Attapol Yiemsiriwut/shutterstock

Attapol Yiemsiriwut/shutterstock

Hurricane Dorian’s recent path of destruction provided an alarming reminder about the importance of “coastal resiliency,” defined by the National Ocean Service defines as “building the ability of a community to bounce back after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and flooding.”

Yet while national funders have been backing coastal resiliency initiatives with increasing urgency, a 2017 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress surfaced a disconcerting geographic blind spot across the southern U.S.—with the communities most affected by climate change often getting little support from national funders.

A gift out of southeast Virginia finds a loyal funder seeking to change this narrative.

Joan Brock, the wife of the late Dollar Tree co-founder Macon Brock, gave $3 million to Old Dominion University’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience in Norfolk. The institute aims to develop practical solutions to challenges faced by coastal communities and builds on over eight years of investment by ODU to take a leadership role in coastal adaptation and resilience. Funding will enable the university to hire an international thought leader as the institute’s executive director.

Brock’s commitment bears all the hallmarks of the ongoing regional higher ed philanthropy boom in which funders seek to transform recipient schools located far from major population centers into international centers of expertise. These kinds of gifts often align with ambitious fundraising efforts, and ODU doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Two years into a $250 million fundraising campaign, ODU has already raised $160 million to support scholarships, athletics, academics, and special projects.

Regional Funding Gaps

Funders’ interest in climate resilience reflects the reality that even under the best-case scenarios for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is set to inflict enormous damage on communities worldwide. With these costs already kicking in, particularly in low-lying coastal areas, funders aim to help communities prepare for a future in which weather events are more frequent, severe, and destructive.

Back in 2014, for example, 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.

And in July, the Rockefeller Foundation, having wound down its 100 Resilient Cities program, announced a new Climate and Resilience initiative focused on market opportunities that increase capital flows into solutions and projects that improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Despite these efforts, NCRP’s report found that marginalized and poor communities in the southern U.S. are still overlooked by larger funders who are used to dealing with more polished nonprofits in major coastal cities like New York or Boston. This is problematic since the South is expected to suffer some of the worst economic impacts of climate change in the U.S.

“Any funder concerned about health, economic prosperity, access to opportunity or the physical and spiritual survival of coastal communities can and must find a way to invest in Southern climate resilience,” the report stated.

Given the severity of the challenges faced in parts of the south, we’re seeing community foundations step in to fill the coastal resiliency funding gap. Brock’s gift is particularly intriguing given funding trends across higher ed space. While universities raised a staggering $46.7 billion in 2018 thanks to alumni drawn to fields like data science, public health, artificial intelligence, funders have yet to show comparatively robust support for climate science or coastal resiliency initiatives.

Philanthropy to the Rescue

This lack of support may be due, in part, to the fact that universities haven’t offered donors many appealing options for investing in coastal resiliency work on campuses. The same cannot be said for ODU, however. The school launched the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative in 2010 to “bring the university and the region’s foremost experts together to find solutions to the challenges facing our region and other regions globally.” In the following years, it the ODU Office of Research provided the initiative with research seed grants, hosted forums with regional partners, and developed resilience plans with local stakeholders.

In 2017, the Chronicle for Higher Education featured ODU’s resiliency efforts in a piece looking at how coastal universities were forging stronger research and community partnerships, improving facilities, and creating more responsive disaster plans. A year later, ODU established the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience to enable ODU to take on a leadership role to convene stakeholders, bolster the school’s image, and allow for more of a statewide approach while also increasing research, outreach, and education.

Back in March, the Virginian-Pilot’s Peter Coutu checked in on the institute’s progress. “We’re all really excited about the work we’re doing,” said Carol Considine, one of four program leaders for the institute. It’s “an opportunity for us to continue the work we’ve been doing, but have a broader impact in the region and the nation.”

The only problem? The institute needed money. While an annual budget of $150,000 paid for the institute’s leadership team, Morris Foster, the vice president for research, said he was hoping additional support to fund an endowed position. Roughly four months later, Joan Brock answered Foster’s prayers.

Looking ahead, a top institute priority will be the Recover Hampton Roads project, which will create a research-based clearinghouse to expedite housing recovery after a severe weather event and could serve as a model for other communities across the country. For example, the organization, using custom software to minimize displacement, can identify and deploy materials for smaller recovery jobs and get people back home sooner while also planning how to tackle projects that require more significant work.

The institute’s planners also understand that poor and medically vulnerable residents are often the most adversely affected demographic during a disruptive climate event. Norfolk’s current poverty rate is 22 percent for individuals, roughly double the state average. Under an agreement with Norfolk and Mayor Kenny Alexander, the executive director of the institute will also serve as the city’s senior resilience strategist.

Archetypal Regional Donors

Raised in Norfolk, Joan Brock received a master’s degree in humanities from ODU and currently lives in Virginia Beach. She served on Virginia Wesleyan University’s President’s Advisory Council from 1996 to 1999 and its Board of Trustees from 1999 to 2006. She was chair of the board from 2001 to 2004. Virginia Wesleyan awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2010.

Macon Brock was born in Norfolk and served as Dollar Tree’s chief executive from 1993 to 2003 and chairman until his passing in 2017. Joan, who worked for years in the company’s payroll department, was initially skeptical of her husband’s business model, in which every item is sold for $1 or less. “I thought everything for a dollar sounded like a crazy idea, because how many things could you buy for a dollar?” she said in an interview.

But Dollar Tree, which had $22 billion in revenues in 2017, eventually opened more than 14,000 outlets in the United States and Canada.

The couple previously gave $1 million Brock Commons, ODU’s outdoor amphitheater. They also created a $100,000 Brock Foundation Endowed Honors Scholarship at ODU for a junior or rising senior in good academic standing willing to tutor local high school students through the ACCESS College Foundation. The Brocks also established the M. Foscue Brock Institute for Community and Global Health at Eastern Virginia Medical School and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach.

With her recent gift, Brock joins a growing list of regional funders that contributed to ODU’s ambitious fundraising activities. Since John R. Broderick began serving as the university’s eighth president in 2008, ODU reports receiving more than $890 million in new public and private resources, including the university’s largest gift, a $37 million commitment from local couple Richard and Carolyn Barry to establish the Barry Art Museum, in 2016.

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