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Bright Green Funding
Alex Steffen, 29 Sep 04

It's an open secret that the environmental movement's in sort of a wobbling stall-spiral. Despite widespread support for the idea of protecting the environment, despite a new generation of dedicated, smart activists, organizers and designers, and despite some terrific new ideas bubbling up from the grassroots and seeping in from the fringes, things are getting demonstrably worse environmentally, pretty much across the board. Why?

One reason is the broken model of the direct-mail NGO, a model embraced by nearly all sizable environmental NGOs. In a world being overrun with networks, collaborations and distributed efforts, the environmental movement remains a bulwark of centralized, slow-moving large organizations. That's trouble.

A second and related reason is a reliance on communications strategies from the last decade. This is big trouble, especially when combined with an increasingly sophisticated opposition, which has learned that in complex debates, a little cloud of ink and dollars will obscure the issue and cripple the imagination long enough to pump out the last few billion:

"You don't have to win the argument... It's more like you just want to put a weight of impressions on the public mind so that people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. You just want them to go: Oh things are really complicated -- it's not so simple as I thought. So to do this we just keep getting our balancing information into the stream from trustworthy sources. There's no need for a clear-cut victory. That's the point I'm making. Don't over-reach. You just keep increasing the public's doubts about this being any kind of clear-cut situation. And that's all you need to do." --Robert Newman, Fountain at the Center of the World

When it comes to communications -- and in an information society most things do, in the end, come down at least partly to communications -- we're consistantly outgunned, outframed and outthought, locked in models of "campaigns" and "actions" which change nothing (certainly not anyone's mind) but which are full of storm and fury and egoboo for the activists involved. We need to stop communicating like it was 1999.

But it's not just how we talk, it's what we say. The conceptual frameworks we use to describe what we're doing and what we want are totally outdated -- a point to which I'll return in a later post, but which I'll summarize here by saying you can't scare people into sustainability but we haven't given up trying.

But I've long contended that the biggest problem is funding. The world of advocacy is mostly driven by funding, and green philanthropy is a world riddled with problems.

That's what makes Peter Lavinge and David Orr's essay, Rethinking Green Philanthropy, a welcome find. I disagree with some of what they have to say, but much of it cuts as close to the bone as a critique can.


Lavinge and Orr start with a shot across the bow (or, more accurately, right through the rotton hull timbers) of environmental grantmakers:

"Green philanthropy in the United States is in trouble. And not for just the obvious reasons of the downturn in the stock markets. Environmental giving from private foundations misses the boat when it comes to systematically addressing the major problems we face in providing a catalyst to significant environmental restoration, protection, and generation of an environmentally friendly and sustainable human impact upon the earth. Have we noticed that we have been losing most of the political and ecological battles over the last ten years while we continue to approach grantmaking in the mode of 10, 20 and 30 years ago?

"On the small foundation level there is a scattershot approach to funding thousands of organizations with local and project oriented approaches in an era of globalized forces and systemic threats. Conversely, on the large national and mega-foundation playing field, the funders move to coordinate funding every few years on the issue of the moment (this time it is global warming) is nearly as limiting. Long-term perspectives and commitment to nimbly addressing systemic threats is missing.

"Corollary is the myopic emphasis on project funding and on measurement of those projects. General support and infrastructure funding is nearly impossible to come by. Environmental foundations have almost exclusively gone to a system of project support grants, most of which are acknowledged by the grantmakers to not cover any where near all the organizational costs related to the projects. These project grants in turn focus on short-term results and very specific outcomes... robbing organizations and their leaders from the benefits of synchronicity and spontaneity.

"When it comes to measurement of project results, evaluation systems are often overdone and more often than not measure process rather than substantive results. Organizational results from this trend include oodles of time wasted fundraising for inadequately funded projects, an inability to react quickly to changing circumstances and, most troubling, an atmosphere that discourages organizational leaders from searching for new looks at old issues."

Then, after analyzing why environmental grantmaking is in disarray, compared to the opposition, they come up with a short list of to-dos:

*Fund general operating support, infrastructure and planned giving/endowment campaigns.

*Support people and leadership

*Lose the hair shirt, Nader approach to issues, personnel, and management. ("As it is now, we far too often require progressive activists to work without tangible benefits, with mediocre salaries and poor equipment in miserable working conditions... taking advantage most often of exceptional personal commitments. Big surprise, these conditions permeate our self-images, our public messages, and our grim worldviews, and our perception of scarcity in funds and time -- and we turn off the very people we expect to reach. Green funders and organizations need to think and generate plenty not scarcity. Generative and healthy economies and ecosystems, not just sustainable ones. We live in a society that generates misuses and wastes enormous monetary, physical, and human resources. Changing our worldview will change our resource base, message, and ecological effectiveness." -- OMFG, yes... as Gandhi is supposed to have said, the overwork of the activist is part of the abuse of the system, and as my old friend Joe once said, who wants to listen to a bunch of whiny, depressed hippies?)

*Fund systemic approaches to environmental degradation and the creation of a generative, exciting, healthy and sustainable world. ("We need to encourage cross-disciplinary thinking and actions. We can do that by funding programs that connect local issues and globalization, environment and human health, clean water and environmental justice, vibrant communities and generative (as opposed to merely sustainable) economics.")

*Focus to make an impact.

*Fund ideas. ("If we are going to create connections and fuel mavens, we have to generate ideas that support these connections and feed the persuaders. We need to fund the substantive tools of networked movements as well as the infrastructure. Specifically, we need to freely fund films, books, policy research, and policy papers explicitly. Take a flier on new proposals and seemingly miniscule ideas. Build spaces for policy analysts and generalist thinkers, fund travel for and public speakers (public translators and persuaders!) and conferences (connection opportunities) and strategy sessions for litigation and campaigns. Fund more message development and marketing work while broadening the movement's strengths, strategies, and coalitions." [Can I get a witness!!])

*Transparency in operations and results. ("Both funders and environmental organizations need to be transparent in operations and results. Honesty and specificity are key. We need to acknowledge the dead ends and incrementally losing strategies, while experimenting with new strategies and ideas. More than money, this will take a fundamental shift in worldview. It will also take an investment in infrastructure for reporting timely accurate results and funding reports on both the foundations and grantees websites. Some foundations excel at this. A shining example here is the Brainerd Foundation. Others barely report their grants or project results at all, even years later. The same goes for the grantees.")

This is good stuff. This is brilliant stuff. What's missing?

Well, while Lavinge and Orr cover a lot of important ground -- epidemiological (e.g., Tipping Point) politics, network-centric advocacy, movement-as-network, etc. -- they underplay (perhaps intentionally?) both the magnitude of the changes coming our way and the wreckage they'll leave behind.

They don't talk much about the extent to which the new models are either incompatable with older models of NGO development, or require new thinking and new approaches to make them compatible: indeed, if there is a shift to new-model NGO networks -- and I think there will be, with or without the consent of foundations and big NGOs -- many old-model groups are going to fall by the wayside. It seems to me that candy-coating this reality does no one any good and just enables denial on the part of funders who don't really understand how transformative these changes could be. Half-steps could do more harm here than benign neglect.

But more to the point, I'm not sure we really know how to fund network-emerged ideas and advocacy. I'm pretty sure we can, but I'm also pretty sure that we're going to have to experiment with models which make us extremely uncomfortable -- like, just for instance, grantmaking through reputation capital systems.

I could go on -- about the possibilities made manifest by the Tech Bloom, about the theory of social origins of great ideas and its implications, about the importance of new kinds of bridge-building network nodes, about the vital role I believe networked intellectuals will play in the emerging movement, about the role of technologies of place in the emerging movement, about the importance of widening the movement to include those in other nations and especially the developing world -- but this post has already gone on long enough.

Let's just say this: big change is coming. Gigantic opportunities are looming in front of us to actually tip the scales towards rapid, dramatic and sustained progress towards a bright green future. But we won't get there by trying to repeat the successes of the 1970s, the 1980s or even 1999. It's a new day, and our thinking needs to be equally new.

(thanks to ally Paul Fleming for sending this!)

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Hell yeah!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 29 Sep 04

Hrm. I wonder....

It's so hard to imagine how this might be approached, you know? Such a big problem: it's basically a model for all kinds of collective funding of social-change movements.

I wonder how the right wing funds it's efforts on things like evolution in schools? Whatever they're doing it appears to work damnably well! Perhaps we could send spies over there and copy :-)

On a parallel note, most folks I know have > 100K contacts on Friendster. That ought to, in theory, making begging for thousands of dollars fairly easy, assuming fairly low response rates.

I wonder if that model - begging networks - might be one approach to this kind of fundraising.

Posted by: Vinay on 29 Sep 04

The funding model is archaic and there are innumerable new ways in which to change it but lack of money is generally not the problem. The problem almost always is lack of imagination and absolutely no unified vision. If there is no unified vision, there is no lasting momentum.

After the 1994 Congressional election and the Contract Congress, the enviro groups in and around Boston, MA decided it might be a good idea to meet together and plan a general strategy. They'd never done it before. MA Audobon didn't talk formally to the Appalachian Mountain Club nor Clearwater Action and Conservation Law Foundation never spoke to anybody at all.

This experiment lasted for maybe a year and tried to reach out to labor, the religious community, professional groups of lawyers and doctors. The most important thing this group did was to meet, en masse, with all our Congressional reps and let them know that all of us cared about the environment and environmental policy. I tried to get them to do the same thing with the editorial boards of the newspapers and TV stations but it didn't happen. A few years later I learned that such a move might have really made a difference as it would have happened at the same time that the Boston Globe was deciding to curtail much of its environmental reporting.

This initiative didn't take much money at all and made at least some difference. It didn't continue because the environmental community in Boston was not really a community. They had no unified vision. They still have no unified vision.

You can be damn well sure that industry, that polluters (not necessarily the same people) have a unified vision that they follow every single second of the day. That's where power resides.

Posted by: gmoke on 29 Sep 04

", just for instance, grantmaking through reputation capital systems."

I've often thought that would be a great idea - extend the MacArthur scheme to other venues as well.

Why not gradually up the amount of grant money going into innovative bottom-up funding applications, choosing people and initiatives based on success at a seed stage? As with social VC, not everything pays off, but the ones that do may pay off spectacularly.

Like a portfolio, funding needs to continue for the big slow organizations (which deal with big and slow but nevertheless real problems) - but as part of a balanced set of investments, with varying risk ratios.

Posted by: Hassan on 1 Oct 04



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