Six ideas to enhance your environmental and human rights grantmaking


Peter Kostishack


It’s a time for celebration and reflection at Global Greengrants Fund – as we recently signed off our 10,000th grant. After 22 years of effort given by so many people to reach this achievement, it is worth pausing both to celebrate and also to reflect on what we have learned in the process of supporting grassroots environmental and social justice groups in 167 countries around world. 

I am moved by this milestone for a few reasons. First, I am humbled and inspired by the sheer amount of work and heart invested by grantee groups around the world.  People like Elodia Castillo and Rodimiro Lantan of the Association of Maya Ch’orti’ Communities in Guatemala.

In the face of threats and violence, they and the group used our grant to gather evidence and successfully challenge wealthy land owners and the municipal government in the Constitutional Court, restoring traditional land rights to Ch’orti’ indigenous communities. They, and so many others, have taken on enormous challenges to protect the environment, rights, and livelihoods of their communities.

Second, we are in a challenging time of social conflict, government restriction of civil society space, and increasingly fragile ecological systems. Yet, the world is full of committed environmental defenders, and their numbers keep growing.

I felt this last month at a gathering hosted in the community of Somkhele in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, where an expanding coal mine is taking over the land, water, air, and even the cemetery. Citizen groups facing mines and industrial development in communities throughout South Africa—Fuleni, Highveld, Newcastle, Vaal, Waterburg, and Xolobeni—were there to share their experiences, strategies, and solidarity.

The majority of them had received grants to support their struggles. I am comforted by the vast number of communities, grassroots organizations, and local leaders who are committed to making this a better world, and I wish we had the means to support many more.

Lastly, I am reaffirmed in my respect for our foundation’s approach of taking on large global problems of pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, over-consumption, and inequality from the perspective of the communities that experience the impacts. This has resulted in a more diverse and committed global environmental movement and in solutions that are more authentic, just, and, I believe, long-lasting. It also means that our grants often support the most disenfranchised communities.

For example, members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, who live contaminated by mercury from toxic spills and deforestation caused by the paper industry; or the former Miskito indigenous lobster divers with physical and cognitive disabilities from nitrogen poisoning, who are now trying to end a destructive and dangerous fishing practice that kills dozens of young divers each year and has left thousands more disabled.

It also means aligning environmental efforts with efforts to defend peoples’ rights to food, shelter, livelihoods, clean air, and water. As a result we have become not only the farthest-reaching environmental grantmaker, but also one of the leading global human rights foundations, according to a 2016 report by The Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group.

There are a few lessons we would like to share, as we move past our ten-thousandth grant:

Develop systems for accessibility
Grantmaking processes must be as accessible as possible for the people and communities most affected by environmental injustice. This means developing systems and networks that actively seek out groups, lowering the barriers of application, reaching communities in their own languages and on their own terms, and supporting many styles and forms of organizations that do not fit the mold of a typical NGO. For specific tips on how to audit your own grant portfolio, see our guide to supporting grassroots environmental action.

Let local knowledge drive decisions
For us, this has also meant putting grantmaking strategies and decisions in the hands of grassroots activists and leaders from over a hundred countries. To better support the global youth movement on climate change, we have asked a group of young leaders, including Ivan Torafing of the Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network, Milikini Failautusi of the Tuvalu National Youth Council, and Winnie Asiti of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, to help find youth-led or -focused projects and decided which to support. The commitment of these and other advisors has been remarkable, in part because we are willing to let them lead our grantmaking. Approaches and decision-making that are centrally driven stymie a funder’s ability to navigate the complex contextual, social, political, and cultural challenges that make it hard to give ten international grants, let alone ten thousand.

Know that timing is critical
All grantmakers think a lot about ‘who’ and ’what’ to fund, but for those that give small grants, ‘when’ can be just as important. Grants are often the most useful when they come at key junctures in social change processes and help move things in the right direction. Nimble grantmaking can allow groups to take advantage of key political, cultural, or even natural events to mobilize people and ideas. A grantmaking process that takes less time than other international funders can enable groups to respond to critical needs and opportunities that arise in the moment.

Don’t glamorize risk
It seems trendy in philanthropy these days to talk about taking risks or bets—often the bigger the better. From the outside, 10,000 grants across 167 countries can appear to be fraught with risk, but from the perspective of our advisors, who understand the context, organizations, and dynamics on the ground, each decision to invest in a group is quite clear and backed by peer networks, mentoring relationships, and trust.

We encourage investing in new things, and 40 percent of our grantees report Global Greengrants Fund as their first source of external support. But even $5,000 can be so important to a grassroots movements, that each investment is considered very carefully. It is critically important to remember that funders’ exposure to risk is almost always less than that of grantees, who face losing much more than money if they are unsuccessful.

Work across silos
Success at working at the local level depends on a funder’s flexibility to support many groups that see their work as only environmental. For many communities, the reasons for working for the environment go beyond protecting nature and its systems. They are defending resource-dependent livelihoods, indigenous culture, children’s health, or women’s rights.

Being responsive and adapting programs to meet local agendas means that many more solutions to environmental problems can emerge and grantees are more successful in their efforts to mobilize people and resources and to influence public opinion.

Remember, the grant is only one ingredient
I am most impressed by how nourishing a grant of just $5,000 can be. Humble groups grow confidence and capacity after receiving their first grant. Volunteers and community members commit time and energy to carry out the work.  The media might then pick up the story, and other funders may take notice and step in. Our grantmaking advisors invest untold hours of mentoring, accompaniment, and technical support with the grantee.

Networks form with other groups in the region, then nationally and internationally. These co-benefits emerge when grants are made with a strong belief in the power of local action and a respect for the ability of grassroots groups to mobilize resources that are more important than money.

The milestone of 10,000 grants around the world is above all an opportunity to appreciate the many people and groups Global Greengrants has had the opportunity to support as they confront challenges on behalf of the planet. So to our grantees we say, ‘Thank you’.Your work is essential to protecting this planet, its ecosystems, biodiversity, and people, and we are honored to have been able to contribute to your vision. Your spirit, bravery, and determination inspire our commitment to make the next 10,000 grants with a continued sense of urgency and purpose.

Peter Kostishack is Vice President and Director of Programs at Global Greengrants Fund.

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