About a decade ago, as frontline-led environmental justice groups came together to create a new center of gravity in the climate movement, a group of climate justice leaders, including me, began connecting with the staff and trustees of the Chorus Foundation, which was developing its own strategy on climate funding. After discovering our shared goals and realizing that we needed each other to achieve them, our movement groups formed deep partnerships with Chorus trustees and staff.
For Chorus, what began as an effort to move money to an emerging climate justice ecosystem blossomed into deeper relationships and a coordinated funder organizing effort by and with the entire movement ecosystem. The practices, approaches, and strategies developed as part of this relationship-building process among movement groups, Chorus, and other funders hold many lessons for how funders can build meaningful relationships with movement groups to inform their own strategies, and how to advance funder organizing efforts to cultivate support for the grassroots organizing sector.
As movement groups approached Chorus, and Chorus began engaging in the climate space, the shared focus was the ecosystem, rather than individual leaders or organizations. As we approached Chorus and other funders, our goal was to build an ecosystem, not to compete to become grantees. We were a set of movement groups raising money to build what was required to bridge the gap between the scale and pace of the crisis and our current social movement strategies. A deep strategic alignment process resulted in the formation of the Climate Justice Alliance and Just Transition Strategic Framework.
What follows is based on a roundtable discussion among movement organizers who participated in this shared effort, which began around 2011. The discussion included Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation; Christine Cordero, formerly of the Center for Story-based Strategy and now at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network; Miya Yoshitani, Climate Justice Alliance steering committee member and former executive director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network; Cindy Stella Wiesner, executive director of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance; and me, Michelle Mascarenhas, formerly of Movement Generation now at Taproot Earth and cofounding cochair, with Cindy Stella Wiesner, of the Climate Justice Alliance. My commentary and questions appear in italics.
Partners in Shifting Philanthropy
For many, perhaps all of us, our experience with Chorus was the first time we had ever partnered with a funder in a deep way. Two things made this collaboration possible: first, sharing the same goals; and second, how Chorus showed up wanting to build trust and relationships. Working together, we began organizing other funders to broaden the field of funders that supports a climate justice agenda, using affinity groups such as Making Money Make Change, EDGE, NFG, EGA, and Justice Funders spaces, and then making collective interventions in these groups and spaces to increase investment in the climate justice movement.
How did the movement partners’ recognition of Chorus as an institution evolve, and what did we think we needed to do
to organize them?
Gopal Dayaneni: Prior to my work at Movement Generation, my relationship with funders was much more transactional. For me, this was an opportunity to realize, “Oh, this is different.” This is like building relationships in any other sector of the movement. We can organize in the philanthropic sector in the same ways that we organize community members and other movement groups.
One thing that was complicated was when Chorus asked me to help facilitate a strategy meeting in New Orleans around just transition with their grantees and potential grantees. That was personally very challenging. What does it mean for us to try and organize together in an honest, transparent way, knowing that philanthropy was in the room? If the strategy is just transition, then I think some grantees should no longer be grantees. Some groups should not have resources directed their way. But there were also allies in the room with a shared agenda. It was not as if we had a perfect plan that we were trying to move. Instead, we were working together in real time to come up with that plan. As the facilitator of that process, it was challenging but also transformative in a way that made all future organizing easier.
Chorus had a hypothesis that investing in the front line-led climate justice ecosystem was critical to advancing a just transition. I believe the Chorus hypothesis has been proven correct.
This new way of partnering also meant that movement groups trusted Chorus enough to be real about challenges and see where we could address them together, rather than feeling that we had to go it alone. This was a departure from our usual experiences where we felt that we could not necessarily trust funders to continue to support the work if they glimpsed behind the curtain.
Christine Cordero: I was the incoming executive director at the Center for Story-based Strategy, and we were holding an advanced training. Cuong [Hoang, the primary staff person at Chorus] and Farhad [Ebrahimi, the founder and president of Chorus] were encouraged to apply to participate in the training.
There was a somewhat tense conversation with staff about whether we should have funders in the space. I thought it was the right thing to do because I sensed that we were all organizing Chorus around this ecosystem and framework, and ideally, they would have a methodology to put them in relationship to just transition and the ecosystem.
It was the first big call I was allowed to make, and I made it without a unanimous agreement. And it ended up being great. People were like, “Which ones are the funders in the room?” I saw that Chorus had the potential to become deep allies. I remember thinking, keep cultivating them, they can roll with us.
Cindy Wiesner: There are the dreamers and realists, and I felt that Chorus was part of the dream team. It was helpful to have space where we could imagine what is possible, where there was trust, and to be able to say, “I’m going to commit over the long term.” I also have an image in mind of Farhad shoveling horse shit at a march, and I felt that he was one of us. If he had a task to do, he’d do it.
Miya Yoshitani: Something I remember is how receptive Chorus was to the conversation, not saying, “This is exactly what we were thinking,” but more like, “Oh, tell us more.” I mean the way they kept inviting us into the conversation. There were also moments when we were strategic about it. We would say, “Chorus is coming to town. Let’s have a dinner and talk with them.”
The time between 2009 and 2013 was a dynamic period in which dozens of frontline grassroots groups, together with their alliances and movement support groups, came together in person on many occasions in a climate justice alignment process. This resulted in the formation of the Climate Justice Alliance and the Strategic Framework for a Just Transition, which was our unified strategy. We used these tools to organize funders such as Chorus, Libra, and Surdna, not only to fund our work but also to shift the landscape of money and power.
Gopal Dayaneni: “The right relationships at the right time,” is how I would characterize our relationship to Chorus and these two [Farhad and Cuong]. The development of CJA and our collective thinking and experiments with ideas in different spaces, some of them funder spaces such as Making Money Make Change and the EDGE conference, contributed to the dynamism that helped us articulate ideas in new ways. It was exciting and created other opportunities that helped us be more, collectively.
Fast forward to 2023, a profoundly different moment. Organizations have grown and become more sophisticated but are taxed by a three-year-long global pandemic, an economic downturn, a reactionary political climate, and staff and leadership burnout and turnover.
Miya Yoshitani: There’s less of an explicit or aligned organized strategy right now, which is in part due to leadership and organizational transitions. With the pandemic, a great deal has happened, and it has proven difficult to maintain focus on collective action given that leaders are dealing with crises in their own organizations.
In focusing on the same group of progressive funders, the other challenge is that we have not had a strong strategy to go far beyond that group. I think we lack the collective capacity to be more intentional and creative about a strategy, and personally, that has been frustrating.
Christine Cordero: Yes, I would say we’re in a completely different political and movement moment. My guess is that 90 percent of the alliances and coalitions APEN is a part of have greatly suffered in the pandemic. Not having regular in-person time means a lack of depth when it comes to leadership and trust.
When it comes to philanthropy, we had an influx of billionaire money, which means greater potential funding for just-transition work. But the infighting starts early, and suddenly there’s “big EJ” [environmental justice] and “little EJ.” These are the perils of success in some ways.
Our movements are asking, do we try to get those funds? How do we navigate that process? Some of us are in the room, while others are not. CJA played a key role in aligning us to work with the Bezos Earth Fund. But coordination is definitely up and down. For me, the level of movement and coalition dynamics means that I haven’t had much time to spend on funder organizing since becoming co-executive director of APEN. I have a distinct sense that this time is needed. But carving up time in my schedule to sufficiently coordinate with people and do some of our own organizing hasn’t happened yet.
Roles as Funders, Funder Affinity Groups, and Funder Organizers
The group discussed the roles of funders as grant makers/investors as distinct from funder affinity group spaces and funder organizers. Affinity group spaces have provided critical arenas for funder organizing to take place. Funders, such as Chorus, also had a job to do in distributing its endowment, especially as a foundation committed to spending down in a decade.
Cindy Wiesner: Mark Randazzo of the EDGE Funders Alliance did matchmaking between us—the leadership of the Climate Justice Alliance—and Chorus. If I think about it in relation to my own development as a director, there was always a great deal of reluctance to trust funders, and I think that the relationship with Chorus transformed that. They made the transition to more confident, bolder asks much easier. And because they made long-term commitments, it empowered many of us to go out there and make bigger asks [to other foundations], and so it was incredibly important for our own development and the ecosystem as a whole.
We were part of this movement-philanthropy intervention. I think our experiments, whether in the BEA [Building Equity and Alignment], EDGE Funders Alliance, or other spaces, reflected efforts to recalibrate relationships and affect the balance of forces within the philanthropic world. Here were Farhad and Cuong trying to implement this strategy and intervention, and sometimes it assumed a kind of guerrilla style, and sometimes it felt more planned. Sometimes individuals acted, and in other moments, it was a collective strategy.
Gopal Dayaneni: The processes that were innovated with Chorus created space for folks such as Regan Pritzker (a trustee of Libra Foundation and cofounder of Kataly) and Leah Hunt-Hendrix (founding director of Solidaire), among others, to be in the world in ways that differed from what had been passed down from established philanthropy.
Michelle Mascarenhas: Movement Generation led a just-transition retreat for funders in 2015 that Chorus and EDGE cosponsored. The retreat resulted in deep relationships between funders and movement partners who then made a joint intervention at the 2016 EDGE Conference. In between the retreat and the conference, we documented the Just Transition Framework around which CJA was organizing.
The EDGE space had been primed for such organizing in part because Chorus was in leadership there. Funders and movement groups who organized together ended up calling for foundations to reinvest 15 percent of the amount they had divested from fossil fuels into regenerative economic ventures such as Seed Commons. From there, we launched Shake the Foundations, a space for funders to practice reinvestment and support others to take the same leap. This was one of several examples of how we carried out funder organizing and movement building across multiple spaces.
Cindy Wiesner: Chorus had a hypothesis that investing in the frontline-led climate justice ecosystem was critical to advancing a just transition. The ideals of the ecosystem seemed impossible 10 years ago but are now widely discussed and being put into practice. I believe the Chorus hypothesis has been proven correct.
The learnings of movement organizers and the trustees and staff of Chorus and allied funders can be boiled down to a clear call to action for others in philanthropy:
- Build real relationships of trust with one another. That means doing the dishes at the end of an event, not simply having your logo featured on the program. Real trust builds life-affirming relationships and work that contributes to an irresistible movement. Trusting relationships require openness to facilitate trust on both sides. Being in right relationship with the movement makes the funding you allocate more strategic and effective.
- Be curious and open. Recognize that even in times of crisis or urgency, it is not helpful for funders to come with a predetermined strategy. Instead, take the time to listen, trust what people on the ground are telling you, and trust the strategies of the movement. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
- Trust the vehicles the movement is building to create space for groups to strategize. Don’t recreate the vehicles.
- Assess your readiness to organize with movement organizations. Funders lacking self-awareness, cultural competency, and a deep commitment to learning—and to acting on what they learn—risk wasting everyone’s time.
- Find your people, build relationships, and organize with them, including movement partners. Partner with them not just as grantees but also as key thinkers, strategists, and shapers of your work.
- Understand your relationship to power (including but not limited to money decisions) and what you can move, both within your institution and in the philanthropic ecosystem. Be transparent about this!
- Learn from and with others in similar positions and across class. If you are a trustee of a family foundation, work with others in similar positions. Make presentations and build relationships with each other’s teams or boards.
- Find your lane and role in the ecosystem. No one can do everything. A culture of abundance means having the confidence that other people are going to find and fill the other lanes. Pick a particular geography or type of entity or sector. Build strong relationships and support your area well. Cultivate other funding partnerships to expand the pot and the types of support for that part of the ecosystem.
- Rather than being reactive, fund for the long-haul systemic and just transition that this moment calls for.
Not surprisingly, these conclusions are not far off from the invitation from the Climate Justice Alliance to philanthropy to cultivate practices to help build the powerful grassroots movements we depend on to protect the life support systems of the planet.
Chorus is one of a growing number of foundations that has modeled an approach to working with grantees that requires that they show up as fully human, which is rare in philanthropy. This means being vulnerable, taking risks, owning mistakes, pitching in, listening more than many funders have done in the past, remaining transparent around power and money, and showing a willingness to organize others. We who have organized with Chorus would love to be in a world where more funders showed up in the same way––a world where movement groups and funders hold open trusting relationships that enable us all to learn, adapt, and move more seamlessly toward a just transition.
Source : SSIR