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“Our bet is paying off”: why philanthropists are raising money for climate activists

Vox.com logo Vox.com 10/8/2019 David Roberts
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Climate strike NYC. © Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images Climate strike NYC.

On Monday, hundreds of climate activists were arrested in Sydney, London, and Amsterdam in the first round of what is expected to be a wave of protests across at least 60 cities in coming weeks. The actions — blocking roads, surrounding government buildings, occupying shopping centers — were coordinated by a group called Extinction Rebellion, founded in the UK last year with the explicit purpose of amping up civil disruption around climate change.

The “International Rebellion” kicked off Monday requires organizing, communication, a shared understanding of science, and a shared list of demands. But on a more prosaic level, it requires money. However public-spirited protesters may be, they also need to eat. Some of that money is coming from a surprising new source.

a group of people walking down the street: A protester is carried off by several police officers at a climate change protest in Amsterdam. © Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images A protester is carried off by several police officers at a climate change protest in Amsterdam.

In July, recognizing the significance of the new wave of climate protests and the need to sustain them, a small group of environmental philanthropists came together to create the Climate Emergency Fund. In contrast to conventional philanthropy, which tends toward the slow and bureaucratic, the goal was to identify groups engaging in disruptive, nonviolent climate protest, vet them, and get money to them, quickly. Rather than a few big donations to a few big green-group campaigns, the idea is to spread the money widely, to lots of groups, in relatively small increments.

Since July, the fund has raised over a million dollars and gotten about $800,000 out the door in the form of 26 separate grants to groups ranging from 350.org to Extinction Rebellion. The money is going to everything from hiring organizers to buying signs and bullhorns to organizing school trips. A second round of more than 30 grants is in the works, representing over $2 million more. The fund is currently raising money, accepting donations large and small.

The Fund was started by a small group with a long history of environmental philanthropy: Trevor Nielsen, a cleantech investor who co-founded the Global Philanthropy Group; Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert Kennedy and an accomplished documentary filmmaker; lifelong philanthropist Aileen Getty (of the Getty family fortune); and Sarah Ezzy, who currently manages the Aileen Getty Foundation and previously directed the Global Philanthropy Group.

They came together around a shared conviction that street protest is both crucially important to climate politics and a longtime blind spot for environmental philanthropy. With the Fund, they hope to capitalize on and amplify the populist energy that has exploded around climate change in recent months. (For background, see this New York Times piece on the Fund and Nielsen’s Medium post introducing it.)

a group of people walking down a street next to a fence: The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion dressed all in red protests climate change at Lincoln Center in New York City. © Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion dressed all in red protests climate change at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Curious to hear more about their thinking, I called Nielsen and his colleagues at their headquarters in New York City to discuss the significance of climate activism, the attitude of the philanthropic community toward it, and their reasons for launching the fund. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

David Roberts

In the New York Times piece, you express some dissatisfaction with the approach the “adults” have taken on this problem. Is this new initiative born in part out of frustration with establishment green groups? Do you think they’ve failed on this problem or ought to be doing something different?

Trevor Neilson

I don’t think the creation of the Climate Emergency Fund is a wholesale indictment of environmental activism. It’s not an indictment of the work NRDC does on clean water or the Trust for Public Lands does to protect wilderness — that’s all incredibly important work.

It’s just a realization that when it comes to climate, I don’t think anyone can claim that activism on carbon emissions has been successful. My belief is that if we keep applying the same gradualist approach to the carbon issue, we end up in one very clear place, which is uninhabitable Earth. This one piece of the puzzle needs to be filled.

Rory Kennedy

It’s a feeling that gradualism doesn’t work, that there is an urgency. And the way to communicate that urgency, historically, in terms of actually being able to change policies, is getting out in the streets.

David Roberts

How do you see this playing out? Do you have a theory of change in mind or is it just that nothing else has worked?

Trevor Neilson

Among our grantees, at least, you find a very clear theory of change. None of our grantees is confused at all about why they are going out to do what they do. Part of that is credit to the student strikers, Fridays for the Future, Extinction Rebellion, and their entire intellectual framework. And then other related groups like 350 and The Climate Mobilization, run by Margaret Klein Salamon, who really deserves credit for rallying people around declaration of emergency from municipalities. [Over 600 cities and counties have declared a climate emergency thanks to the group’s efforts.] These things have coalesced in a really exciting way.

Protests shape the people we are today, beginning on December 16th, 1773, with the Boston Tea Party. Nonviolent civil disobedience is among the most patriotic of American traditions, and we all just think it’s necessary.

a group of people standing in front of a sign: A woman at a climate strike holds a sign that reads, “Keep Chicago cold.” © Scott Olson/Getty Images A woman at a climate strike holds a sign that reads, “Keep Chicago cold.”

Rory Kennedy

If you look back at the right to an eight-hour workday, the right to unionize, civil rights, the right to vote, they all started with people in the streets. These last many years, since I became increasingly aware of the urgency of climate change, I kept looking around, thinking, “Why isn’t everybody in the streets? What the hell is going on?”

So then, when they started going to the streets [the climate strikes got going in March and April], we came together and said, “How do we finance these groups?” Even though they were doing the right thing, as kids, they didn’t have the infrastructure to get out there in a huge way. If we can help support that and give them some way to create that infrastructure, they can create a spark that then starts a flame that has its own energy and takes off. The more people get out in the streets, the more people get out on the streets. That’s our hope.

Trevor Neilson

Roger Hallam [co-founder of Extinction Rebellion] said to us, funding is incredibly important in the next phase of expansion, for the obvious reason that people need to pay their rent. People have to have food to eat. Most people can’t just give up their financial responsibilities and dedicate themselves to this.

Rory Kennedy

[Many of the protest groups] didn’t have websites. They didn’t have anybody with PR experience.

Sarah Ezzy

Some were more developed than others. Some were trying to get set up so they could receive money. We funded kids who just wanted $1000 to be able to do something after school for September 20, which is pretty cool. So we come in where the groups need help.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Climate strike NYC. © Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images Climate strike NYC.

David Roberts

One complaint nonprofits always have is that big foundations want a clear return on investment, so grantees have to fill out lots of forms and meet lots of metrics. It becomes very bureaucratic. With your grants, how is success measured? Do you have any metrics?

Trevor Neilson

In a previous life, I worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Metrics are important to them, so we spent a lot of time focused on that, with squads of consultants.

The Fund aims to be lean and disruptive, to embrace the emergency mindset of the movement. So we are not killing people with reporting; we have not sat down six Harvard MBAs and designed a dashboard. All of us know how to do that, but when you’re giving a grant for $1,000, there’s just a certain amount of trust involved.

We ask grantees to provide reporting to us on what they do. The agreement is quite important, because it creates the legal framework for our relationship. We insist on our funding not being used for any illegal activities of any kind. But the only reporting we’ve asked for is a very basic [end-of-project report].

Sarah Ezzy

Many of us have run foundations for many years, so part of what we offer donors is that we are vetting these groups pretty closely. We’re very tucked into groups on the ground.

David Roberts

When I hear examples of mass protests working, they’re always drawn from the last century. More recently, we’ve had giant marches against the Iraq war, Occupy, and the women’s march, which don’t seem to have led to any fundamental changes. [Note: others disagree.] How can you be sure this round of protests will lead to lasting change?

Trevor Neilson

Look what happened in Austria this week, which they’re calling the Greta [Thunberg] effect. The Green Party had a 10 percent jump in support. I’d like to think we’re going to see the Greta effect around the world, in local elections, in state elections, and in federal elections. I just don’t think that the previous movements you’re talking about had the effect of swinging elections.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Climate activist Greta Thunberg waves to a supporter in a crowd held back behind a barricade. © HERBERT PFARRHOFER/AFP/Getty Images Climate activist Greta Thunberg waves to a supporter in a crowd held back behind a barricade.

When you see polling data out of Iowa saying that climate is a top concern, next to health care, we in the Fund imagine a future trajectory on climate activism that is different than anything that’s been seen in the past.

Our bet is paying off. We’re very pleased so far.

Sarah Ezzy

Lots of protest groups are getting in the mix. [In the US,] the Green New Deal is on the table. All these things are coming together in this moment. In our minds, the next 18 months are absolutely critical in terms of our election and the upcoming climate meetings.

David Roberts

What is the relationship between activism and policy? Is it the job of these groups to have specific policy demands? Or do you see policy development as someone else’s job?

Trevor Neilson

There are thousands of NGOs and foundations that are really good at policy advocacy, but they’ve been operating in a political climate that doesn’t create any urgency on the part of elected officials.

I have no doubt that once we have the majority of members of Congress and the White House wanting to act on climate, there will be smart policy people who come to the table. We don’t consider it our job to deal with that. Our job is to support the people from all walks of life who are demanding action.

Rory Kennedy

Strategically speaking, it’s really important for the Democrats to take over the House and the Senate and the presidency. Their overall agenda is so much more progressive than the Republicans, and you can only make substantial progress if you have leadership that is at least calling for more radical responses.

David Roberts

The reason I ask about policy is that one of Extinction Rebellion’s three core demands is a net-carbon-zero economy by 2025, which ... wouldn’t be a clean energy transition, so much as just turning out the lights.

Sarah Ezzy

They use it as a cause for it now, I don’t think they really believe it.

Rory Kennedy

There’s something about it that says we need to start this process now. When you say 2025 versus 2050 or even 2030, it’s a different orientation.

Trevor Neilson

We also shouldn’t be crippled with a failure of imagination. The American economy transitioned very rapidly to meet the World War II threat. There are many examples in history of societies mobilizing rapidly. There are also many examples in history of technology that seems to appear out of thin air, materializing just in time to solve a problem. So through a confluence of factors, we could see a response to this problem that we have not imagined previously.

a group of people riding skis on top of a building: Protestors lie on the ice rink in Rockefeller Plaza. A sign reads, “Climate change = mass murder. Rebel for life.” © Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images Protestors lie on the ice rink in Rockefeller Plaza. A sign reads, “Climate change = mass murder. Rebel for life.”

David Roberts

Is the left philanthropic community sclerotic? Are they willing to speed up the pace of grantmaking? Fund some more radical groups? Take some chances?

Trevor Nielson

While we are happy about the progress we have made, we still are very eager to speak to America’s philanthropists about the Fund. I do think the philanthropic community needs to be shaken out of its sleep on this topic. It needs to embrace a new emergency mode.

Rory Kennedy

We believe they will come on board with us.

It’s overwhelming, who to support. They’re activists, they’re duct-taping themselves to the Capitol, things that are a little nutty. So we’re creating an infrastructure for [philanthropists] to come in, where it’s safe, it’s legal, we’re vetting these organizations out on the street.

And a little bit of money goes a long way. We were one of the very first funders of the climate strike last week, and that was the biggest climate strike in history. Relative to historical strikes, it cost a pittance. The impact is really far-reaching at low cost.

We’ve raised a million dollars in a short period of time and given that money out — not an easy thing. We’re hopeful that people are going to get on board in a big way.

Sarah Ezzy

A lot of people haven’t fully onboarded the reality of it. People don’t feel the crisis and the emergency. As that becomes more evident for philanthropists, there will be movement in this direction and the risks won’t seem so risky. Because, my word, the planet’s on fire.

Trevor Neilson

Family offices [which manage inherited family fortunes, like the Gettys or the Waltons] control $6 trillion worth of wealth globally — trillion with a T. Some percentage of those people don’t care about climate; some percentage do. I guess I’m optimistic that more and more of them are starting to care.

a group of people standing in front of a sign: In a crowd of protesters, a small child on its parent’s shoulders holds a sign that reads, “Protect my future!” © Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images In a crowd of protesters, a small child on its parent’s shoulders holds a sign that reads, “Protect my future!”

David Roberts

Do you feel any tension between your high-carbon lifestyles and climate activism? Do you care about the inevitable charges of hypocrisy, the same ones Al Gore faced?

Rory Kennedy

Personally, I think it’s a ridiculous question. No offense.

David Roberts

It wouldn’t be my first.

Rory Kennedy

It’s like supporting the effort to have seatbelt laws before we had to use seatbelts. If you hadn’t used seatbelts already, could you not advocate for seatbelt laws? We are advocating for new laws, for policymakers to do their jobs to protect us, because humans don’t protect themselves. They do jackass things. That’s what government is supposed to do, right? Protect us.

Until they do, we are going to keep operating on the rules of society. We need those rules to change and the government needs to change them.

Aileen Getty

We keep being told that individual action won’t change anything, which is also an unfortunate message. We are social and we do take cues from one another. But without having legislation ... it’s difficult. On a personal level, I think about it all the time, and I’m trying to reduce, for sure.

Rory Kennedy

Yeah, I am too.

Trevor Neilson

In my own limited investment portfolio, I divested from oil and gas stocks. I traveled about half as much this year as I traveled last year. I don’t eat meat. If you choose, there are things you can do.

But we are way beyond finger-pointing at our fellow citizens. We need to move into emergency mode. To Rory’s point, those are right-wing talking points aimed at harming the confidence of elected officials and public figures of various types, feeling that they need to be perfect before they’re allowed to say they’re concerned.

We reject the notion that anyone is perfect. We accept that our entire society has been built upon this black stuff from the ground. It’s time to change that.

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