Home Depot co-founder Arthur M. Blank could be the next billionaire to make a major splash in environmental philanthropy.
Last August, his philanthropy, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, reorganized to focus on three core areas—democracy, environment and youth development—and indicated it would significantly ramp up how much it grants over the coming years.
“We’re going to develop strategies that swing for the fences, and Arthur wants to have national influence,” Fay Twersky, the foundation’s president and director, told me last month in an interview about its new environmental program.
If Blank’s giving matches those ambitions, the 79-year-old could be the latest billionaire to shake up climate and conservation philanthropy, after a year in which apex donors like Jeff Bezos and Laurene Powell Jobs made nine- and 10-figure pledges, and younger uber-wealthy peers like Mark Zuckerberg and Sam Bankman-Fried took first steps as climate grantmakers.
The foundation determined early on that it will concentrate on climate resilience and conservation within its environmental portfolio, the latter of which has already been a long-time funding priority. Other than that, the strategy is still a work in progress, with the board in a learning phase, Twersky told me. But the finish line is in sight. The board will choose the “basic guardrails” for the program’s areas of focus by April or May, and then the staff will begin crafting a strategy that suits the foundation’s strengths, she said.
Since late last summer, the foundation has spread the word that Blank intends to ramp up his philanthropy dramatically over the coming decade, but has yet to put any figures to that promise. Twersky told me that “notional base amounts” for funding have been set for all programs, but declined to provide specifics. What is known? The foundation and Blank’s corporate giving programs gave $277 million in grants in 2020, while foundation giving last year totaled $108 million.
All in all, much remains to be decided about how Blank, a Giving Pledge signatory whose fortune Forbes estimates at roughly $8 billion, will put his wealth to work on the climate crisis. For now, here are eight things we know, including a bit of informed speculation, about what’s ahead for the program and the foundation.
1. The portfolio is currently led by a ranching expert
In September, the foundation appointed Todd Graham, a ranching and conservation expert, as the acting managing director of its new environment program. Graham previously specialized in converting ranches from standard practices to financially sustainable, conservation-oriented approaches—and estimates he has influenced the management of some 9 million acres of working ranch lands. Among his past projects? The three Montana ranches owned by his new boss, Arthur Blank.
2. Reaching climate-skeptical audiences may be one aim
During her prior role as vice president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Twersky shepherded a $1.2 million grant to the New Pluralists, a pooled fund that aims to bring together participants of varied backgrounds to work on shared challenges. Her attitude on climate change seems animated by the same spirit—and she sees Graham, a Wyoming native, as like-minded.
“Part of the special sauce that Todd brings is that he can easily communicate with people in that region who don’t really want to utter the words climate change,” Twersky said. “We’re not going to solve climate change unless we change the narrative around climate change. That’s my view… And Todd is a great ambassador to people who are affected by climate change, but in our polarized society, may not want to be aligned with specific solutions.”
3. The program has national aspirations, but not international
Blank’s foundation recently began grantmaking abroad via the Atlanta-based international humanitarian aid agency CARE, as reported by IP’s Liz Longley. But such steps are unlikely for the environmental portfolio. Twersky said the foundation will probably focus domestically, as they’re not “built for” global grantmaking.
Given its national ambitions, some grants will likely reach beyond the Atlanta-based funder’s traditional priority states of Georgia and Montana. Other parts of the South, which Twersky has said deserves more philanthropic investment, and which has historically received a scant share of environmental funding, seem likely to draw support.
“I am committed to bringing more funding to the South,” she told me. “I want to use our funding, but I [also] want to be in conversation—and we already are—with other funders, both locally and nationally.”
4. Georgia—with a focus on Atlanta—and Montana will remain central
In one sense, Blank is already a climate funder. The foundation put $17.5 million in 2019 toward a major park on the Atlanta BeltLine, a plan to convert 22 miles of railway lines to a walking and biking trail and a new streetcar line. One urban planning expert told the New York Times it was “the most important rail-transit project that’s been proposed in the country, possibly in the world.” That work will continue in some form.
“We have an enduring commitment to the Westside of Atlanta and having more green space, more parks there. We know that often, poorer neighborhoods have fewer trees, less green space,” said Twersky, who relocated to the city from San Francisco after being hired. “We’re going to continue with that as kind of a part of our ethos. But exactly what shape the strategy takes, we’re still figuring that out.”
Montana, meanwhile, is where the foundation’s conservation dollars are going while it plots its new strategic course. Philanthropic support to the state totalled $2.1 million in 2021. Recent major grants have included $250,000 to the Producer Partnership to help more local meat reach the area’s food banks, schools and markets; $200,000 to the Park County Environmental Council for a landscape conservation and stewardship program; and $150,000 to the Gallatin Valley Land Trust to purchase a conservation easement. Earlier grantees have included Ecology Project International and Yellowstone Forever. Graham has been tapped to grow grantmaking in the state, where the foundation maintains an office.
5. We may see a combination of traditional and more progressive giving
Blank’s giving has gone to a mix of classic big-dollar recipients and more progressive causes. In the first category, he’s given multimillion-dollar grants to traditional recipients, such as his alma mater Babson College and an Atlanta hospital, as well as for COVID-19 relief. On the other front, he recently made a five-year, $17 million pledge to the Atlanta-based National Center for Civil and Human Rights. There’s also a progressive bent, as my colleague Philip Rojc observed, to Blank’s most recent democracy giving.
How will this play out in environmental grantmaking? Past grants offer a limited picture, but lean toward big green groups and hyper-local ones. The foundation’s 2019 tax filings, the most recent available, show six-figure-plus gifts to national environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and the Trust for Public Land, as well as an Atlanta bike shop. It’s also worth noting that a former World Wildlife Fund corporate fundraiser also sits on the foundation’s board.
6. The foundation is working with Blank’s businesses
In addition to heading the foundation, Twersky serves on the executive team of Blank’s business empire. The portfolio includes the Atlanta Falcons NFL team, the Atlanta United FC MLS team, the management company for the stadium where both play, the PGA TOUR Superstore and Blank’s three Montana ranches. The team’s aim is to align those operations with the foundation’s goals, such as expanding internships for underserved youth and employment for those lacking opportunities.
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium—which is owned by the state government but managed by Blank’s AMB Group—is the first LEED Platinum-certified professional sports arena in the United States. Twersky says the stadium’s “green team” has joined some of the foundation board’s learning sessions on the environment. They and other business groups want to do more. Experimenting with environmental scorecards for some of the businesses is one possibility. “We’re very excited about the prospects of working with and leveraging the business platform,” she said.
7. More transparency is on the way
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation website is currently pretty limited. There’s very little information about the newly launched focus areas and no comprehensive list of grantees—but some change is on the way. The foundation aims to share its grants more transparently once internal technological improvements are completed—and Twersky told me she would love for them to launch a public grants database.
8. The long-term trajectory may be more progressive, on climate or otherwise
Aside from Blank, the board includes a former Atlanta food bank director, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance and the CEO of Arthur Blank’s sports and entertainment holding company. It also includes two of his children, Dena Kimball and Kenny Blank, and their spouses.
Kenny is the head of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, while Dena heads the Kendeda Fund, the spend-down philanthropy established by her mother, Arthur Blank’s former wife Diana Blank. By some measures, it is one of the top 40 climate grantmakers in the United States. Grantees include a variety of reporting and narrative change outfits, such as NPR, and grassroots urban environmental organizations from Cleveland to New York.
Whether those priorities are reflected in Blank’s foundation remains to be seen, but Dena and Kenny will likely set its long-term path. As Blank told IP’s Ade Adeniji in November, once he’s gone, his kids will “pick up the mantle of the foundation.”