Author: Stephanie Goodrid Lawson, Executive Director, McKinney Family Foundation
Philanthropy has a critical role to play in reframing the narrative that environmentalists place concerns of “plants over people."
One way to confront that narrative is to emphasize the real human toll that changes in climate have already (and will continue to) wreaked on Hoosiers’ lives, particularly the most vulnerable. While recognizing the intrinsic value of our natural environment, philanthropic organizations can center real people’s stories and experiences to catalyze both grassroots and grasstops advocacy for sustainability and resilience policies. One way to do this is by connecting the disparate health outcomes in communities plagued by air pollution, excessive heat, damaging storms, flooding or drought to the climactic causes of these events. Likewise, philanthropic organizations can target the economic toll faced by farmers, businesses, homeowners, industrial workers and local governments due to these increasingly adverse weather conditions. Centering communities that have suffered the long-term consequences of redlining and disinvestment, particularly communities of color, is essential. Equally important to sharing the dire consequences of foregoing necessary preparations, is empowering communities with the data and actionable steps they can take to limit their risk and be a part of the solution.
Another way to confront the “plants over people” narrative is by supporting institutions that are already trusted by communities, such as state universities and neutral, nonintimidating information sharers like college students (especially if they hail from the local community), to deliver the message. Embedding paid student interns in local governments to gather data, provide data driven solutions and implement strategies has been a highly effective way for foundations to be a part of the solution. Through funding education and training for the next generation of civil servants, advocates and scientists, as well as current practitioners, philanthropy can ensure there is a qualified workforce to take on these challenges. Additionally, these capacity building programs bolster our state’s ability to retain talent and prevent the plague of brain drain notoriously impacting Indiana. By partnering with academic institutions like the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, foundations can play a vital role in attracting talented leaders in the nonprofit, for-profit and governmental sectors through investing in scholarships, fellowships, professorships and research programs aimed at providing high quality, real world training.
Philanthropic organizations can also provide opportunities for economic development to normalize climate preparedness. As Indiana transitions from fossil fuel energy generation to renewables, new opportunities for green jobs are arising in a variety of sectors. New wind and solar installations, electric vehicle infrastructure, battery storage facilities, home weatherization, and electrifying the built environment are all potential areas for grantmaking to impact green economy investments. Furthermore, advocacy groups such as the Advanced Energy Economy play an important role of speaking on behalf of clean energy producing companies and large clean energy procurers, which also happen to be large employers. More and more national and multinational corporations, such as Cummins, Amazon, and Walmart, are demanding they have a choice in how the energy they purchase is produced. Indiana will miss out on an economic boom if we do not have policies in place that are hospitable to clean energy and investments in sustainability.
The final strategy that philanthropy can employ to prepare our state for the future is advocacy. Through leading by example, foundations can build awareness of the legal ways 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations can play a more active role in issue and public policy advocacy. It is imperative that coalitions of organizations are formed with wide ranging ideologies and missions that also agree on the need for common sense, forward thinking policies that preserve our environment while also preserving livelihoods. Faith based organizations, environmental justice groups, organizations led by and accountable to communities of color, traditional “big greens”, conservative groups, economic development corporations, chambers of commerce, youth lead groups and college students, grassroots and grasstops all have an important role to play in building awareness and educating elected officials on enacting these policies.
Relatively modest philanthropic investments toward communities’ capacity and adaptation have already had outsized impacts. A more sustained, large-scale investment would be a game changer for our state’s ability to prevent disaster.