Sunrise over downtown cleveland. Kenneth Sponsler /shutterstock
Sunrise over downtown cleveland. Kenneth Sponsler/shutterstock

The Cleveland Foundation is the oldest community foundation in the country, but it’s only been a climate funder for a few years. It has, however, jumped in with both feet during that time, funding efforts to launch an energy microgrid, set up a green bank and erect wind turbines in the Great Lakes. Most recently, it helped set up a climate justice fund.

Rather than a single event, it was a confluence of factors that led the century-old institution to start working on climate change back in 2019: the worsening impacts, the lack of political action—with Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling the Senate at the time—and a desire to address the region’s deep racial inequities, among other reasons, said Stephen Love, program manager of environmental initiatives at the Cleveland Foundation.

Love, who took the lead on the foundation’s environmental programs in 2018, said the foundation had a realization: “We’re going to have to step up as a city and region,” he said. “We don’t have support at a state level, we don’t have support under the president at the federal level, so we’re going to have to do this ourselves.”

The funder joins a growing number of community foundations, often in unexpected parts of the country, that are taking action on climate change. As the seventh-largest state by population and among the top five states by emissions in recent history, the Cleveland Foundation offers a notable example of place-based institutions engaging with the issue in their communities.

The foundation’s leaders were motivated, not just by the threat of climate change impacts, but also the potential for economic gains, particularly jobs, as a result of climate action. They were inspired by renowned environmental justice leader Robert Bullard, and the idea that the environment encompasses everywhere we live, work, play and worship, as well as the natural world, Love said. Like in so many other communities, climate change threatens to exacerbate the serious racial disparities in Cleveland, particularly related to public health.

Those gaps are “intricately tied to our environment, but also to structural racism,” Love said. “If we just allow the same systems and structures to move forward the way they have, then the communities that are currently facing the most detrimental impacts from climate change, those communities are going to continue to fall behind or fail to move forward.”

The foundation’s 2019 annual meeting, themed “An Environment for Success,” announced this intention to the community, helped by local activists and a touch of celebrity with guest Bill Nye “The Science Guy.” The meeting marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga river fire that garnered national attention and, with pushes from local officials, led to the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act.

“If we don’t protect our natural environment, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the green space we enjoy, then our bright new world is in serious jeopardy,” said foundation President and CEO Ronald Richard at the meeting. “Climate change is not a distant threat, it’s happening right now.”

What the foundation has supported

The Cleveland Foundation focuses its environmental program on three priorities: water quality, environmental equity and clean energy. Some of its most prominent projects focus on the latter two.

The foundation has supported Icebreaker Wind, a six-turbine offshore wind farm just eight miles from downtown Cleveland, which would be the first offshore wind farm in the Great Lakes. Advancing the project has been a 15-year effort, Love said, requiring not only local work, but also statewide efforts, including a push to advance a renewable portfolio standard for Ohio.

“Ohio is a very challenging state to move forward on large-scale clean energy investment,” Love said. “That’s just the unfortunate nature of the political environment we’re in.”

The foundation also funded, along with the George Gund Foundation and the Cuyahoga County Government, a 2019 analysis by the Coalition for Green Capital of the potential for a green bank to expand development of clean energy in the county. The report found that such a bank could help channel mission-related investments to small-scale local commercial and industrial solar projects. It led to the creation of the Go Green Energy Fund, run by Growth Opps, which aims to deploy at least $15 million to support solar installations in the county.

Community solar programs could help expand racial and economic equity in Cleveland, according to a March 2020 report, “Equitable Community Solar.”

“This is increasingly important, especially in historically low-income or marginalized communities who have been burdened with pollution and other environmental damages,” said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor of practice at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University and a contributor to the report, in an email.

Cleveland Foundation, which is the region’s second-largest environmental grantmaker after George Gund, also supported several feasibility studies for a microgrid covering two to three square miles in downtown Cleveland, a project intended to spur economic development and reduce the region’s emissions, though one proposal suggested construction of a plant that uses natural gas alongside renewable sources.

Most recently, the foundation provided seed funding for the Ohio Climate Justice Fund, along with the George Gund and Energy foundations. Launched in partnership with a long list of national, state and regional organizations, the fund will award one-time grants of $15,000 to $30,000 to Black, Indigenous and people-of-color-led organizations in Ohio that work at the intersection of climate action and racial justice.

How the foundation has changed

Cleveland is a blue city in a red state. Republicans—who as a party have largely denied the existence of or blocked serious action on climate change—control both houses of government and hold all major statewide elected offices. The foundation wants to continue to leverage its convening power to get things done. But it is also trying to step up as an advocate.

“We have a history of working in a more neutral space,” Love said. “There’s an increasing realization that being neutral is, in and of itself, really taking a position. That led us to a point of view that we have to be more engaged from a policy and advocacy standpoint in all our work.”

This new stance led the foundation, for instance, to help the Ohio Environmental Council set up a field office in Cleveland a couple years ago. The organization worked with local partners to create an environmental policy platform and educate candidates for local elections in a bid to influence the debate around climate and the environment in the city.

Nevertheless, the foundation has historically not even used the phrase “climate change”—and you won’t find it on its website’s Environment section today. It has emphasized the economic possibilities of its environmental projects, not their climate impacts. But the team is starting to emphasize both ends of that spectrum—and the website is due for a refresh.

“Today, we’re more vocal on framing our work from the standpoint of climate,” Love said. “We can act on climate and create jobs, create economic growth. We can do these things together.”

Other things have not yet changed. The foundation is a member of several networks, including the Climate and Energy Funders Group, The Funders Network and Environmental Grantmakers Association. But because of their peers’ limited bandwidth and resources, they are often the only community foundation in the room, Love said. He would like to see them have more of a voice.

“A lot of place-based foundations might not characterize themselves as environmental funders, climate funders, advocacy funders,” Love said. “But a lot of the work they’re doing is translating directly or indirectly.”

What’s next?

At most community foundations, grantmaking is primarily directed by donors. At Cleveland Foundation, which has a $2.45 billion endowment, a large share of which is unrestricted, just over half of all grantmaking is guided by board and staff. That has allowed them to operate more like a private foundation in shaping strategy and making long-term investments.

Over the past few years, the foundation has raised the environmental program budget dramatically, from roughly $1 million in 2017 to nearly $3 million in 2020. But Love said the focus is broader than that figure. “The hope is that we cannot necessarily direct more and more dollars into one grant area, but across our focus areas, integrate this work,” he said.

The aim is also to leverage more impact outside of grantmaking. The foundation, which has a roughly four-decade history of impact investing, ramped up its social impact in 2019, setting aside $150 million to use by the end of 2022, as my colleague Liz Longely reported.

Those investments—which span program-related investments like low-interest loans and market-rate, mission-related investments, among others—are not currently focused on advancing the foundation’s clean water and energy goals. But the aim is to use them to advance not only the environmental program’s priorities and projects, such as the green bank, but also a broader push for racial equity and justice. “At this point in time, we haven’t yet made that catalytic alignment. That’s part of our work going forward,” Love said.

The recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is another major opportunity. Due to higher levels of poverty and older housing stock, Cleveland will receive $541 million, more than any other Ohio city, while Cuyahoga County is set to get $240 million. Love sees a chance for landmark investments, such as in an equitable clean energy transition, that could leverage additional capital.

The foundation aims to fund convenings, coalitions and feasibility studies to determine how those resources can best be used, he said. “We have a real opportunity to do something at scale for once, which has always been one of the big challenges here,” Love said.

“In our community, we’re uniquely positioned to take a long-haul view on this work. We’ve been here 107 years, and we’re not going anywhere. We can really be in it for a decade-long strategy.”

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