How Funders Can Work Together Towards Resilient and Equitable Systems

May 21, 2020
Sacramento River Bend Outstanding Natural Area. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.
Sacramento River Bend Outstanding Natural Area, Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management.

Cross-posted from Inside Philanthropy.

The COVID-19 crisis and the path forward make two things abundantly clear to me: 1) clean, reliable water is central to a resilient and just future, and 2) foundations must ground their work, whether they focus on an issue or place, in intersectionality, right now and forever more.

We knew before the pandemic that the things that are supposed to protect us from harm – healthcare, clean water, clean air, housing, and much more – are unacceptably fragile and inequitable. We see that even more clearly now. That reckoning must shape how we respond. We must move to new, resilient, and equitable systems, not go back to the status quo.

The next year may be the biggest opening we will see in a decade, if not a generation, to advance the basic right to water for all people and to direct a transformational level of investment toward the solutions we need for a healthy future.

To chart that better future, advances in water policy must move in partnership with advances in health, equity, justice, food, biodiversity, climate resilience, and more. These issues are all connected.

Climate change will manifest in large part through worsening floods and droughts. Irrigated crops produce a significant portion of food supply, and that irrigation accounts for 80% of our water consumption. We need flowing rivers and replenished groundwater to keep water running from our taps. Systemic racism is at the heart of inequitable access to safe and affordable water, healthy food, green places to live and play, and other determinants of individual and public health.

This is true in the Central Valley, the Great Lakes, up and down major rivers like the Colorado and the Snake, and all the other places where we and our partners work. For example, California Health Report spoke last month with Lucy Hernandez and other leaders in the San Joaquin Valley who are organizing for safe drinking water, sustainable groundwater, and community power.

Just as no one can shelter in place if they don’t have running water, no plan to fulfill the right to water is complete without ensuring the sources of that water – underground aquifers, rivers, and lakes – are protected today and for future generations. No plan that ends the injustice of “brown water for brown people,” as a water rights attorney told the New York Times last year, is right without lifting up residents’ voices and their power to hold decision-makers accountable to their health and priorities. A resilient future must tackle these issues together.

As Chet Hewitt of the Sierra Health Fund explains, “let us all commit to the creation of a new social baseline where everyone – regardless of race, economic status, or immigration status – has access to healthy food, fair wages, great schools, quality housing, health care, and clean water delivered from a tap.”

At the Water Foundation, we work with environmental groups, community-based organizations, businesses, governments, and other funders to achieve more than any one organization or sector could do alone. Funders have a particular responsibility to do better, and to work smarter, in ways that learn from this crisis.

We must reject “go it your own way” approaches, and instead coordinate and align our efforts.

The vast and urgent needs are gut-wrenching. Both time and resources are limited. We cannot afford to be duplicative in our work, or, worse, to work at cross purposes.

Funders of all sizes need to initiate real conversations about how to collaborate with each other and grantees, act with real willingness to both lead and follow, and then move quickly to action and investment.

For example, a group of nonprofits, grassroots leaders, and funders have recently formed a new initiative, Mosaic, to amplify the power of the US environmental field. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the group asked organizations working on environmental protection and healthy, just communities where they needed help the most. Based on that feedback, Mosaic launched a $1 million rapid response fund to support organizing, advocacy, and training.

In New Mexico, Tribal foundations, state foundations, public agencies, and local elected officials worked together over just a couple of weeks to launch the Native American Relief Fund. The fund is helping Pueblo and Tribal communities get food, water, medical, and other essential supplies.

We also need to lend our voices and resources to one another’s priorities.

This will require that funders and foundations step out of their comfort zones, out of their focused, strategic “lanes,” and demonstrate more flexibility in what and how we fund. In the water field, for instance, there are few foundations that support safe water, public health and river restoration, or that support renewable energy and sustainable groundwater, even though these issues directly affect one another.

Still, those divisions are narrowing. Hundreds of organizations have united to call on Congress to halt electricity, water, and broadband shutoffs and to “address the systemic issues leading to shutoffs.” In Los Angeles County, more than 310 advocacy organizations, unions, religious congregations, community groups, affordable housing developers, public interest lawyers, and many more have created Healthy LA. Together, they are advancing a cross-sector platform, including eviction protections, paid sick leave, and utility service reconnections.

Collaborating on one another’s priorities also means using our access to power. Philanthropic leaders often have access to other societal leaders. This is the time to engage those relationships to actively advocate for shared environmental and public health priorities.

We cannot go back to the way things were.

All sectors, including government, business, civic society, and especially, philanthropy, must move forward by doing things differently. More than 740 organizations have signed a pledge led by the Ford Foundation to reduce what they ask of grantees and make new grants as unrestricted as possible, among other commitments. Justice Funders continues to lead and guide the field on how to democratize power and shift economic control to communities. We are heartened by these efforts and commit to working with our funding partners to ensure we all maintain these and other new practices beyond this year.

Vu Le explained the stakes in a recent blog post: “[Philanthropy’s] underinvestment in advocacy and community organizing for years has amplified the inequity of the current moment. Do not make the same mistake again. Now is the time to significantly increase funding for systems change, not cut down on it.”

The once-in-a-generation chances I mentioned before – fulfilling the human right to water and securing a transformational investment in climate resilient water infrastructure – may be possible, but that does not mean they will be easy.

In the near term, we can make sure that people have water, no matter how much money they have, and that water systems of all sizes can keep working. Those would be no small feats, but we shouldn’t stop there.

As federal and state spending packages and new programs have moved, they have demonstrated that is fully possible for our political system to respond quickly and at scale. We can stretch the bounds of what was considered probable, whether that means creating millions of jobs that protect us against future droughts, fires, and wildfires, building green open space within a short walk for everyone, or securing a food system that cares for farmworkers, farmers, the land, and our water.

If we gather and apply our collective resources and relationships together, we can better show up as the institutions we want to be, and better serve the work needed to create a just system that values and enriches people and nature together.