FotoKinA/Shutterstock
FotoKinA/Shutterstock

The pattern has played out at community foundations across the country: Disaster strikes and in its wake, like a phoenix from the ashes, a climate program emerges.

It has happened repeatedly in coastal cities, states and territories that have been devastated by hurricanes and other fierce storms. It’s also happened at institutions next to national forests that have gone up in flames. Others have been pushed by water supplies running low or heat waves prompting rolling blackouts.

Whether driven by catastrophe or the slow accumulation of impacts, community foundations across the nation, from Cleveland to New Orleans and New York to Hawaii, have launched programs over the last decade to confront the local impacts of climate change.

The dollars involved are generally small compared to other segments of this space, with no community foundations ranking among the nation’s top climate funders. But their role in leveraging funding from government and other sources, as well as building public support, may give them greater impact than the dollar figures suggest.

“One of the strengths of some community foundations has been that they really know, because they’re so place-based, the local politics and issues and players. So they’ve often been good feed funders of organizations,” said Danielle Deane-Ryan, a veteran of the Hewlett, Libra and Nathan Cummings foundations; she serves as a senior consultant with Donors of Color Network, which runs the Climate Funders Justice Pledge.

Most flex familiar philanthropic strengths—convening power, partnerships, catalytic investments—in locally tailored approaches to spark action. Yet political pressures, lack of resources and community context can mean these programs take many forms. Some do not even use the phrase “climate change” for these bodies of work. But through their actions, all have acknowledged that they must take steps to confront the climate emergency.

There are also efforts to bring together community foundations around the threats they face from climate change. For instance, a private spend-down foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, created the Community Foundation Water Initiative, which, over five years, sought to help such place-based grantmakers understand how water impacts their priorities, build their knowledge, and create a pooled fund on water and land use.

Community foundations’ formal programs are also not the whole story. In addition to explicit in-house programs, community foundations house donor-advised funds through which donors increasingly direct giving toward climate issues. Inside Philanthropy’s 2020 survey of philanthropy professionals found 42% of respondents believed funding for climate and clean energy from DAFs was increasing in importance, versus only 8% who believed it was decreasing. While such funds lack transparency and a minimum giving requirement, they are a growing influence in this field.

Over the past couple years, we’ve covered a broad range of efforts by community foundations on climate. Here’s a list of those programs—and links to the stories we’ve written about them:

Cleveland Foundation

The country’s oldest foundation has jumped in eagerly on climate projects. It has helped fund a microgrid, start a green bank, and erect wind turbines in the Great Lakes. Most recently, the 107-year-old institution set up a climate justice fund. Located in a blue city in a red state, this Ohio grantmaker has sought a more active role in both policy and advocacy in recent years. In the coming years, it plans to put more of its $2.45 billion endowment into climate-related impact investments.

Related: From Microgrids to Wind Farms, the Nation’s First Community Foundation Is Acting on Climate

Foundation for Louisiana

Founded six days after Hurricane Katrina, this foundation has helped the state become a national leader on climate justice and resilience. Its work is informed by Louisiana’s long history of systemic and environmental racism, rooted not only in colonialism and slavery but also deep inequality exacerbated by fossil fuel extraction. The foundation serves primarily as an intermediary for other funders backing work in the state, a role unlike most community foundations. Its primary strategies are leadership development and power building; advocacy for justice-based climate policy; and changing the climate narrative by elevating local stories.

Related: Foundation for Louisiana is Taking on Climate Change’s Ripple Effects on Communities

Greater New Orleans Foundation

The constant barrage of storms that came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina led this foundation to start a national peer network, called When Waters Rise. The aim is to help community foundations, place-based funders and national grantmakers learn from each other in how to respond equitably to disasters. Members exchange lessons not just on how to prepare and respond to catastrophes, but how to counteract the tendency of such crises to widen existing disparities. The community they have forged has helped members not just respond to storms, but also COVID-19. And it may grow further to support foundations facing wildfires and other crises.

Related: With Waters Rising, a Community Foundation Launched a National Network for Support

Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Community Foundation of Sarasota County

Sarasota is about as red a county as you can find—and it sits in a state, Florida, where a former governor reportedly banned state agencies from using the term “climate change.” Yet these two institutions, helped by a coalition of community partners and other funders, helped get a program off the ground to support energy retrofits and solar projects for local nonprofits. Leveraging the unique convening power of community foundations, the partners brought together city, county, university and nonprofit representatives, as well as other private funders. The hope is it will lead to further action in Sarasota.

Related: Community Foundations Are Helping an “Extraordinarily Red” Florida County Go Green

Hawaii Community Foundation

After an epic storm dropped 50 inches of rain in 24 hours and then a months-long volcanic eruption destroyed 700 homes in 2018, this foundation’s staff started thinking about how to prepare for the disasters climate change would bring. It ultimately created four permanent funds, one for each county, to support resilience projects and disaster aid. Its body of work dates to the late 1990s, when a new CEO expanded the institution’s environmental grantmakers. While Hawaii has not been hit by a major hurricane since 1992, the growing impacts of inaction on climate are visible across the islands, whether in ground water supplies or rising sea levels.

Related: In Hawaii, Where Climate Change is a Fact of Life, a Community Foundation Gets Proactive

Maine Community Foundation

Despite an already stretched staff and limited funding to spare, this foundation found ways to incorporate climate change efforts into its work. Building on national funding it received for an energy efficiency initiative, it integrated such considerations into its historic preservation program. It has rolled those elements into its conservation grantmaking. Finally, it hosts the Maine Climate Leadership Fund, which supports a state council on climate. These measures constitute first steps, with foundation staff acknowledging there’s more to be done. But its efforts are proof grantmakers can start acting on climate change even if there are no new funds to spare.

Related: How One State-Based Community Foundation Found Space for Climate

New York Community Trust

As one of the nation’s largest community foundations, this institution has been a long-time leader among place-based foundations. It has an environmental program officer, supported a climate resilience program in the Caribbean through a special fund, and has long funded grassroots environmental networks.

Related: See links in text.

Park City Community Foundation

Host to the Sundance Film Festival and second (or third) home to some of America’s wealthiest citizens, Park City, Utah has emerged as a national climate leader in recent years. Its community foundation has played an important role in that work. The foundation has created a climate fund, started a network of mountain towns combating climate change and helped push its home city to take measures like electrifying its bus fleet to reduce its carbon footprint.

Related: How a Community Foundation Is Helping a Tiny Utah Mountain Town Lead on Climate

Puerto Rico Community Foundation (Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico)

After the hurricanes Irma and Maria battered Puerto Rico in 2017, this foundation was besieged by requests for help. People and nonprofits needed water purifiers, generators and food. It subsequently began to focus on climate resilience. It added solar to health clinics, helped create microgrids, and updated local aqueducts. Its vision is to create a Green Energy Corridor in the U.S. territory to give rural communities both control over their energy and an economic boost.

Related: After Disaster, a Community Foundation Evolves from Emergency Response to Climate Resilience

San Diego Foundation

This California grantmaker’s climate program is one of the oldest among community foundations, started after a landmark state bill on global warming passed in 2006. The institution has taken a multi-faceted approach, including funding a greenhouse gas inventory for the region, supporting assessments of regional risks, and zeroing in on water resilience. Like many of the foundations listed here, partnerships have been a theme throughout, allowing it to leverage impact and expertise.

Related: For the San Diego Foundation, Climate Change is a Local Issue

Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation

The drought arrived first. That meant the snowpack started to shrink. Next beetles started eating the trees. And then the fires started. This climate-fueled convergence of factors pushed this California foundation to take action on forest health. It launched a market-based initiative that aims to create jobs while limiting forest fires by clearing underbrush. While still small in dollar terms, it hopes to kick-start greater investment to get ahead of the threats ahead.

Related: With Climate Impacts Hitting Home, a Tahoe-Area Community Foundation Backs Forest Health

Is there a community foundation with a climate program that should be on this list? Let me know at michaelk@insidephilanthropy.com.

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