In 1996 four New England foundations met to examine environmental priorities in New England. Their conclusion was:
“for the New England environmental movement to succeed, the New England environmental movement must project a broad and compelling vision that will persuade large numbers of people that they are stakeholders in the formidable effort to build a sustainable future. This effort must begin at the local level. If environmental protection is imposed upon people, we will surely fail. But if it is accomplished with, for, and because of people, we may succeed…”
The participating funders recognized their limits – not enough staff resources, extensive grant application processes that neither reached nor attracted local level community groups to their foundations and the inability to fund emerging, ad hoc groups. In order to extend and fine tune their philanthropic efforts a different kind of funding structure was needed to offer proactive, professional grantmaking, skills-building and networking opportunities to support the needs of emerging volunteer-based organizations and leaders. The New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Inc. (Grassroots Fund) was created and remains a non-endowed public foundation, raising and distributing its funds each year focused on the local level - reaching across issues and across state boundaries, breaking across issue silos and offering network support to local New England initiatives.
In 2016 the Grassroots Fund, alongside grantees and community partners, drafted a set of Guiding Values that have served as a transformative north star for all the organization’s planning and program implementation since. These Guiding Values challenge the organization to commit to equity as a core value and to co-create alongside on-the-ground groups as we seek practices and processes that allow for the participation of a broad range of ‘lived experiences’ (based on race/ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, age, etc.). The Fund believes that when communities have such agency and equity in participation, they are more likely to resist injustice and create lasting environmental change. The Grassroots Fund remains committed to moving resources to frontline organizers and shifting power in decision-making to those most impacted by the work. We are committed to ensuring deep representation throughout our grantmaking programs and convenings.
The Grassroots Fund is uniquely set up to support innovation at the local-level along with our strategic partners. We directly support nimble and efficient volunteer efforts across New England. 60-65% of our applicant groups do not have formal tax-exempt status, nor have they gone through the intensive work to secure a fiscal sponsor. Where much of dominant philanthropy sees this as a deficit and chooses to exclude these types of groups from their programs, the Grassroots Fund sees this flexible group structure as a strength that allows organizers to flip & reverse quickly and adapt as they learn from their experiments. In close collaboration with our applicants, we are seeing transformative work that reflects local context and brings in new leaders across the region.
These innovative ad hoc groups often find it nearly impossible to secure financial support outside of the Grassroots Fund's grant programs. With well over 300 applications annually - over 2,500 grantee groups since 1996 - the Fund is in a unique position to ensure examples from across the region are amplified and serve to inspire reflection and replication. While building a community of practice of grassroots leaders, our deep grassroots grantmaking and capacity building resources serve as an effective way to extend the reach of our funding partners, helping to diffuse dollars and resources to vetted, impactful local projects, not easily supported (or even discovered) through dominant funding structures.