The Bezos Earth Fund’s Latest Grants Favor Environmental Justice Veterans and Federal Action — Inside Philanthropy

When Beverly Wright was growing up in New Orleans, she noticed a curious phenomenon: The white people living in the city had started disappearing. “We knew they were going someplace, but we didn’t know where,” said Wright, the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

It wasn’t until she reached college that she connected the dots. A HUD project that helped Americans buy their first homes was facilitating the flight to the suburbs by granting white families loans. But their African American neighbors were not given that same opportunity. The experience has stayed in the back of her mind throughout a career of evaluating similar government programs.

“The project itself was not racist, but if you send it to a former slave state, filled with people who have certain attitudes about African Americans, the results are the same,” she said.

A new $203.7 million batch of grants and pledges from the Bezos Earth Fund, announced last week, will try to prevent history from repeating itself. Three-quarters of the gift will support Wright and others in helping the Biden administration ensure that its record spending on climate and environmental justice lives up to its promise with an effort called the Justice40 Initiative, to direct at least 40% of benefits from that spending to underserved communities. The Earth Fund’s outlay also contains about $54 million for decarbonization, climate communications and an environmental prize backed by a prince.

Stepping back, this new money will double the amount that the fund, founded a year and half ago by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has given to climate and environmental justice groups, bringing the total to $301 million. Such gifts can’t be evaluated outside the retail giant’s long shadow, which includes warehouses adding to the pollution in communities of color and high rates of injuries among workers, not to mention political contributions that support Republicans blocking climate action and the company’s rapidly expanding emissions.

No charitable giving, even at this scale, can compare with the actions of a company worth roughly $1.8 trillion. Yet within the world of philanthropy, the amounts here are significant, and the Earth Fund’s dedication to climate justice mostly matches or exceeds the known giving of the field’s other largest players. For what it’s worth, Amazon—of which Bezos owns a 10.3% stake, though he no longer heads the company—has also pledged to reach net zero by 2040. 

So let’s look at the details. Of the $150 million going to climate justice, four organizations will get a total of $20 million and another $130 million will be disbursed to similar groups by the end of the year. The four immediate grantees are Wright’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice ($4 million), the Partnership for Southern Equity ($6 million), the Robert D. Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University ($4 million), and WE ACT for Environmental Justice ($6 million).

Three of the organizations’ leaders have worked together for roughly three decades: Robert Bullard, Peggy Shepard (of WE ACT) and Wright. All three are members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and also serve on the executive committee of the recently relaunched National Black Environmental Justice Network. 

Two or more of these leaders have also collaborated on numerous projects. They include a couple of partnerships with historical Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), one of which will be expanded with help from the grant from five to 10 states, mostly in the South, to include a total of 32 HBCUs, according to Wright. 

The four groups will work together to support Justice40, with each taking on a particular niche. Bullard’s work will focus on research and analysis, as well as building networks of experts that groups and communities can call on to bolster their applications for support, as well as teams that can help write proposals. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last decade. What’s different is that we’re doing it with money,” said Bullard, who is a professor at Texas Southern University and is often called the “father of environmental justice.” “You’d be surprised what we can do with money.”

Wright will work more directly with communities, through regional meetings and larger gatherings, to make connections between community groups and educate organizers on areas of funds for which they may qualify. Her center’s projects will include worker training to equip young people for jobs in the solar and wind industries.

WE ACT, which is based in New York, will direct a national campaign in support of Justice40. The Partnership for Southern Equity will expand its Justice40 Accelerator, which supported 52 organizations as they prepared to apply for related federal funding. That program’s partners included the Solutions Project, a prior Bezos grantee. In sum, the groups will do the groundwork to prep groups, in part to receive additional dollars from the Earth Fund, but with the larger goal of winning federal support.

“The next three months will be really crucial,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Earth Fund. “This first $20 million to these really terrific organizations is, if you like, doing preparatory work, building capacity and so on.”

Securing support 

While many first-round Bezos Earth Fund grantees reported chatting with Bezos and his girlfriend, TV host Lauren Sánchez, Wright and Bullard’s experience was slightly different. The process kicked off with a June 15 email to Bullard from the Bezos team. Bullard had a 45-minute meeting with the fund’s staff, who later invited Wright to pitch them. Each submitted a two-page application, but Wright said that seemed like a formality. “They had already, I think, decided that Dr. Bullard and I both were a good choice for this,” she said.

The grants, like some of Bezos’ past climate justice gifts, could be transformative for recipients. The entire budget of Wright’s group was $1.7 million in 2019, and including all programs and part-timers, the center has 13 staff. She said this $4 million contribution is the largest gift the organization has ever received at one time. Over its 30 years, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice has received lots of grants, usually in the $250,000 range or smaller. “All that does is keep you working and writing,” Wright said. “You’re never able to implement all of the parts that you feel are necessary to make progress.” 

These commitments come in the face of a much larger disparity in the field. Past research has found only 1.3% to 3.8% of environmental and climate philanthropy has gone to environmental-justice-related efforts. White-led environmental and conservation groups received $2.7 billion more than Black, Indigenous and people of color-led organizations between 2014 and 2018, according to a report released this month by the InDEEP Initiative.

What percentage of Earth Fund grants are going to climate justice? 

Several recent efforts, from Justice40 to philanthropic campaigns like the Climate Justice Funders Pledge, have set numerical targets for dollars or benefits flowing to underserved communities or BIPOC-led environmental justice groups. The aim is to correct historic underinvestment. While the Earth Fund has directed plentiful resources to such causes, it is not shooting for a particular percentage. “We do not have plans for ratios,” Steer told me.

When I wrote about Bezos’ initial round of grants late last year, it was hard not to do the math. Among the $151 million in environmental justice grants awarded at that time were many gifts that exceeded what recipient organizations had received over their entire lifespans. At the same time, I calculated that those gifts amounted to 19% of the total. Like many others, I also observed that the bulk of the initial round’s funding went to a handful of the world’s wealthiest green groups.

Steer indirectly contested that interpretation during our conversation. Only $300 million of the initial batch of grants were for the United States, he said, meaning half of U.S. giving was for climate justice organizations. By his math, the latest batch of grants and pledges doubles that again, bringing the total for climate justice to two-thirds of U.S. giving. “We’re not flying the flag on that. But I’m deeply proud that we’ve had the privilege of working with these groups,” Steer said. He also noted that some of the international grants were intended to be passed to local groups. 

Not all grassroots groups add it up that way. Geographical distinctions can complicate the calculation of which communities benefit, but for many critics, it is the nature of the recipients that matters most. “We call upon the Bezos Earth Fund to make clear their commitment to front-line communities by mirroring Justice40’s 40% investment (which is a floor, not a ceiling) and committing at least 40% of remaining funds directly to grassroots-led climate solutions,” wrote the Climate Justice Alliance in a statement about the latest round of gifts. The group, which in December called on Bezos grantees to give a 10% to 25% share to a pooled fund directed by grassroots organizers, wrote that the latest gifts were “a small step in the right direction,” but insufficient in dollar terms or strategy.

A window into the Earth Fund’s interests

What about the other $53.7 million? Two pursuits—decarbonization and climate communication—were the biggest beneficiaries, but the individual grants offer insights into the fund’s interests and the types of groups it’s willing to back.

Decarbonization grants include both physical and financial efforts. A $3 million grant will go to Ceres Net Zero Finance Initiative to push for regulatory action on climate risk and net zero commitments from banks and other asset holders. Mission Possible Partnership will get $7 million to spark shifts in carbon-intensive but hard-to-transform heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals. And Science Based Targets, which works to drive corporate climate action, will receive $18 million to design pathways for decarbonization for various sectors. 

Another $20 million will bankroll climate communications, with a focus on conveying the message that climate action can create jobs and improve health. Two organizations of dramatically different legacies will receive $15 million and $5 million, respectively, for that work. The first, Climate Power, was founded just last year. The second, the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, has a parent organization that dates to 1969.

The Earth Fund also tossed $4.2 million to an effort with royal backing: the Earthshot Prize, an environmental competition with cash prizes launched by Prince William and Kate Middleton. A final $1.5 million went to the National Geographic Society and Campaign for Nature to support a 67-country effort to protect 30% of earth’s lands and oceans by 2030.

What’s next?

A year and a half has passed since Jeff Bezos announced his $10 billion fund with an Instagram post. Including these latest donations, about $1 billion in grants have gone out the door. Going forward, Steer said the fund is planning to give based on opportunities, not a fixed annual schedule, though the goal remains to spend the last cent by 2030. “Jeff is very clear that he would like these funds to be disbursed in this decisive decade,” Steer said. Bezos and Sánchez are part of that process. Steer said he has regular interactions with the couple, describing them as “very, very committed” to the fund.

The fund will also staff up, but not by much. It is currently hiring for 11 senior positions and will likely have 30 staff by the end of the year, as well as fellows who advise the fund alongside their regular jobs, Steer said. A LinkedIn search showed 48 people connected to the fund as of September 13.

To date, the Bezos Earth Fund has almost no public presence other than a few social media posts and a single press release. But that will change. The fund plans to launch a website near the end of September, according to Steer. An occasional blogger while at WRI and the World Bank, Steer hopes to get back to posting once the site is up and his schedule has calmed down. It’s part of his and Bezos’ goal of contributing to the climate debate.

“Jeff is very keen, as I am, to be part of the intellectual journey that we need to be on,” Steer told me. “We don’t know all the answers—and we need to be in there in the dialogue of ideas.”

With these new gifts, the Bezos Earth Fund has taken another step in support of environmental justice. Such backing from philanthropy is long overdue. For those who have been listening, Bullard, Shepard and Wright have been calling for more support for environmental justice as far back as the 1980s. And postmortems of the Copenhagen Summit and U.S. cap-and-trade law underlined the broader need for a well-funded grassroots climate movement.

Some credit is certainly due to the Earth Fund for acting forcefully on that call. And it’ll be interesting to see how this burgeoning commitment could influence broader philanthropic support for this crucial issue over the coming decade, particularly as the Bezos Earth Fund begins to grant directly to groups abroad.

For Bullard, the Earth Fund grants and the Biden administration’s initiative mark the arrival in the headlines of a body of work that was an afterthought to everyone outside of the affected communities when he started 40 years ago—philanthropy included. Environmental funders steered almost entirely clear of racial justice for decades, but he’s glad that is starting to shift.

“It’s almost like saying, ‘we don’t do racial justice, we do air, we do water, we do wetlands,’ and things like that,” Bullard told me. “What we have forced onto the dominant paradigm is: There cannot be climate justice without racial justice.”

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