Eddie J. Rodriquez /shutterstock

Eddie J. Rodriquez/shutterstock

Water management, especially as we struggle with worsening impacts of climate change, is a big, systemic issue that funders are taking on in a variety of ways. At the same time, it’s hyperlocal, connected to all kinds of community decision-making, from housing to city parks. 

That dynamic inspired one prominent California water funder, the The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, to assemble a cohort of five community foundations in the state to integrate water issues into their existing work. Launched in 2015 amid intense drought, the Community Foundation Water Initiative is wrapping up this year, having enlisted these local foundations to make their own water-related grants, build and exchange knowledge, and collaborate on a pooled fund related to water and land use. 

“It’s really increased the capacity for community foundations to understand how water intersects with other work that they’re already doing,” says Matt Wisniewski, Bechtel senior program associate. “That’s a really big change and speaks to the willingness and flexibility of the community foundations to connect the dots around these multiple areas.”

One compelling point about the program is that none of the community foundations involved had existing programs explicitly devoted to water issues. And rather than funding them to establish new programs, the initiative helped the participants integrate consideration and understanding of water into their normal practice. Participants approached the issue through their work on equity, agriculture, land use, housing, workforce development, and more.

The initiative offers an interesting model for how philanthropy might weave issues like water management, but also climate action more broadly, into funding and programming at local levels.

What Community Foundations Offer

Bechtel is a statewide funder that’s had a major focus on water management for years. The Community Foundation Water Initiative came about while California was experiencing the most intense droughts in state history, and Bechtel was looking for ways to mitigate its effects, while also pursuing long-term systemic solutions. 

The community foundation initiative was launched as a way to bring local stakeholders into larger discussions about the issue, acknowledging that water issues impact every community, and in different ways. Particularly as the climate changes, drought, flooding, and more intense storms will all impact water management. As a 2019 U.N. policy brief noted, “The global climate change crisis is inextricably linked to water.”

“Climate change has really elevated the need for understanding drought issues and water resilience,” says Remy Goldsmith, senior officer of strategic initiatives and partnerships at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “So there is an opportunity to build capacity both within community foundations, which is what this cohort has all been about, and also community-serving organizations to get out in front of issues.”

The team at Bechtel reached out to five community foundations—California Community Foundation (in Los Angeles), the Central Valley Community Foundation, the San Diego Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. 

“We don’t have bandwidth for hyper-local activities or just the ability to stay fully on top of evolving contexts at local levels, and community foundations have that context,” says Marselle Alexander-Ozinskas, senior program officer at Bechtel. “They’re experts in their regions that are really on the ground with their communities in a way that we just could never be.”

She points out a few important advantages community foundations offer as partners. For one, obviously, they can move money, making grants, investments, and sometimes engaging holders of donor-advised funds on certain causes. Their staffs tend to have local knowledge and connections throughout the community that are hard to come by. Community foundations also often act as conveners, providing spaces to bring together different players. 

Another advantage is that they tend to be generalists, says Ron Milam, director of Smart Growth California, an affinity group that coordinated the initiative. 

“I feel like they can more easily engage with a new issue area than maybe other foundations, because they’re already used to managing multiple issues in their communities, and the interconnections in the communities,” he says.

Beyond understanding that specific set of qualities they offer, the team at Bechtel didn’t quite know how the initiative would unfold. It was important that they leave things largely open for the cohort, mainly because the effects of water policy and drought are experienced differently across regions. Bechtel is also a spend-down foundation, now in its final year of operations, which means they aim to build capacity in other organizations that can carry on after Bechtel is long gone. 

“If we had started by saying we want each of these community foundations to launch a water program and then after this foundation sunsets, those water programs would disappear, that can be really destructive to the field,” says Joya Banerjee, Bechtel’s environment program director. “What had been built here is really weaving water into the fabric of an organization without pulling that organization off its core mission.”

Getting Local

The program has moved money in two key ways—funding the individual foundations for their participation and local regranting, and through a pooled fund the cohort jointly administered. Smart Growth California also received funding to coordinate the initiative and manage the pooled fund. Funding for the initiative will total $2.9 million. 

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, for example, has grantmaking emphases on housing, inequality and immigration. So for part of its water funding, SVCF looked to the community of East Palo Alto, and sought to document how longstanding racial and economic injustices led to constraints on water availability and economic development in this historically low-income community of color. The foundation hired a legal team to produce research that drew attention to this underlying inequality. 

SVCF, the San Francisco Foundation and the CFWI pooled fund are supporting Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), a grassroots organization in East Palo Alto run by young people of color, for its work on water issues.

In Los Angeles, the California Community Foundation has been helping with the implementation of funding allocations from a county-wide parcel tax passed in 2018. Allocations go toward projects to capture and recycle rainwater, and the foundation is supporting work to ensure that funding decisions reflect community needs. 

As we wrote previously, the San Diego Foundation is making grants to improve equity and public engagement in local water resilience decisions, including work with youth and local Native American tribes. Another grant is funding county water boards, decision-makers that often fly under the radar, aiming to improve their racial, gender and socioeconomic diversity. 

For the collaborative component, representatives from the foundations have come together quarterly for half-day meetings to share lessons, learn about state and regional water issues, and manage the pooled fund. 

The idea for the pooled fund came about after the cohort was formed and participants identified areas where they might collaborate. The cohort settled on the intersection of land use and water as an entry point that’s relevant to all of their communities. They’ve now done two rounds of grantmaking through the fund.

The first round funded the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, to produce an in-depth report on equitable integration of water and land use. Even as efforts are underway to integrate fragmented water planning across the state, they have mostly not been aligned with land use planning, and vice versa, the report found. Lack of coordination also leads to inequities in the distribution of resources and negative impacts alike. Recommendations from the report include upgrading existing infrastructure before building new, coordinating disaster planning, and advocating for underserved communities. 

There’s now a second round of funding in the works that is backing the Local Government Commission and five community-based organizations to develop action plans based on the report’s recommendations. Included in this round is one full-time fellow to help each community group with its action planning, through CivicSpark, an AmeriCorp program that supports local governments. 

Next steps, lessons learned

The Community Foundation Water Initiative is formally ending in October, and is now in the process of pulling together findings and determining what the next steps might be, and whether the group will continue to engage in some form. Once Bechtel’s funding stops, the dedicated streams of grantmaking will, too, unless another funder steps in. Participants say that regardless of what happens next, they gained a lot from the initiative.  

“The insight that we had was that, whether or not you are explicitly making grants about water issues, if you are in regional planning, if you are in housing, if you are in transportation, you are making grants about water,” says Remy Goldsmith at SVCF. 

She also points to the value of the collaboration—learning how different areas of the state are dealing with water issues and bringing that back home—but also establishing new relationships they can call upon, related to any issue. 

A larger funder that was able to link up these local actors is one of the most compelling outcomes of this model. It’s also a useful example of how, as climate impacts become more pressing in individual communities, local philanthropies can step up. They may not explicitly be climate, water or environmental funders per se, but these issues can become infused in how they regularly serve their communities. 

“The kind of expertise that has been built up within each of these foundations and the knowledge around water and what’s going on in each region, we’re hoping will show up within each of these community foundations, in those portfolios that they keep working on,” Bechtel’s Wisniewski says.

Share with cohorts