Grassroots Environmental Groups Are The 98%

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The environmental movement has spent the last five years trying to protect laws and regulation we have and stop the roll back efforts, while also moving new regulations and policies. However, we are failing. For example, millions of dollars were invested in Climate Change legislation and we failed to move any agenda forward. One reason, according to surveys and polling, is that the American people didn’t know what to do to make a difference (beyond changing their light bulbs) or didn’t see how the issues they cared about connected to climate change. A recent report, published by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, provides some insights of why the average person might have had problems connecting the dots.

The report says, “The movement hasn’t won any “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s” because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change.” Without resources to hold meeting that bring leaders together at the local level, provide training for media opportunities, learn how to develop a strategic plan or provide resources to join other organizations efforts, local organizations cannot sustain themselves nor move beyond the issue that brought them together.

Interestingly, according to the IRS filings, while less and less money is being provided to grassroots effort, grassroots environmental groups are emerging at more than twice the rate of other non profits sector.

More than half of all environmental grants and donations are given to 2% of all environmental groups all with budgets over $5 million. This 2% of really large groups receives more than 50% of all grants! This leaves 98% of environmental groups with less than half the available funds.

This is a serious problem. In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

Clearly, CHEJ is not a funder but is an essential part of the infrastructure. In the report NCRP strongly supports infrastructure using CHEJ as one example. “CHEJ provides everything from technical assistance on local advocacy campaigns to small capacity building grants. By nurturing emerging groups and providing ongoing feedback and coaching for more seasoned organizations, while convening meetings and alliances for all groups to connect and work together, CHEJ helps till the soil and spread the nutrients in which grassroots organizing and movement building thrive.”

To create real systemic change somehow we need to figure out how to communicate with those distributing funds that there needs to be a balance. Yes the large groups are very important but in they are only as powerful as the base they represent and can advocate at the local level. All politics, all change are local. It’s not an issue of supporting¬† either the large groups or the grassroots groups. It is critical to support both with balanced or none of us succeed. My question to the network is how do we communicate this message? Ideas anyone?

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By Leanna Theam. I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college