What this moment demands of philanthropy

Bristlecone Pine on Windy Ridge by Dave Soldano on Flickr.com / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

These are extraordinary times for our country. At the Brainerd Foundation, we are focused on protecting the environment in the Pacific Northwest, but we recognize the challenge of this moment goes well beyond our air, land, and water. We are braced for an assault not only on our environment, but on the underpinnings of our democracy — the right to vote, the right to protest, access to courts, and a free press.

Recognizing the gravity of this moment, the Tides Foundation recently urged funders to "take risks, give big, and don't wait." They also encouraged nonprofit and philanthropic leaders to "learn to pivot quickly, mobilize collectively, and get comfortable operating within ambiguity." We could not agree more.

At a February meeting of environmental grantmakers, we digested the daunting work ahead. With decades of environmental progress at risk, we need every strategy and tactic we have ever used, and more. Collaborate, coordinate, and prioritize. Communicate, organize, and mobilize. Get out of our silos, become better partners, and show support for new allies.

We are less than two months into the new administration, and as one person observed: "We wake up every day exhausted."

If there was ever a moment that demanded creativity, imagination, and new ideas, this is it. How do we, as funders, help our grantees develop the adaptive capacity they need to be effective in this rapidly changing environment?

At the Brainerd Foundation, we have invested in the capacity of our grantees since our founding. As we prepare to sunset, we have launched an initiative to help organizations in our region adapt to the changing demands of advocacy in a rapidly changing world. In 2016, we supported a series of experiments to test ideas generated in a Design Lab led by Beth Kanter. Three weeks after the November election, we brought grantees together for a Learning Lab to talk about those experiments and to explore the new lay of the land. At the Learning Lab we wrestled with three tough questions:

  1. How do we make sense of the 2016 election?
  2. What does it mean to operate in an uncertain world?
  3. What are the biggest challenges we face, and how might we help organizations in our region adapt?

Making sense of the election

Although the results of the presidential race dominated the news in November, the election outcomes in our region tell a very different story. In Alaska, an electorate that gave Trump a fifteen point margin also approved an initiative that ensures all eligible Alaskans will be automatically registered to vote. The map of Alaska may be decidedly red, but elected officials backed by conservationists include the governor, a majority of state house members, and the mayors of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Matanuska-Susitna boroughs.

In Montana, another state where Trump won with double digits, voters re-elected a governor who campaigned on the value of public lands and secured strong support from the conservation community. And in Oregon and Washington, where the electorate is more reliably progressive, notable gains were made by environmental champions.

The election results in our region tell us is we're doing a lot right.

We need to continue doing those things, and expand our approaches. But the outcome of the presidential race puts much of what has been achieved in jeopardy, and emboldens people with radical views to turn back the clock on environmental and civil rights protections. The 2016 election was a wake-up call about the danger of being in our echo chambers, disconnected from what is happening in the lives of others.

The political, demographic, and cultural landscape of our region is complex and diverse. In urban centers, environmentalists are a part of a larger progressive movement and are increasingly focused on the role of race, inequality, and environmental justice in their organizations, programs, and priorities. In rural areas, the work is more often centered on building relationships with conservative local leaders, landowners, ranchers, and tribes. We need to invest in all of these things, and keep pushing ourselves to build stronger relationships with those who share our values.

Operating in an unknown world

Although many of us wear battle scars from the environmental fights of the Reagan and Bush years, this is a markedly different time. We have never had an EPA headed by someone who does not believe in established scientific facts, bedrock environmental laws, or even the mission of the agency. And we struggle to make sense of a media landscape that supports alternate versions of reality. The rules have changed in ways we could not have imagined even six months ago.

To help us think about what it means to operate in an uncertain world, we consulted our colleague Dan Cramer. Based on some of his own leadership development experiences, he encouraged us to adopt the mindset of curious explorers. To consult our compasses and identify our true north. To be curious, flexible, and willing to take risks. To expand our thinking by asking "why" and "what if" before tackling the "how" of a thorny challenge. And to slow down enough to reflect, see new possibilities, and adapt.

As we discussed these concepts, we realized how difficult it is to build space into our work for reflection, particularly in times of crisis. As one of our advisors recently observed, many of us are responding to our new president like cats following a laser pointer. (No wonder we wake up exhausted!)

The challenges facing our movement

We asked grantees and colleague funders to identify the most pressing challenges the environmental movement faces. They told us we need to figure out how to:

  • Bridge rural, urban, and partisan divides.
  • Communicate about shared values.
  • Connect with new people and organizations.
  • Address our movement's lack of diversity.
  • Do all of this in an unpredictable and constantly changing political environment.

Over the course of a day and a half, we explored these challenges by generating ideas not just about strategies and tactics, but about ways the cultures and structures of organizations might need to change. As a follow-up to the Learning Lab, we invited grantees to continue the conversations with each other and their partners. We invited them to bring their ideas to us for possible funding, if they could make the case that what they could learn would benefit not just their organization, but others doing similar work.

How our foundation is responding

Our board met in early March to discuss the new lay of the land and to approve the grants on our spring docket. One of our advisors urged us to be skeptical of anyone who says they know the path forward.

We need to approach this moment with humility, and be comfortable not having all of the answers.

One thing we know for certain is we will need teams of smart and experienced lawyers to defend against the most egregious proposals coming out of the new administration. Because of this, we made a more significant than usual commitment to Earthjustice. And because we cannot predict what is coming next, we chose to hold some funds in reserve so we can be flexible and respond quickly as new threats emerge.

In addition to our normal program grants, our board approved funding for four projects that build off of the questions we explored in our Learning Lab.

How can we create a culture that supports reflection and learning?
The Oregon League of Conservation Voters will establish an internal innovation fund to give its staff the space to develop, experiment, and test new ideas.
How can we leverage the ideas and perspectives of the millennial generation in support of our organizations?
The national League of Conservation Voters will provide training in both skills and strategy to a cohort of emerging leaders, and enable them to bring their voices to the organization's established leadership.
How can we bridge the partisan divide and demonstrate broad and diverse support for protection of public lands in rural areas?
The Oregon Natural Desert Association will engage volunteers in new ways to expand their networks and reach community members who share the values of protecting public lands.
How can we make better use of data, in collaboration with partners, to build a stronger base of support for our work?
Dogwood Initiative will run an experiment intended to expand its geographic reach and provide "proof of concept" to other organizations in British Columbia working with never-before-available data sets.

Not one of these grants is a silver bullet for the challenges we face, but each represents an attempt to explore an alternate path forward. We will watch how this work evolves — and ask our grantees to allow us to learn alongside them.

Fellow funders — we want hear from you. How are you helping your grantees develop adaptive capacity? We realize this is a "Rome is burning" moment, and it is hard to find the resources to invest in untested ideas. Yet we see this as a moment to nurture creative ideas and learning. How will we ever get stronger or smarter if we don't have permission to try new things and learn together? If you want to find out more about our Learning Lab, the Design Lab that preceded it, or our foundation's Sunset Initiatives, you can reach us by commenting here or on Twitter (@BrainerdFdn).