backing may give way to even more acceptance among traditional philanthropy for this type of giving at scale.

In supporting the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, for instance, Bezos is following in the footsteps of some of the largest institutional climate funders, including the climate field’s longtime biggest players (although that’s clearly changing), the David and Lucile Packard and the William and Flora Hewlett foundations; but also funders like the McKnight and Kresge foundations, according to the fund’s supporters page.

Similarly, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund received grants of $1.2 million in 2017 and $5 million in 2019 from Hewlett. Another of Hewlett’s beneficiaries is the NDN Collective, which received more than $830,000 over the past two years from the grantmaker, as well as $250,000 from McKnight in 2019.

Not all the groups have received the same levels of support from mainstream institutional philanthropy. The Solutions Project, which was co-founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, has a long list of supporters, ranging from celebrities (Bill Nye, Regina Hall) to corporations (Seventh Generation, Walt Disney Studios). But its foundation backers tend to be smaller (Kenneth Rainin Foundation) or newer (the Eric and Wendy Schmidt-funded 11th Hour Project).

Beyond potentially cementing these intermediaries as trusted recipients for foundations, these gifts, as they flow to front-line organizations, will provide a powerful example to the climate funding community. “Our intent is that this grant shows other philanthropists how to support community climate solutions on the scale needed,” wrote the Solutions Project in its statement.

Putting these gifts in a larger context

The Bezos Earth Fund is now officially the world’s largest climate funder. But that title does not properly convey the magnitude of these gifts. In 2019, total foundation grantmaking on climate was an estimated $1.6 billion. With these 16 gifts, Bezos, the world’s richest person, has given nearly half as much as all climate foundations gave last year.

That level of influence and power—not to mention Bezos’s donations to Senate Republicans, Amazon’s labor record, environmental footprint, and services it provides for the oil and gas industry—is deeply concerning in a way that makes such giving hard to celebrate fully. It’s surely the source of no small amount of ambivalence in the climate community. And yet, unlocking far more resources will be critical for humanity’s chances of keeping emissions over the next decade within the the 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius rise that scientists say is essential to averting the most unthinkable of climate catastrophes.

Let’s turn to the $151 million Bezos has given directly to environmental justice climate funds and organizations. As a share of this round of gifts, it makes up about 19% of the total. What that proportion should be is a matter of much debate, but this commitment may well be a larger share than any funder of this size has ever given to such strategies.

In fact, it may be more support than climate-movement-focused organizations have received in total over the last few years, at least from institutional philanthropy. Data is hard to come by, but one study found environmental justice organizations received just 1.3% of all environmental funding by the top 12 national foundations from 2016 to 2017. Those groups received a total of $18 million during that period, according to the report, less than several of Bezos’s individual gifts.

Tackling climate change will require both technological and policy advances, along with building political will and popular support for change. Institutional philanthropy has achieved this balance in the past. Notably, some of today’s biggest players’ grand entrances into climate funding focused on technology and policy while almost completely neglecting organizing.

This is a fascinating period for climate funding and philanthropy in general, as growing public dissatisfaction over inequality and racial injustice, along with surging social justice movements, are driving something of a reckoning in the sector. Bezos’s gifts show that today, even a tech titan can see that tackling climate change takes more than technology. That is progress.