The philanthropists backing the UK-based Extinction Rebellion and other street-level activist groups are looking at their investment as money well spent, based on what they see as a demonstrable need for street climate protests and a deep trust in the groups’ “very clear theory of change”, veteran climate writer David Roberts reports on Vox.
“In contrast to conventional philanthropy, which tends toward the slow and bureaucratic, the goal was to identify groups engaging in disruptive, non-violent climate protest, vet them, and get money to them, quickly,” explains Roberts, tracing the guiding principle for the Climate Emergency Fund that formed this past July. “Rather than a few big donations to a few big green group campaigns, the idea is to spread the money widely, to lots of groups, in relatively small increments.”
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So far, the Fund is flourishing, having “raised over a million dollars and gotten about US$800,000 out the door in the form of 26 separate grants to groups ranging from 350.org to Extinction Rebellion,” funding “everything from hiring organizers to buying signs and bullhorns to organizing school trips.”
The group is currently raising more money, “accepting donations large and small,” for a second round of 30 grants with a total value above $2 million, Roberts says.
Things got started when Rory Kennedy and Aileen Getty, both philanthropist children of their famous U.S. clans, cleantech investor Trevor Neilson, and Aileen Getty Foundation manager Sarah Ezzy “came together around a shared conviction that street protest is both crucially important to climate politics and a longtime blind spot for environmental philanthropy,” Roberts writes. “With the Fund, they hope to capitalize on and amplify the populist energy that has exploded around climate change in recent months.”
While the initiative should not be viewed as “a wholesale indictment of environmental activism,” Neilson said, it does embody the realization that “if we keep applying the same gradualist approach” to the climate crisis, “we end up in one very clear place, which is uninhabitable Earth.”
Enabling the group’s faith in the modus operandi, and ultimate objectives, of groups like 350.org and Extinction Rebellion is their collective grasp of “a very clear theory of change,” Neilson added. “None of our grantees is confused at all about why they are going out to do what they do,” he said, citing organizations like #FridaysforFuture and the Climate Mobilization Project. So “these things have coalesced in a really exciting way.”
“If you look back at the right to an eight-hour work day, the right to unionize, civil rights, the right to vote, they all started with people in the streets,” Kennedy added. “These last many years, since I became increasingly aware of the urgency of climate change, I kept looking around, thinking, ‘Why isn’t everybody in the streets? What the hell is going on?’”
The next natural question, he said, was “How do we finance these groups?” The Climate Emergency Fund took up that challenge with the belief that “they can create a spark that then starts a flame that has its own energy and takes off. The more people get out in the streets, the more people get out in the streets. That’s our hope.”
As for the administrative hoop-jumping that goes along with most foundation grants, Neilson said that because the Fund “aims to be lean and disruptive, to embrace the emergency mindset of the moment,” it hasn’t “sat down six Harvard MBAs and designed a dashboard”, the complexity of which might well deter the applicants the four funders most want to reach. “When you’re giving a grant for $1,000, there’s just a certain amount of trust involved,” he said, so “the only reporting we’ve asked for is a very basic” end-of-project report.
But it isn’t as though the Fund is running blind: “Many of us have run foundations for many years, so part of what we offer donors is that we are vetting these groups pretty closely,” Ezzy said. “We’re very tucked into groups on the ground.”
Asked whether street protests should have specific policy demands, Neilson pointed to “thousands of NGOs and foundations that are really good at policy advocacy, but they’ve been operating in a political climate that doesn’t create any urgency on the part of elected officials.” To close that gap, “our job is to support the people from all walks of life who are demanding action.”
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