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Action Steps to Grow Climate-Driven Philanthropy in Rural Communities

By MDC President John Simpkins and Candid CEO Ann Mei Chang

Philanthropy should fund climate mitigation in rural communities like lives depend on it—because they do.

Late last month, a long-track tornado tore through Mississippi and Alabama, killing 26 people and decimating the entire town of Rolling Fork, MS. The experience in Rolling Fork, a rural town with a population of 2,000 people—three-quarters of whom are BIPOC—is far from an anomaly. Already this year in the United States, nearly three times as many people have died in tornadoes compared to all of 2022. 

Rural communities, already with access to fewer resources, are experiencing increased climate disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. We witness, time and again, the stark gap between what people need and what local, state, and federal governments are willing to provide; it’s clear there’s an opportunity and responsibility for philanthropy to step in. 

Philanthropic funders, even those outside of the climate change space, are uniquely positioned to experiment with expanded giving strategies and pools to acknowledge the full impacts of the climate change crisis on people of color living in rural communities. 

In the short-term, philanthropy can help by filling gaps that exist at the intersection of market and policy failures. And, in the long-term, philanthropy can help identify and shine a light on better solutions that can be scaled through government or business.

Here, we detail how philanthropists can expand and diversify their portfolios to better meet the short- and long-term needs of rural communities of color. 

Philanthropy is Not Keeping Up 

Since 2018, funders have given $1.32 billion to fight climate change in the United States. Of that total, the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that a minuscule 0.73 percent ($9.7 million) was specifically directed to rural communities. Rural communities, often defined as areas with less than 50,000 people, represent 19.7 percent of the US population and are becoming increasingly diverse, with people of color now making up 24 percent of rural populations. In fact, the Aspen Institute found that from 2000 to 2010, 83 percent of rural population growth was among people of color. 

The majority of America’s rural Black population lives in the Black Belt, which stretches across Alabama and Mississippi into the Southeastern Coastal Plain and encompasses some of the poorest rural counties in the nation. For example, in Robeson County, where almost three-quarters of residents are Black or Indigenous, many continue to experience poverty and hunger because they lack the support necessary to return from devastating, increasingly frequent climate events. NC Policy Watch found that nearly 28 percent of residents and 38 percent of children live below the federal poverty line in the county, which for many puts flood insurance, recovery resources, and reliable internet access out of their reach. When Hurricane Florence hit in 2018, Robeson County was still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew two years earlier. Five years later, the county is still dealing with these impacts. 

In these hardest hit communities, there are still fewer resources and a need for more infrastructure to support response and recovery during and after disasters. Philanthropy can play a critical role in picking up the slack. With this growing demographic, we must ask the many philanthropic funders who made grants and pledges to advance racial equity in recent years: Why isn’t climate change included in racial equity funding strategy, given its disproportionate effects on rural communities of color?   

Leading with Action Steps  

The people most impacted by the climate crisis generate some of the most innovative and transformative solutions, born out of their lived reality

There are simple, actionable steps that funders can take immediately. In Candid’s June 2022 guide, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy, there are specific recommendations for funders outside of the climate change space to start shifting their funding to support better, more effective and just solutions. The report details how few institutional funders include climate justice strategies in their work, largely leaving this void to be filled by a few environmental funders.  

The following recommendations can help funders prepare to add climate change to their racial equity funding portfolio.  

Consider who is typically funded. Most funding is distributed to larger corporatized NGOs and organizations based in the Global North. Because of this, grantmaking—entrenched in its own inequities and power imbalances—often leaves impacted communities out of the conversation. Larger NGOs often have the staff support and expertise to work through long detailed application processes and have deep relationships with funders. Additionally, technocratic climate solutions rather than investment in movement-building organizations still often get the most support. Funders can revamp grant application processes to be more accessible to smaller grassroots organizations and look deeper into affected communities to find the community-based organizations doing critical work.

Support community-driven initiatives. The people most impacted by the climate crisis generate some of the most innovative and transformative solutions, born out of their lived reality. For example, Brooklyn-based nonprofit UPROSE is helping to bring local residents sustainable clean energy and is creating equitable frameworks for wind energy development in the area. Community-driven initiatives across Zimbabwe teach farmers and residents rainwater harvesting techniques to combat climate impacts like drought and flooding. We can’t address the impacts of climate change unless we create solutions in partnership with the people experiencing its devastating effects. Funding should be directed to those closest to the problem, with the deepest understanding of need.

Focus on long-term success. These community-driven initiatives need multi-year, unrestricted grants to support them. Unrestricted grants give organizations and movements flexible general operating dollars to address emerging challenges and changes quickly. Such grants also allow local movements to plan long-term, often equating to long-term success.

Connect local movements with national and global ones. Grassroots movements are especially powerful when linked to regional, national, and international organizations because they strengthen their networks and can achieve results at scale. Funders can also support and learn from intermediary organizations, which bridge relationships with grassroots organizations. Intermediaries often have the best view of how the field shifts, what supports are needed, and where innovations occur. For example, CLIMA Fund, Climate Justice Alliance, It Takes Roots, and Grassroots International are intermediaries helping to make climate funding more accessible and transparent. Intermediaries that help to create and strengthen connections within the climate justice movement counter the one-off nature of funding that can occur with larger foundations and ultimately lessen the impact.

Help define impact. Funders can work with their grantees to capture feedback directly from the affected communities. This can help funders accurately define, inform, and increase their impact. With this approach, funders and grantees alike create learning loops that enable them to continually evaluate, assess, and improve impact together over time. Learning is not a linear process, and feedback loops allow for iteration and innovation to discover climate solutions that are truly making a difference.

A racial equity portfolio that fails to factor in the effects of the climate change crisis is missing a critical opportunity to help build more prepared and resilient rural communities. Philanthropy can help fill the gaps left by the government by placing resources directly in the hands of those who bear the brunt of climate change so that in the future, communities are equipped to offer solutions—and access resources—created and rooted in knowledge and need.

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