Why Trusting Grassroots Leaders to Allocate Rapid Response Dollars After Climate Disasters Is Smart Philanthropy
In the wake of major climate disasters in Puerto Rico and Alaska, the Environmental Justice Resourcing Collective (EJRC) at the Kataly Foundation awarded $257,000 in rapid response funding to nine groups in both areas. The grassroots leaders of the EJRC were entrusted by the Foundation to distribute resources based on their deep knowledge and expertise of conditions on the ground.
The EJRC is composed of nine women of color leaders in the climate and environmental justice movement, who are compensated for their ongoing work as grantmaking advisors. In close collaboration with Enei Begaye, based in Alaska, and Tania Rosario-Mendez, based in Puerto Rico, the group collectively decided how to direct resources both from the EJRC grantmaking budget and other Kataly programs to support critical disaster relief for these affected communities.
The perspective of EJRC leaders provided invaluable insight that led to the Foundation allocating rapid response resources to these areas at this moment. In particular, the close and ongoing relationship between Begaye, fellow EJRC leaders, and Kataly team members alerted us to the sheer scale of the crisis in Alaska, which has received little media coverage or philanthropic response.
The communities impacted by Typhoon Merbok, which reshaped the western coastline, are small, remote, and mostly Alaska Native. Many of these coastal communities are accessible only by plane or boat. Fishing and hunting locally remains the prominent food sources for many in these communities. “In many communities, such as Nome, many families lost their seasonal coastal homes, the places where they work to put food away for the rest of the year, those cabins are completely gone,” said Enei Begaye, Executive Director of Native Movement. “Freezers and storages with the year’s harvest are gone.” With winter so near, the urgency to rebuild or relocate is dire.
In Puerto Rico, Rosario-Mendez pointed out the importance of three types disaster funding, an insight that is instructive for donors and foundations responding to climate disasters wherever they occur: 1) basic needs and immediate relief (water, shelter, etc.), 2) targeted follow up relief after on the ground organizations have fully assessed critical needs, and 3) infrastructure for visibility and communications. The latter, she notes, may seem unrelated but is essential: “The initial FEMA map of impacted areas left out scores of municipalities that have need. It took us 48 hours to correct that — to force them to amend the map. You cannot do that if you are not visible.”
Rosario-Mendez helped guide the EJRC to direct resources to seven groups in Puerto Rico, including: The Maria Fund, which has pivoted the conversation about disaster relief into just recovery; Coordinadora Paz para la Mujer, a coalition against domestic violence and sexual assault that has raised the issue of victim’s safety in emergency scenarios; and IDEBAJO, a coalition of organizations advocating for clean energy and protecting the coastline.
One of the challenges with rapid response grantmaking is that in order for foundations to effectively redistribute resources where they are most needed, they need to quickly and deeply understand the conditions communities are facing. That knowledge lies with grassroots leaders. The relationship between Kataly and the EJRC leaders is based in trust, rather than being extractive or transactional, which means they can identify when funds are needed, how much should be moved, and they have the agency to decide where funds should be deployed.
“Grantmaking led by people who are doing work on the ground and who work in service of social movements allows for resource redistribution that prioritizes long-term, systemic change,” said Nwamaka Agbo, CEO of the Kataly Foundation and Managing Director of the Restorative Economies Fund. “Even when carrying out rapid response funding, grassroots leaders have an eye towards meeting short-term needs, while also building the long-term infrastructure that will transform systems and protect vulnerable communities in the future.”
Kataly invites donors and foundations to join us in directing resources to these organizations: