The Chronicle of Philanthropy  [Printer-friendly version]
April 20, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Some say the environmental movement is
dead. Author Mark Dowie argues that the movement is clearly alive
but "courting irrelevance." The problem is that about 25 large
organizations get 70% of all the available funding, which they tend
to spend on lobbying campaigns that no longer work very well.
Meanwhile, thousands of small groups working all across the country
at the local level must divvy up the remaining 30%. This arrangement
starves grass-roots activism, which is innovative, passionate,
effective, and connected to communities of people who vote. Dowie
suggests several remedies, among them to strengthen the entire
environmental effort by linking advocates for environmental justice,
economic justice, public health, democratic decision making, and
civil rights. Amen.]

By Mark Dowie

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, the modern American environmental
movement has been in a constant state of flux. The movement itself
began about a century ago with a small number of relatively
conservative organizations largely committed to wilderness
preservation, and has in the past 35 years grown into a vast national
complex comprising a few dozen large national organizations and
thousands of small grass-roots groups that focus on local and regional
matters as well as social concerns like environmental justice.

American environmentalism is interested in such a wide range of issues
that it seems at times to be many movements. Groups that are
preserving the forests, conserving wildlife, protecting rivers,
defending the oceans, and improving air and water quality all operate
under the broad and very vague rubric of environmentalism, as do
organizations making sure that minority neighborhoods don't suffer
unduly from environmental harms and that workers are not exposed to
toxic substances.

The large national groups take on most of those issues in one way or
another, so they often think of themselves, and their members, as part
of the grass roots. However, most members of national organizations
are passive check writers and occasional letter writers, essential
perhaps to the operation of the organization, and of some value to the
cause of environmental protection, but hardly vital to the grass-roots
commitment and energy essential to any successful social movement.
Changing the balance, so the grass-roots groups can be stronger, is an
essential challenge for the world of philanthropy.

To be sure, the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society work
aggressively to foster activism among their members, and a few members
of the other groups are active in local causes, often at the behest of
national headquarters. But the serious and most effective activists
are more likely to be found in the 50,000 or more small to medium-
sized regional and local groups scattered about the country, many of
them ad hoc and temporary in nature, frequently and unpredictably
appearing and disappearing from watersheds and neighborhoods they seek
to protect.

The press rarely pays attention to these activists, so the American
public is generally unaware of them, except perhaps when talk-show
hosts describe them as single-issue cranks, troublemakers, and
antagonists of economic development. Meanwhile the news media turn to
mainstream organizations, which have wrapped themselves in a mantle of
elite respectability and come to regard themselves as "the movement."
Sadly, those big green groups show little regard or respect for
anything remotely grass roots beyond their own largely inert

The failure of these mainstream organizations to produce meaningful
change has led some smart but not very wise young people to declare
the death of American environmentalism. These critics are right
about one thing: The movement is certainly in trouble. It is courting
irrelevance as unwieldy, unimaginative, overfed organizations, with
plush headquarters in Washington and New York, rely on tired old
tactics, such as politely lobbying the federal government, that long
ago ceased being effective.

But even if the big organizations are presenting obvious symptoms of
organ failure, it seems premature to write an obituary for a
nationwide matrix that still has 11 million dues-paying members, about
400 foundations and even some corporations supporting it, as well as
thousands of organizations that employ some of society's most
committed and brilliant scientists, lawyers, organizers, and

What the critics have missed isn't whether environmentalism is alive
or dead, or should be dead. The real question is what can be done to
bridge the divide between the mainstream and the grass roots of the
movement, and the answer to that has a lot to do with how
environmentalism is financed.

About 70 percent of the revenue flowing into the entire environmental
agenda ends up in the treasuries of about 25 large national
organizations, according to the book Environment Inc.: From Grassroots
to Beltway, by Christopher J. Bosso, a political scientist at
Northwestern University. That leaves literally thousands of small to
medium-sized groups, some with large and significant missions, to
compete for the other 30 percent.

While much of the money that flows to environmental activism comes
from individuals, a significant share comes from foundations that
attach strings to their grants. As a result, grant makers are setting
the agenda for much of the environmental movement.

Foundations tend to support the big groups, in part because they are
so unwilling to take risks. Many of them would rather write one large
check to a high-profile national organization than 10 small checks to
groups they have barely heard of and would have to monitor more

Some foundation executives also tend to buy into the sophisticated
publicity that flows endlessly from mainstream organizations, many of
which have merely swept into campaigns or issues at the last minute,
when success seemed imminent, and claimed credit for accomplishments
that grass-roots groups had been working on for years.

The lack of attention to the grass roots has been further exacerbated
by the growing number of foundations that want to shape their own
programs, rather than giving money to projects developed by
environmental groups. Most of the foundation program officers who
create these efforts have no experience working with grass-roots

Changing such patterns is not easy, but if foundations would pool
their money into a new effort to strengthen the grass roots, they
could make a big difference.

Foundations that join forces for such a project would have to be
willing to take risks, and even fail at times. Here are some of the
ingredients that should go into an effective effort to stimulate the
grass-roots groups:

* Grant-making decisions would be made fast, and money doled out
quickly. Grass-roots groups rarely have serious financial cushions,
nor do they have the luxury to take a long time to plan their
campaigns and wait for the money to come in.

* While moving quickly is important to helping groups get their start
and stay afloat, the best way to help grass-roots groups flourish over
the long term is for grant makers to commit funds for as long as 20
years, instead of the three years that so many foundations now offer
before they cut off their aid.

* Getting good and fresh ideas is also a critical need, and a key role
for a foundation collaborative. It could support circuit riders whose
task it would be to search the countryside for effective change agents
and organizations needing support. The collaborative should also turn
to its first or second round of grantees for suggestions about what
groups to support in the third or fourth rounds, thereby getting
feedback from groups that know what is needed most and democratizing
the process of grant making.

* To give small groups the help they need with marketing, technology,
fund raising, and back-office administration, foundations should
support the development of groups that provide those services
effectively and at low cost. Then struggling groups would not be
forced to waste time on tasks unrelated to their mission of protecting
the environment.

Such a collaborative needs to worry not just about supporting
organizations, but about supporting people. It should pay for health
and liability insurance for people who work for small, risk-taking
groups. Environmentalists should not have to feel compelled to work at
a big group just because that is the only way to get decent benefits.

The collaborative should also demonstrate its commitment to
environmentalism by making sure its money is invested in ways that are
aligned with its mission. It would either avoid investments in
companies with poor environmental records or use its power as a
shareholder to change the policies of companies that damage the
environment. Focusing solely on making grants is not enough.

Other goals of a collaborative to spur grass-roots groups would be:

* To provide grass-roots activists protection against retaliation from
companies they protest and from the backlash of activists from the
counter-environmentalist movements.

* To foster regional and international networks of small groups that
will become more powerful by multiplying their numbers and combining
their efforts.

* To encourage solid multicultural work that brings racial and ethnic
minorities into a movement that is still largely made up of white and
middle-class people.

* To strengthen the entire environmental effort by linking advocates
for environmental justice, economic justice, public health, democratic
decision making, and civil rights.

While large national organizations provide the overall movement an
invaluable service in the form of research, litigation, and
communication, they are not, and should not be regarded as, the heart
of the movement.

Once liberated from that self-image and the responsibility that goes
with it, national groups will be free to expand and improve their
scientific and legal contributions to the cause of environmental
protection and public health, all the while providing supportive
service and encouragement to the thousands of smaller neighborhood
groups applying social and political pressure where it is needed most
--- at the grass roots of the nation.


**Mark Dowie is conducting research on the historical relationship
between international conservation and indigenous peoples for MIT
Press. He is also the author of American Foundations and Losing
Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle of Philanthropy