The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 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 membership.

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 activists.

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 closely.

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 groups.

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 Century.

Copyright 2006 The Chronicle of Philanthropy