How Community Foundations Work Toward An Equitable Environmental Future

Communities of color gather for a summit on climate justice in Seattle led by the multiracial statewide coalition, Front and Centered.

Communities of color gather for a summit on climate justice in Seattle led by the multiracial statewide coalition, Front and Centered.

By Amanda Palleschi

Climate change can often seem like a far off threat, but we know it’s already affecting our present and our future: we all want to drink clean water, breathe clean air, and be part of coming up with solutions to an earth-friendlier and more equitable future.

Community foundations have been at the forefront of funding some of the most innovative solutions to climate change and climate justice -- from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest and everywhere in between.

For the Seattle Foundation, that has meant putting its resources and its visibility in Washington state toward both the causes and inequitable effects of climate change.

Recently, the foundation has been working along with its nonprofit and community partners to develop a long-term Climate Justice Impact Strategy to respond, in part, to growing sea level rise, flooding and degradation of the Duwamish River, which runs through Seattle and was designated as a federal Superfund site in 2001 for its industrial sediment and toxic pollution.

Residents who live near the river live an average of eight years less than those who don’t, and are are disproportionately people of color -- including native tribes who settled in what is now Seattle long before the city’s founding.

The foundation helped support a comprehensive report called “An Unfair Share,” developed with a nonprofit coalition that included members of communities affected by the Superfund site.

Mary Grace Roske, the Seattle Foundation’s chief brand officer, says the foundation is always looking for ways to pair the Pacific Northwest and Seattle donors’ interests in environmental equity with the community organizations already working on climate justice issues.

And the foundation stuck its neck out into the political arena on the issue for only the second time in its 70-year history in the 2018 election when it publicly endorsed Initiative 1631 -- a ballot measure in Washington State that would have imposed a $15 per metric ton carbon fee on fossil fuel emissions.

Though the state’s voters ultimately rejected the measure, Roske says the foundation felt its endorsement was critical.

“We believe that using the foundation’s visibility is a key way we can activate support for this issue,” she says.

On the opposite coast, The New York Community Trust gives philanthropists, donors and partners with a menu of grantmaking options when it comes to climate change and the environment. The Trust has funded groups pushing for local policy change to eliminate environmental risks that often fall on underserved communities, such as those that work to eliminate lead paint and other toxic chemical exposures in children. They’ve also helped to develop guidelines for climate resilient infrastructure and natural disaster plans.

This Earth Day, the Trust is helping to sponsor a $50,000 cash prize in the Urban Future Competition, to be awarded to promising environmental entrepreneurs and startups proposing “clean technology” projects -- with a big celebration with winners to be held April 22 --- an event a foundation spokesperson says they hope will become “the biggest/best Earth Day event in New York City.”

And in some cases, a community foundation’s environmental efforts are even more direct and long-term.

The Cleveland Foundation has been a force for more than a decade on a project to build a wind farm off the Cleveland shore of Lake Erie -- the first such offshore wind farm in the United States. The foundation invested more than $4 million and got on board early, in 2004. It leveraged more than $50 million in public and private dollars to create a nonprofit, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, dedicated solely to the wind farm

Last month, the project -- known as Project Icebreaker -- received permit approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it’s also been approved by the Ohio EPA.

The six wind turbines in Project Icebreaker will provide 500 homes in the region with power through Cleveland Public Power Service lines.

The Cleveland Foundation sees its role more broadly as an engine for placing Cleveland as “the epicenter of offshore wind energy production in the Great Lakes” and supporting “local, regional and statewide policies that support the transition to a clean energy economy,” according to the foundation’s statements.

Here’s a look at some other community foundation-led environmental efforts:

Oklahoma City

The Oklahoma City Community Foundation established the Margaret Annis Boys Trust and Parks & Public Space Initiative in 1991 -- an endowment that has been able to award more than $3.5 million in city beautification projects.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the foundation is completing a landscaping project that involves planting nearly 1,000 trees, wildflowers and plants and adding pedestrian benches to a waterfront in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City. The city has responded by promising to name the area the Oklahoma City Community Foundation River Trail.

Washington, D.C.

The Greater Washington Community Foundation manages a fund which supports nonprofits working on environmental justice projects as well as sustainable use environments.

According to the foundation’s Sara E. Cohen, the Spring Creek Environmental and Preservation Fund prioritizes historic preservation, equitable access to natural resources, and smart growth as well as education, civic engagement and advocacy around environmental health issues.

 In 2019, the fund gave nearly $50,000 to four local nonprofits.

 Southeast Michigan

The Detroit-area’s Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan has been part of the construction of 100 miles of “greenways” through all seven of its counties, pulling together more than $30 million from public and private funding sources -- as well as an additional $125 million in matching investments from governments and others for biking and walking.

The foundation also gives grants, along with other local groups, to a bike share program.

 San Diego

The San Diego Foundation recently announced its selection in the Outdoor Foundation’s “Thrive Outside” initiative -- a program that gives grants to cities working to expand opportunities to get all youth in a community into the outdoors.

San Diego was one of just four awardees, and the foundation and its partners were awarded a multi-year, $410,000 grant to “create a network focused on getting as many children and families as possible experiencing the outdoors in a positive way,” according to Outdoor Foundation Executive Director Lise Aangeenbrug.

The San Diego Foundation isn’t new to the issue, however. The foundation started an Opening the Outdoors Program after its 2010 report, Parks for Everyone, found that the area’s low-income and communities of color have access to the least amount of recreational and outdoor space. It began the program in response, and since that time has engaged more than 90 nonprofit groups, invested $174 million in land acquisition, restored 20 miles of trails, and created an online park-finding tool, among other accomplishments.

New Jersey

The Community Foundation of New Jersey has long been engaged in several environmental endeavors -- including rehabilitation for birds of prey and other wildlife conservation on its shores, and an energy efficiency efforts which helps 100 nonprofits faith-based groups in the Garden State become more energy efficient.


The Hawaii Community Foundation is a major player in the state’s marine and watershed conservation projects. The foundation partnered with the Hewlett and Packard Foundations for several years, up until 2004, and in that time began an initiative to help local communities engage in biodiversity conservation. Since then, the initiative has expanded to include many local players -- a whole network of conservation and land trusts which work to use state and federal dollars for conservation projects.


The Communities Foundation of Texas works with and supports many local environmental nonprofits, including those that focus on ecological conservation education and programming, and a foundation that plants trees based on research on tree canopy coverage.

Amanda Palleschi