Damage from Hurricane Irma in St. Martin. Multiverse/shutterstock

Damage from Hurricane Irma in St. Martin. Multiverse/shutterstock

As climate change is more widely recognized as a crisis, climate change resilience is more readily accepted as a necessary aspect of environmental and disaster philanthropy. The latest foundation to focus on resilience is that of a famous singer, fashion designer and businesswoman with a Caribbean heritage: Rihanna. The Clara Lionel Foundation (CLF) was founded in 2012 by Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty in honor of her grandparents, Clara and Lionel Braithwaite. It funds primary and secondary education, health and emergency response initiatives in the Caribbean and other regions.

In 2018, CLF launched an Emergency Response Preparedness Philanthropic Fund with a goal to help the Caribbean “become a ‘Climate Smart Zone.’” Given the Caribbean’s vulnerability to damaging storms and the multifaceted isolation island nations tend to face, it’s an apt focus-area for this type of funding. CLF plans to go beyond typical crisis-response programming and establish a new paradigm of long-term, sustainable preparedness. This endeavor’s pilot program involves partnering with the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Engineers Without Borders to try to make reproductive health clinics in the region more disaster-resilient.

What Does the Clara Lionel Foundation Do?

Health and education are two of CLF’s main priorities. It has funded oncology, pediatrics and other medical programs in Barbados. The Clara Braithwaite Center for Oncology and Nuclear Medicine at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados honors Rihanna’s grandmother, who had cancer. In Malawi, Barbados and Senegal, CLF helps girls pay for and access education, runs the Clara Lionel Foundation Global Scholarship Program, gives education-related microgrants, constructs classrooms and trains graduates as HIV testers, among other programs.

In response to natural disasters, CLF funds the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) in Malawi, which gives girls school supplies, uniforms and financial support so they can stay in school while their families recover from disasters. It has supported the International Rescue Committee’s hygiene and sanitation programs and responded to earthquakes in Mexico. Recently, after Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, CLF deployed multiple grants to fund food and medical aid delivery, hospital rebuilding, mold and debris removal, improved access to hard-to-reach areas in Abaco and Grand Bahama, and other programs.

Rihanna also calls on her fans to engage in advocacy, serves as an ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education and has headlined the annual Global Citizen Festival. Her foundation has received support through big donor-advised fund players like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Fidelity Charitable, along with the M.A.C. AIDS Fund and other donors. It has collaborated with the athletic brand Puma, the luxury brand Chopard and additional corporate partners. As of 2019, CLF has granted more than $13 million. It is now raising $25 million for the new emergency resilience fund. Rihanna’s annual “Diamond Ball” is one of the foundation’s key fundraising efforts—the fourth annual event in 2018 brought in close to $6 million.

Funding Climate Resilience

CLF’s new climate-resilience fund and focus grew out of its past disaster-related funding and an awareness that the response system was “really broken,” Justine Lucas, CLF executive director, told Fast Company, referring to the burst of funding that typically follows a crisis and then quickly wanes.

Others in the field have also noticed this pattern. “Our research has found that 90 percent or so of all dollars given to disasters is given within 90 days after a disaster occurs. There’s a lack of attention given to the full lifecycle of disasters—planning, preparation [and] long-term recovery,” Robert Ottenhoff, president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), previously told Inside Philanthropy. CDP is a nonprofit that works in a hands-on way with donors—foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals—to deploy their money strategically and effectively when disasters strike.

The Clara Lionel Foundation considers typical emergency-response efforts uncoordinated (often wasting money through duplicative efforts) and careless (lacking proper need assessment), according to program materials CLF shared. This perspective also largely aligns with CDP’s. One of the center’s key methods is to hold on to donations in the aftermath of a catastrophe until it can coordinate with government agencies and national and local nonprofits to find out where the money is needed most. In 2016, CDP launched the Disaster Philanthropy Playbook, a compilation of suggestions on improving donor effectiveness during and after calamities. CDP seeks to replace near-term relief with long-term, sustained and responsive work.

Similarly, Rihanna’s foundation plans for its funding to be proactive, year-round, multiyear and coordinated through an “ecosystem” of partnerships. It wants to provide funding in a way that is innovative and tech-forward. With CLF’s support, Engineers Without Borders is exploring structural solutions like stronger roofs, water storage possibilities and solar microgrids for Caribbean health clinics. Engineers Without Borders has carried out this type of work with the United Nations in efforts to help buildings in Africa withstand cyclones.

CLF also aims for its grantmaking to be “responsible;” prioritizing local community needs and input. Partnering with people on the ground is a strategy oft-advised in many realms of the philanthrosphere. The foundation states it will include the “most vulnerable communities [in] all response-planning efforts.” It plans to use local labor and supplies to promote the region’s self-sufficiency. While more programming specifics on community collaboration and authority-sharing are not currently given, Lucas told Bustle, "All the work must be based in the needs and thoughts of our local communities… we’re figuring out how we help support communities who are already resilient [become] more resilient.”

Numerous other funders also recognize the urgency of building climate resilience. As a report from the Kresge Foundation stated in 2012, following its climate change adaptation workshop, “Despite continuing debate in the U.S., public and professional acceptance of the need to address the impacts of climate change proactively has been increasing.”

There is a growing slate of philanthropic commitments to this type of resilience. In 2014, the Environmental Defense Fund, with funding from the Rockefeller, Kresge, McKnight and Walton Family Foundations, backed a coastal resilience challenge in Louisiana. In 2017, the MacArthur Foundation, Libra Foundation, Pi Investments and MetLife funded MyStrongHome, an initiative spearheaded by the Calvert Foundation to retrofit at-risk homes in coastal areas. In July 2019, the Rockefeller Foundation, having wound down its 100 Resilient Cities program, announced a new Climate and Resilience initiative. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Surdna Foundation, a swath of community foundations, individual donors and others have also taken on this challenging realm of philanthropy.

CLF is not alone in focusing on island communities; in 2018, the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners launched an initiative to help these communities recover from past storm damage, strengthen local infrastructure and anticipate future climate impacts. The Climate Strong Islands Initiative is funded by the New York Community Trust, two funds housed at the Miami Foundation (The Hurricane Relief Fund and U.S. Caribbean Strong Relief Fund), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the nonprofit Unidos por Puerto Rico.

Communities supported through these kinds of resilience-funding efforts often include areas in the Global South disproportionately hit by the climate crisis, especially low and middle-income countries; major waterfront metropolises; numerous smaller, low-lying coastal communities; and other regions and populations already grappling with climate change’s effects or preparing for their futures. Private funding often steps in when government funding can’t or won’t meet the full needs of devastated communities, raising the persistent question of where the scope of philanthropy’s power does and should lie.

We’ve also reported on the important role green intermediaries like CDP and others play in connecting, strengthening and diversifying philanthropic efforts for the environment, including for climate resilience work. Some of these intermediaries work in the realm of climate justice. Like environmental justice, climate justice focuses on the needs and power of the people who are hit “first and worst” by the consequences of climate change, especially those typically undersupported by big green funders, like grassroots organizations and groups led by and servicing communities of color.

“By empowering [local actors] to create and share their own solutions for resilience, we aim to build a world where those hit hardest by climate change lead the way to a more just and equitable future for everyone,” Heather McGray of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, told Inside Philanthropy.

Supporting Women in Disasters

Women and children tend to have higher mortality rates and face unique challenges when natural disasters strike. The Global Fund for Women released a report in 2005 on how women fare in disasters, which draws on its funding of and work with local women’s groups around the world, research from the World Health Organization and other sources. It outlines several negative trends surrounding women and disasters. These include an increased risk of sexual and domestic violence, a lack of necessary and appropriate medical care, increased economic vulnerability, and, in some cases and countries, denial of gender-equitable relief aid and exclusion from rebuilding planning and efforts. The World Bank points out, “The vulnerability of women and children to natural disasters can be further aggravated by other elements of discrimination such as race, poverty and disability.”

Women’s reproductive and sexual health needs can become more acute after disasters; bathrooms, sanitary supplies, undergarments, birth control, mental health and legal support for victims of violence, and prenatal and maternity care are often lacking. These are some of the phenomena that inspired CLF to focus on women’s health in their initial emergency preparedness funding program. “We saw reproductive health clinics in Puerto Rico that were just starting to get up and running over a year after the disaster,” Lucas said.

And with abortion support in and from the U.S. at risk these days, CLF’s work with Planned Parenthood could make an impact in a crucial arena of women’s health and rights. Like other Republican presidents, Donald Trump imposed a ban on U.S. funding for aid groups that provide family planning, unless they commit not to "perform or actively promote abortion.” These types of umbrella bans can sometimes have the opposite effect. A 2019 study in the journal The Lancet found this policy “increases abortion prevalence in sub-Saharan African countries most affected by the policy,” likely due to a reduction in contraception access.

CLF states local health clinics can serve as hubs of disaster recovery, and that including sexual and reproductive health within humanitarian responses “has been proven to reduce morbidity and mortality related to HIV, unplanned pregnancy and pregnancy complications, mental health challenges, and gender-based violence, all of which increase in the aftermath of disaster.” Along with boosting the clinic’s physical resilience, emergency response plan-development and comprehensive staff education are core parts of the CLF resilient health facilities project, Lucas tells Inside Philanthropy.

“It’s critical that ensuring access to essential services post-disaster is not just about hardened infrastructure but also pre-emergency training on equipment and systems paired with strong action plans for when emergency strikes,” she says. She also says CLF plans to “share learnings and best practices across clinics and territories that can help inform sustainable emergency plans and trainings.”

The Global Fund for Women report recommends relief groups, governmental and nongovernmental agencies include women in pre- and post-disaster planning; “include the input of local women leaders and organizations.”

“As we continue this work, our goal is to identify opportunities to support projects with local leadership and women and girls at the center,” Lucas says. She points out that the health facilities CLF is aiding “are locally-led and provide critical services to women, girls and other vulnerable communities.”

CLF already has experience partnering with women and girls and supporting their leadership in dealing with challenging situations. For example, in Malawi, its scholarship program helps girls afford secondary school. But the foundation learned girls still had to walk long distances to attend classes. It partnered with a bike-share company so girls could jointly use a group of bikes housed at the school. In the hopes of making the program more broadly beneficial and sustainable, the foundation also developed bike-repair training sessions with and for local women. "It was really powerful to sit in the room for the bike workshop. Some of the women have started their own businesses doing bicycle repair," Lucas said.

And, circling back to the environment, from indigenous communities to urban farms, from climate strikes to funding networks, many women and girls are already environmental leaders. Funding women’s environmental activism is another way donors can support women during times of both natural disaster and relative peace.

While environmental crises can present women with new and enormous difficulties, they can also create an opportunity for female empowerment, a goal CLF already funds in several sectors and a concept Rihanna embraces in her advocacy and her inclusive clothing brand, Savage X Fenty. As the Global Fund for Women’s report put it, “those months when villages, cities, nations and regions work to rebound from disaster hold the unique promise of longer-term social and structural change that will improve women’s lives well into the future.”

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