Could the pandemic drive more climate funding to grassroots organizations?

A project by the Rwandan government and Rwanda Green Fund, and funded by the Green Climate Fund, aims to increase Gicumbi district's climate resilience and prepare its residents for the impacts of climate change. Photo by: Rwanda Green Fund / CC BY-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — The inequalities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic are driving an increase in climate justice philanthropy.

Even donors that have traditionally focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions are starting to take a closer look at the unequal impacts of climate change, and exploring how they can shift power to people on the front lines, experts tell Devex.

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These funders are taking a human rights and social justice approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, directing funding to people who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“For big funders, for reasons both philosophical and operational, supporting grassroots groups is a challenge,” said Tracy Mann, who directs Climate Wise Women, which supports grassroots women’s leadership on climate change solutions.

While there is plenty of evidence on the effectiveness of locally driven solutions, funders usually do not know, and therefore do not trust, the people they serve, she said.

This leads funders to rely on intermediaries, which typically charge a lot of overhead, meaning that “when funding arrives at the community level, there’s little funding left, and it’s very prescribed by the donor as to how it should be used,” Mann explained.

But the pandemic has raised awareness among some funders of the value of consulting with communities from the outset and developing the common language needed for cooperation.

“As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, there is an opportunity to invest in solutions that will not only allow communities to protect themselves from this public health crisis and its economic devastation, but also limit the spread of disease in the future and help communities advance systemic economic and social change,” Lindley Mease, who directs grassroots funding initiative the CLIMA Fund, said in an email to Devex.

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“Clearly, the same peoples bear the greatest burden of COVID-19 and climate change. Moreover, the pandemic, as a symptom — and threat multiplier — of the larger climate crisis, has the same drivers and many of the same outcomes. And grassroots movements have been the best positioned to respond immediately and advance long-term recovery,” Mease said.

Over the course of the year, existing climate justice funders have expanded their grantmaking, and foundations that are new to climate justice are seeking advice on how to support grassroots organizations.

The CLIMA Fund welcomes this surge in interest, but Mease said she does have some concerns about the proliferation of funds that are bringing foundations together to investigate the climate justice space.

“We need to be creative and integrative in how we create new vehicles,” Mease said. “But a lot of these funders want to hold power around decision making. So they are creating something repetitious in the field for themselves, when there are already entities doing this regranting work. This risks undervaluing intermediaries that have been around and have deep and authentic relationships with grassroots groups.”

“The wrong people have been running the show. ... You don’t take that down by counting emissions. You take it down by putting other people in charge who have not been in charge.”

— Heather McGray, executive director, Climate Justice Resilience Fund

Intermediaries that are connected with grassroots organizations can serve as bridge builders to larger funders that may be interested in reaching communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change, but are unsure how to do so, Mease said.

For example, in Bangladesh, a coalition of organizations that joined forces under the name Governance for Climate Resilience, or G4CR, has succeeded in returning the control of public freshwater canals to local communities.

“According to our wetland leasing policy, flowing rivers or canals cannot be leased out. They should be open for community use. The canals were being leased out to people in violation of national policy,” said Mokhles Rahman, executive director of the Center for Natural Resource Studies, an NGO that is part of the G4CR partnership.

G4CR receives funding from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, or CJRF, a grantmaking initiative that is dedicated to supporting the communities that are hit the hardest by climate change.

Rahman said that when he spoke with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, about whether this work might be a fit for its water and sanitation portfolio, Sida expressed an interest in the project but said it was not at the scale it was able to support.

Funders seeking to drive more dollars to grassroots organizations can play a role in building their capacity to absorb funds, while also shifting policy, risk tolerance, and capacity at the global institutional level, said Heather McGray, executive director at CRJF.

“The wrong people have been running the show and have created a show that is really extractive and destructive. You don’t take that down by counting emissions. You take it down by putting other people in charge who have not been in charge. And you do that by supporting grassroots groups,” McGray said.

CJRF was created in 2016 by a $20 million grant from the Oak Foundation, an environmentalist grantmaking foundation that backs several climate funding collaboratives. The fund supports women, youth, and Indigenous people in the Bay of Bengal, the Arctic, and East Africa. CRJF is in the process of sharing lessons with other funders — and not just from the philanthropic sector, but also among bilateral and multilateral donors and development banks — from its initial grantmaking.

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Climate funders that are familiar with working with large NGOs as implementing partners must build trust with grassroots organizations in order to work with them, McGray told Devex.

“You’re not going to get funding to those local groups unless the funders at the global level let go of some of the things they’ve held dear for a long time,” she said.

Climate funders may have to make uncomfortable shifts away from results based management, old fashioned forms of accountability, and familiarity with certain implementing partners, McGray added.

Mease of the CLIMA Fund warned that in addition to meaningful shifts toward climate justice funding, there are growing examples of funders who say they support climate justice, but do not actually do so in practice.

“The co-optation of climate justice language poses a threat to new resources moving to those on the ground daily advancing grassroots climate solutions,” she said.

Supporting climate justice means resourcing grassroots groups and shifting power toward front-line actions, Mease said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.