How Philanthropy Funds Sustainability

Funders are Increasingly Supporting Change

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Jill Fuglister is healthy environment portfolio director at Meyer Memorial Trust, based in Portland, Ore.

Tom Woiwode is director of the GreenWays Initiative at Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit.

Darryl Young is director of Sustainable Cities at the Summit Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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Posted: Wednesday, March 2, 2016 4:04 pm

The world of funding and philanthropy is changing. So is the environment around us. Consequently, there is an opportunity to engage funders in conversations about smart growth and sustainability.

So, how do we better understand philanthropic roles in smart growth? And, what opportunities (and challenges) are there at a national and local level?

“Funders are increasingly interested in supporting work for change, and in some cases, being active change agents themselves,” said Jill Fuglister, healthy environment portfolio director at Meyer Memorial Trust, based in Portland, Ore. “In the context of smart growth and sustainability, this means seeding and supporting innovation in the field, advocacy, community organizing and movement building. It also means being an advocate and working collaboratively with other funders and other sectors.”

Fuglister added that to better understand philanthropic roles in smart growth, funders need to find opportunities for advancement, beyond just grant making. This may include loans, investments, research and more. This type of investment can have significant impact.

For example, the Neptis Foundation, founded in the 1990s, has become a leading funder in scholarly research in public policy issues on land use, transportation and environmental issues. The foundation has funded more than 30 original research reports on growth management and policy issues in the Toronto region. According to the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, “the government has created an ‘extraordinary apparatus’ to manage regional issues including a 30-year growth plan, a greenbelt and a regional transport corporation called Metrolinx.”

Partnerships and collaboration appear to be the trend in successfully funding sustainable projects through philanthropic means. “Increasingly, at least in this region, we’re seeing a much more collaborative relationship between philanthropy and municipal leadership,” said Tom Woiwode, director of the GreenWays Initiative at Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit. “That reflects a recognition of the economic challenges that municipalities face. It also acknowledges that cities need to rethink their design and the services they provide as the demographics of people who live and work in cities change.” Darryl Young, director of Sustainable Cities at the Summit Foundation in Washington, D.C., agreed. “Successful public and private institutions can integrate their work in a collaborative, trust-based manner that is not siloed or singularly for the purpose of promoting the individual institution,” Young said.

Some of these partnerships — between government, organizations, funders, the public and beyond — are obvious in the work Fuglister, Woiwode and Young’s organizations do. “Examples of work we have supported in the past and anticipate supporting going forward include collaborative initiatives that support job opportunities for low-income and displaced forest workers in the growing restoration economy,” said Fuglister. “And efforts to ensure that communities experiencing disparities have the opportunity to shape key environmental policy decisions affecting them.”

Young noted the Urban Sustainability Directors Network “is a peer-to-peer network of local government professionals from cities across the United States and Canada dedicated to creating a healthier environment, economic prosperity and increased social equity. This dynamic network enables sustainability directors and staff to share best practices and accelerate the application of good ideas across North America.”

Young also referred to the STAR Community Rating System, which was built by and for local governments. “Local leaders use STAR to assess their sustainability, set targets for moving forward and measure progress along the way…the rating system’s measures collectively define community-scale sustainability, and present a vision of how communities can become more healthy, inclusive and prosperous across seven areas.”

There are many challenges and opportunities for smart growth funding at the national, regional and local level. When it comes to challenges and setbacks, common language appears to be at the top of the list. “It remains a challenge to navigate the minefield of terms, phrases and mental mindsets that can slow and derail the progress towards achieving livable, sustainable communities,” said Young. “Even the word ‘sustainable’ is loaded in some circles.” Woiwode agreed: “smart growth principles for the philanthropic community may be different than the understanding of the community leadership. Making sure that everyone understands the objective of such projects, and how a project will create opportunities, is essential, and critical to be addressed at the outset, as the project is in the planning and development stage.”

The amount of resources to go around is another, yet obvious, challenge. “But it’s one that can’t be ignored,” said Woiwode. “National funders are limited in the resources they have to bring about change,” he said. “They invest in projects, programs and institutions that can demonstrate scalable, measurable, replicable theories of change. Not every proposal has to be successful, but the lessons of failure must advance the state of the practice as a whole.” This is where collaboration on funding comes into play.

Other challenges include time. “Infrastructure projects take a lot of time,” Woiwode said. “And when you’re trying to demonstrate both the benefits of and the viability of such projects, having to wait five or seven years before such projects go live makes it difficult for the public (and the community leadership) to fully appreciate their benefits.”

However, despite the challenges, there are many opportunities to not only overcome these setbacks, but to thrive, through committees, collaboration and innovation. Fuglister cited Metro, the Portland metro area’s directly elected regional government. “Its charge is to coordinate and manage growth, infrastructure and development issues that cut across the boundaries of the 24 cities and three counties that make up the metro area,” she said. “Many of the nonprofits we have supported have taken advantage of Metro’s convening role and decision-making processes to address issues such as transportation choices, green space acquisition and a regional approach to affordable housing.”

Woiwode noted the importance of leveraging. “The GreenWays Initiative was our first foray into projects that involved what are typically municipal investments and services,” he said. “We found a great receptivity to the idea of using private funds (CFSEM investment) to leverage public resources. That has become an increasingly common practice, both for CFSEM and for the philanthropic community in Detroit generally. We have used that to support and encourage demonstration projects, for things like green infrastructure and stormwater management that — we hope, with their success — will encourage increased public investment in such projects.” Also, some communities offer match funding that encourages projects to seek both public and private funding.

At the end of the day, sustainability funders want impact. Funders “increasingly recognize the need to support the organizations working for the change over a longer period of time,” said Fuglister. “These funders understand the need to provide significant investments in the operations and capacity of organizations, to give them breathing room to innovate, adapt and grow so that they can achieve institutional and systems change.”

FIND OUT MORE

Read Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact by Pete Plastrik, John Cleveland and Madeline Taylor.

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