Honolulu, Hawaii.

Honolulu, Hawaii.

In the spring of 2018, Hawaii experienced two major natural disasters. Kauai was hit with 50 inches of rain in 24 hours, creating historic flooding and landslides that washed away homes and cars, and blocked a main highway. Weeks later on the big island, a months-long volcanic eruption began that would destroy some 700 homes. 

In both cases, the Hawaii Community Foundation responded by setting up relief funds within days of the events. While the immediate aid was greatly needed by the impacted communities, the events also got the staff thinking more about what the future might hold. 

“We also recognized that we could be more proactive in thinking about that work, recognizing that climate change is probably going to bring us more flooding, hurricanes that are stronger,” says Amy Luersen, the foundation’s vice president of community collaboration.

The foundation went on to create permanent funds for each of the four main counties, available for a combination of resilience projects and, when necessary, disaster aid. It’s just the latest in a series of grants and programs HCF has embarked upon to help the island chain become more resilient, especially as it faces climate impacts that are difficult to ignore.

“We see it. You know, you can’t hide as much on an island. If things happen, they happen pretty quickly and it’s pretty obvious. So I think people are very aware, and in our lifetimes we have seen drastic changes,” says Program Director Dana Okano.

Hawaii’s been fortunate in that it hasn’t had a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane since 1992 (Hurricane Iniki, a Category 4). But like all islands, Hawaii’s are vulnerable to a number climate impacts. The recent torrential rains were just a reminder of these threats, which include flooding, severe storms, and limited food and water supplies.  

The state has also become a leader on climate action, likely due to that very vulnerability. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to set a 100 percent renewable energy goal, aiming for 2045. In 2016, voters in Honolulu, the most populous county, created a new government office specifically to address climate change, sustainability, and resilience. 

As for the Hawaii Community Foundation, its work on climate change began to take off in the late 1990s, when Kelvin Taketa, formerly head of the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, took over as CEO. The foundation started to ramp up its environmental programming and grantmaking. Under current CEO Micah Kāne, the foundation has set up a new framework it calls “CHANGE,” with a natural environment focus that includes conservation, energy and food sustainability, and preparation for climate change. 

Hawaii Community Foundation’s Evolving Work on Climate Change

Like most community foundations, HCF serves a number of functions, including providing a home for hundreds of donor funds, and pooled funds supporting specific fields of interest. It also does a lot of convening, forming and supporting partnerships on a variety of topics. 

So on one level, it’s a straight up grantmaker (HCF distributed $62 million in grants in 2018), a role it’s played on energy. The foundation has provided funding to a nonprofit called the Blue Planet Foundation, which is pushing Hawaii’s transition to 100 percent clean energy. Other notable energy funding includes support for the Honolulu climate change office referenced above, through a sustainability network that HCF backs.

On the resilience side of things, the foundation’s played a more prominent role, including bringing together stakeholders and funders on a collaborative initiative to protect the islands’ fresh water supply.

Hawaii is heavily dependent on its groundwater, which provides 99 percent of the state’s domestic water use. That water supply is threatened by a number of coinciding factors—reduced annual rainfall, loss of watershed forests, more evaporation, and increased population and tourism. Increased storms may bring torrents of rainfall, but not the kind of precipitation that recharges aquifers. That means protecting water supply is increasingly important during climate change. 

There was a lot of work happening in this area, but it had been largely siloed, so in 2013 the foundation organized the Fresh Water Initiative to coordinate and bolster water security efforts. HCF brought together a council of stakeholders across sectors, which set a blueprint to create 100 million additional gallons of fresh water capacity a day by 2030, through conservation, recharging aquifers, and reuse. The effort is guided by a Fresh Water Council that came out of the process, and is now backed by 19 funders, including HCF, local and national foundations, and individual donors. It’s led so far to a number of policy changes and projects that have the state heading toward that goal.

Another cool program HCF started is the Community Restoration Partnership, in which local and national funders back stewardship of nearshore marine ecosystems. Projects include habitat restoration for coral reefs and wetlands, but also work around restoring traditional food systems such as fishponds and lo‘i, or taro fields. Hawaii imports the large majority of its food, so another big component of increasing resilience is in the state’s food production and consumption.

Then there’s the suite of county resilience funds mentioned previously—called Hawaii Strong Fund, Oahu Strong Fund, etc.—which is one of HCF’s more recent initiatives. Aside from philanthropic funds, the foundation is also in the process of creating companion funds for each county that would house public money to be distributed by the foundation for resilience and relief.  

Think Locally

For a community foundation supporting a group of islands, the prospect of getting involved in climate change becomes quite straightforward, the team at HFC says. In the context of natural disasters alone, the impact on the community it serves is real and imminent. But there’s a number of reasons it makes sense for a community foundation to get involved in the issue. 

For one, as Dana Okano describes, there’s the perception of a community foundation as a trusted convener, which she sees as HFC’s most valuable role. “We are able to bring folks to the table to have those difficult conversations and figure out, well, what does need to be done, and how? Where’s the zone of agreement that we can all focus on and try to get things moving?”

On that note, community foundations also have a certain amount of longevity, more so than government administrations, and can help provide a sense of history and tracking of progress over time, says Lynelle Marble, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships.

Amy Luersen adds that, even in other places where climate change may still be divisive, community foundations can offer space for people with different viewpoints to discuss the issue. No matter where a local foundation is operating, there are ways that climate change is already affecting community members, and those factors can serve as starting points. 

“In order to move forward, you need to have a space to have the conversation. And I think community foundations can help provide that safe space for the conversation, so that the community can move forward together.”

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