GlennV/shutterstock

Danielle Deane-Ryan was named the Bezos Earth Fund’s director of equitable climate solutions in November, becoming the fourth-most senior hire to date by the $10 billion fund. She told me the institution’s decision to create a high-level position dedicated to equity was one major reason she applied for the job.

That turned out to be a smart move for the fund. Deane-Ryan brings a wide-ranging resume that touches many corners of climate philanthropy, including progressive leaders and big green funders. Most recently, she served as a strategist for clients including the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, where she coordinated a Justice40 project with environmental justice leaders and UCLA. She also served as a senior advisor to the president of the Libra Foundation, and before that, did a two-and-a-half-year stint at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Her philanthropic career started back in 2003 as a program officer for the environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where she worked for eight years.

Deane-Ryan has also been involved with two high-profile equity-tracking efforts in climate philanthropy: the Donors of Color Network’s Climate Funders Justice Pledge, which she supported as a consultant, and Green 2.0, where she served as executive director while part of the Raben Group, the national public affairs firm. (She told me it was too early to say whether the Bezos Earth Fund will participate in either effort.)

On top of all that, she served in 2016 for a year-plus as the acting senior advisor for external affairs and director of stakeholder engagement at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. She’s also currently a member of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that released a 2021 report on U.S. decarbonization that considered how to ensure an equitable economic transition.

Her hire has won plaudits from progressive philanthropy and the grassroots climate movement. For instance, one of the Amazon founder’s frequent critics, the Climate Justice Alliance, praised the appointment. The alliance, which is made up of more than 70 frontline communities and organizations, noted Deane-Ryan “holds direct relationship[s] with Climate Justice movement leaders.”

I spoke to Deane-Ryan last week about her new position, the current state of climate philanthropy, what we can expect from the Bezos Earth Fund, and more.

How did this role come about? Tell me about the conversations and process that led to you taking this position.

The Bezos Earth Fund team has been listening very carefully to the range of actors in the environmental movement. And it became very clear from that, and also from prior experience, that environmental justice and equitable climate solutions are absolutely central to solving the climate crisis in this decisive decade.

So I was thrilled when I saw that the Bezos Earth Fund decided that it would be critical to have a director explicitly devoted to equitable climate solutions, which is my role. I really saw this as an amazing opportunity with a foundation that was building something new from the ground up at scale. And I applied and I’m very excited to be partnering with the team to make sure that we not only invest in the organizations that have decades of experience on addressing equity, but also making sure that in all we do, we look at the equity elements.

What will you be doing? What are your responsibilities?

Organizations that have the deepest experience on equity have been quite underfunded. The research by professor Ana Baptista at the New School shows that the largest foundations invest pennies on the dollar in environmental justice organizations. And that’s been changing, but not yet at speed or scale.

So first off, it will be critical to invest directly in the organizations that are so effective with the resources they do have, and allow them to scale the work that they are doing. As you have seen from the first set of grants that have gone out, there is a particular focus at this point on the historic opportunity that Justice40 presents.

Secondly, my role will be working with other colleagues and partners to make sure that grants that we make don’t work against equity and help to advance it. I will say that I’m in week five, so we are still, of course, washing out the details of what that will look like. So more to come.

In a conversation we had earlier this year, you wondered whether philanthropy would be an Achilles heel to the Biden administration’s progress on climate (by underfunding environmental justice and over-reliance on the big green groups), or a help. What’s your verdict so far?

I am encouraged by the increased attention I’m seeing from foundations on investing in equity and environmental justice. We’re not where we need to be.

The good news is the organizations that have deep experience on this are there, and what you’re seeing with the Biden administration’s focus on equity, as a result of decades of work to help drive equity through philanthropy, policies and engaging with the administration in constructive ways. I think as well that this work sits in the broader context of where the country is right now in reckoning with social justice and racial justice issues. And those are all good signs.

That said, we need speed, we need scale. I am encouraged by what I’m seeing, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

As you pointed out in our prior conversation, many reports have documented the need for a stronger outside game on climate. Yet, as you say, the foundation funding is not where it needs to be. Is this a story of the broader context of where the country is? Or are there particular elements to why philanthropy continues to underfund this area?

I think you want to be careful, Michael, to not paint all foundations with the same broad brush. As you know, the Donors of Color network has done a great job of highlighting on their website where different foundations are in terms of the scale of their funding. There have been many funders, often the ones with relatively smaller portfolios, who have been doing terrific work. Also, some of the largest funders are increasingly committing to transparency and becoming more rigorous about making sure that their budgets align with their statements around diversity, equity and inclusion. So there are a handful of foundations really walking the talk and leading the way.

We do also have, of course, those that are a little behind, in my view, but this is now a live topic, and there’s no foundation that is not wrestling with these issues. And that is a good sign. So there are definitely some foundations that need to step up in major ways and make sure that the attention to equity and justice doesn’t remain an Achilles heel. But there are so many that are leading the way, anyone that wants to get this done, will get this done.

Earlier this year you told me: “If the big green organizations that are getting more than 90% of philanthropic funding right now, now get 80% of Bezos’ money, how is that changing the dynamic that is problematic and could undermine Biden’s agenda?” Now, you’re advising him. You’re only five weeks in and only one voice, but should we expect shifts in funding?

Clearly, the leaders of the Bezos Earth Fund have seen my resume and did their homework. So I think in hiring me, they’re recognizing that we have to do our philanthropy differently. So I’m encouraged by that.

I don’t mean to put you on the spot. I appreciated the forthrightness with which you shared those thoughts and, obviously, they know you hold those opinions. And the first and second round of grants show the fund’s values. Do you want to add anything?

I was forthright in that article that you talked about, and I was forthright in my interviews. [Laughs]

I’m really proud of the fact that we’re investing in so many, for instance, Indigenous organizations in a very serious way and that our portfolio includes leaders like Bob Bullard with his new environmental and climate justice center, the Bullard Center at Texas Southern University. For so many of the organizations that we’ve given resources to, like WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Asian Pacific Environmental Network, this represents one of the largest grants that they’ve ever gotten.

These are bold grants. It’s not business as usual. And this is not a business-as-usual time. I’m really excited to be with a brand-new foundation that’s not trying to retrofit equity into what they’ve been doing, but that is working to embed it in the DNA of what they’re doing. This is a huge and exciting opportunity, and I’m excited to be here.

Can you go into detail about what it looks like to embed equity? How that works in practice for the organization?

At five weeks in, we’re still building and designing that. There are a number of directors that are still to be hired. I can say a couple of things, but to go into a lot of detail would be premature.

One of the things that means is that everyone that’s applying for these roles has seen very clearly that equity is not going to be in a silo, and that we need to consider the justice component to all the work that we do. And that’s one of the reasons why I decided to apply. Often, you look at foundations’ websites, and they talk about justice in their human rights program, but the words and the recognition of the justice component is absent when you look at their climate portfolio. That’s not the case with the Bezos Earth Fund.

It also means being much more rigorous about understanding, with any aspect of the portfolio, where there are inequities embedded, and being much more intentional about being proactive about understanding what the equitable solutions would look like. And supporting those so that we are not inadvertently making inequities worse for lack of paying attention. We are going to have to be in constant communication with the organizations and environmental justice leaders, organizers, scholars and scientists to get their feedback and make sure that we are intentional about it.

That doesn’t mean the foundation is always going to get it right. But there are so many foundations that aren’t even asking the question and still are not in conversation with the leaders from the grassroots to the grass tops that have seen how well-intentioned policies can unwittingly embed or advance inequities.

As you well know, we’re running way behind on preserving a habitable planet. What’s the most powerful thing climate philanthropists can do right now?

There are so many foundations that, until this year, hadn’t even asked themselves internally whether their budgets reflected the values around equity and inclusion that they put on their website. It’s going to be critical to get clear that we have to build more political power to address this crisis. And it’s vital to recognize where we’ve fallen short in underfunding organizations that reflect the breath of the American public.

We know that leaders of color and people of color poll highest and care most in terms of wanting climate action. We know that the organizations that know how to engage and mobilize those communities are there.

Just like there was no way to get an administration that cared about climate without building a diverse and powerful coalition, there is going to be no way to address climate without a diverse and powerful coalition.

Here’s the exciting thing: We have the organizations and the brilliance that we need to be able to build a powerful movement and help design the policies that will not just address the climate crisis, but build wealth and deliver good jobs. So many of these organizations have not been resourced as well as they could be and yet punched above their weight and helped to deliver the progress we’re seeing in terms of, for instance, Justice40. If we resource these organizations appropriately, and pay attention to equity in the way that so many of these leaders have been asking for for decades, we can solve it.

Share