May 10, 2021

What We’re Learning

In a blog posted after we began sheltering-in-place last year, I wrote about the opportunity for personal and organizational learning, and the way in which new approaches could be adopted and unproductive ones left behind. While the challenges kept coming through the year, I am grateful to my Foundation colleagues, who have worked together with dedication to support our grantee partners and to learn and grow. Our whole team is grateful to those partners for their commitment and passion, under the most difficult of circumstances.

Over the last year, the entire Foundation team, our staff and our trustees, have been engaging in two important efforts—the first a planned triennial review of our programs and the second a deep, facilitated diversity, equity, and inclusivity journey, working with Yavilah McCoy and her colleague, Michael Allison. This work has been synergistic and reinforcing. It reflects our commitment to learning and evolving as a foundation—which starts with the recognition that learning never stops.

Three cross-cutting themes emerged from our engagement with each other in the midst of a year that underscored how institutional racism is ingrained, persistent, and often weaponized: how we embed equity in our core work, think about the whole systems we’re seeking to shift, and support movements. Each of these inter-related ideas is, to us, a critical part of how change is made equitably and inclusively. Together, they represent important areas of increased focus resulting from greater clarity about the way we should apply our values and learning to our work and program goals.

First, the Foundation’s vision—by acting now and boldly, we can create a world where people and nature thrive together—can only be realized in an equitable and just world. Across our programs, we’re centering people in that equation, and we are elevating diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our strategies and our operations. You will hear directly from our program teams in blogs over the coming weeks about what this specifically looks like across our work in water, environmental education, and climate.

Second, we’re deepening our efforts to see and account in our strategies for the whole systems that need to shift to meet the goals we share with our partners. In the areas we work—and importantly, across them and beyond—what are the set of factors that are propelling the change our grantee partners seek? We invite full and open conversations that lay open the range of actions and interventions we need today.

Third, one manifestation of this approach is our increasing support for strong fields, movements, and long-term power building to ensure comprehensive and durable change. Our Foundation’s early years focused grantmaking largely on policy work, in part because of real opportunity across the federal policy landscape between 2012 and 2016, and in part because that’s what we knew best.

But a good policy concept without power often amounts to little more than an interesting idea. To keep up with the pace and scale of change, its essential to support the infrastructure for movements, since these investments can provide the tools and nurture the relationships that enable people and organizations to work together effectively. This isn’t just a nice idea; it is an instrumental one. No one organization alone, or even a few, can address the environmental and justice challenges that are mounting.

Of course, these themes themselves connect, even though I have described each of them individually.  And so too are there real and meaningful connections between what we fund and our practices, how we show up outside our walls, and how we work together as a Foundation team. You’ll see blogs over the course of the year that share our learning and evolution in these areas too, including how we make grants to how we partner with grantees.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote that one thing we can take from this moment is a deeper resolve, reinforced now in our lived experience, that apparently fixed objects aren’t always. Big systems can change—and we seek to be part of efforts to move them. The work our team has done over the last year toward this vision is far from finished, but already our grantmaking is evolving to support more movement backbone organizations, organizations rooted in and led by frontline communities, and voices offering important and critical insights on the way forward. We will keep you posted and seek your feedback as we support our partners, existing and new, who are doing the work now that will shape our collective experience tomorrow.