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Let the Frontlines Lead: Supporting Grassroots Movements for a Climate-Resilient Future

by Angie Chen, Laura García, and Doria Robinson

Philanthropy California, Environmental Grantmakers Association, and Smart Growth California organized the Grounded Action: Grassroots Movements and Climate Justice dialogue series in partnership with the CLIMA Fund in April 2021. This two-part series aimed to unpack different forms of grassroots climate action and hear from funders and movement leaders on how to support climate movements. The authors had the opportunity to share their experiences in the second dialogue of the series and get into the nitty-gritty of funding grassroots movements.

No longer can we deny the effects of climate change. Extreme heat events, sea level rise, droughts, and wildfires are affecting the health and livelihoods of communities across the state and around the world. With an increasing number of donors making commitments to fund climate action and funders looking for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts to support, we offer our experiences funding and participating in climate movements.

From Leading to Following

Many people in philanthropy have the power and resources to set the parameters around what and where to give, and prospective grantees position their projects within those confines. Grantmaking decisions are often based on who can fulfill the funder's strategic priorities. This approach serves as a limitation to holistically addressing the climate crisis. We believe those who are closest to the problem are the ones best equipped to advance the solutions. Those on the frontlines of this crisis – Indigenous Peoples, women, and farmers – already have the solutions to address climate change. Since they have been experiencing the impacts of our warming planet for decades, they are best positioned to advance inclusive and equitable solutions.

Grassroots movements have the vision and the plans to address the climate crisis in ways that address intersectional issues, from economic and gender justice to food and housing security. Yet, they are often under-resourced when it comes to implementing their plans. Grassroots climate action receives less than 1 percent of all international funding, revealing a lack of trust in the efficacy of grassroots action.

At The Libra Foundation, we have found that we can better address the root causes of the climate crisis by following the lead of grassroots movements, whether on timelines or definitions of success. In our experience, while there can be an initial discomfort in giving up some decision-making power, in the long run, the benefits of grassroots leadership far exceed the plan the foundation could have formulated for itself.

The Way Forward

There is immense value in ceding decision-making power and redefining success. So how can funders do that?

1. Resist Western models of success

Funders have an opportunity to redefine what success looks like. There is great value in having strengthened movements even if individual campaigns do not achieve measurable results. Funders can emphasize collective organizing over heroizing individual climate actors. 

From Keystone XL to Standing Rock, protests against oil pipelines created a groundswell of support for climate justice and inspired a new generation of climate activists. Even though the pipeline projects received approval, many grassroots movements find success in the transformation of climate activism in the United States. Success in climate action is more than mere technical measurements of emissions reductions. As funders expand the definitions of success, greater recognition of climate injustices and calls for accountability would also be seen as victories.

2. Examine grantmaking practices

Funders also have the opportunity to reflect and identify well intentioned, but harmful practices. There is evidence of funders holding grassroots movements to a higher standard than mainstream climate organizations, with ‘the Big Greens’ receiving a majority of climate funding. At the Global Greengrants Fund, we support grassroots groups in taking risks and experimenting. We are constantly evolving to actively shift power and provide unrestricted long-term funding to grassroots climate actors.

3. Provide holistic support

Grassroots movements are addressing the root causes of climate change, improving the material conditions of their local communities, and building resilience. To holistically support and accompany grassroots movements, funders can:

  • Support movement connectivity and act as thought partners 
  • Engage in peer organizing to shift the perceptions surrounding grassroots action
  • Be open to feedback and evolve their practice according to their grantees’ needs
  • Simplify application and reporting processes
  • Examine prevalent biases

Unequal power dynamics in society can be reflected in inequitable funding practices, which can ultimately determine what kind of climate action receives support. Philanthropy can become much more impactful when it is able to step into the discomfort of examining prevalent assumptions within our practices and cultures. They might find that their grantmaking has a greater impact when grassroots movements lead our climate response.


Angie Chen brings deep experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to her work at The Libra Foundation, with particular strengths in nurturing community and building coalitions. In her role, she leads Environmental and Climate Justice grantmaking and community engagement.

Laura García is a Mexican feminist who has advocated for human rights, social justice, and civil society throughout her career. She is the President and CEO of Global Greengrants Fund.

Doria Robinson is a 3rd generation resident of Richmond, California, and the Executive Director of Urban Tilth, and a co-founder and steering committee member of Cooperation Richmond, a worker-owned cooperative developer, and local loan fund.

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