16 Ways Environmental Funders Can Effectively Advance J.E.D.I.

Steps to J.E.D.I. Progress

Steps to J.E.D.I. Progress

Hi J.E.D.I.s, I want to sincerely apologize for not publishing any recent blog posts. I have been immersed in writing a 100-plus-page report on how funders can most effectively support J.E.D.I. capacity building in the environmental movement. The good news is that the report includes plenty of great material that will be relevant to funders and everyone involved in J.E.D.I. work. A huge thank you to all of the people who responded to the report interviews and surveys with honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Their profound insights contributed to a robust and multi-layered report. Deep transformation is coming. Thanks to them and to you. I would like to share a few powerful quotes:

We have a lot of work to do to evolve our organizational culture—we are a very "white" office, and our leadership, myself very much included, are culturally very "white" in ways that I think make racial equity work harder, and make our workplace less welcoming for people of color. We have begun to acknowledge and grapple with that challenge, but we have a long way to go. ~ DEI point person

Most [DEI capacity building] programs instituted fail to get input or be developed by the most vulnerable or impacted in an organization. ~ Staff member of color 

DEI organizational development is a years-long process, take it one strategic step at a time. It should shake the very foundation of your organization's approach; otherwise, you're probably holding back. ~ Staff member of color

[DEI work] has to be broader and more meaningful than numbers… [We] make Inclusion the first and most important target of our efforts. Too often, numbers amount to window dressing, or even worse, “tokenism.” ~ Staff member of color 

I heard my son's preschool teacher say the other day, that there are many right ways to do something. I'm trying to embrace that. I'm behind the preschoolers... ~ DEI point person 

Currently, the report is in the design phase. While we wait for the release later this month, I want to give you all a sneak peek by sharing the executive summary. 

You’ll notice in the report that I use the acronym DEI, which was the term I used before I launched J.E.D.I. Heart this past spring. The first phase of the report research began about a year ago. Also, if you want to receive a copy of the final report make sure to subscribe to the blog email list.



Transforming a Movement: How foundations can support effective diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) capacity building efforts in environmental organizations

Executive Summary

A growing number of environmental organizations and foundations are investing more time, money, and energy in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) capacity building activities than ever before. They are realizing that DEI enhances their mission, creates a higher-performing organization, provides them relevance in a rapidly changing world, and leads to deeper relationships and more successful work with the staunchest supporters of environmental protection—people of color (Fery et al. 2018, Metz and Weigel 2009, and many others). Often these organizations (and the funders who support them) view their launch of DEI capacity building efforts as a success in and of itself, without asking if these efforts are effective.

This report provides a guide to how funders and others can support and advance effective DEI efforts in the environmental movement. It analyzes how seven funders are supporting DEI capacity building and how 43 staff of color and 24 DEI point people (staff who have a core role in coordinating, managing, and leading DEI capacity building efforts) view and experience different DEI capacity building approaches within their organizations. Our research revealed a clear need for long-term investment of effective DEI capacity building practices that especially focus on “the how”; address and remedy root issues (such as white dominant culture and institutional racism); create an inclusive culture; and center the experiences of staff of color.

For this report, we defined DEI capacity building as: “Any effort, initiative, or activity adopted for the purpose of effectively advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion at the organization. These could be internal or foundational elements. Examples of DEI capacity building activities include (but are not limited to), DEI focused trainings, leadership development programs, plans/strategies, assessments, organizational statements, visioning, coaching, and committees.”

Funders are critical players in the DEI space not only because they provide needed resources, but also because they influence the direction of the environmental movement. This report draws on lessons learned and wisdom gained from staff who lead current DEI capacity building grantmaking programs in environmental philanthropy. It also shares the experiences of and insights from staff of color, those who often feel the impact of DEI efforts—positive or negative—first and most. The report explores if DEI capacity building is improving, maintaining, or worsening the experience of staff of color, and what specifically contributes to that outcome. Staff of color experiences can serve as valuable barometers for determining the effectiveness of internal racial and ethnic DEI capacity building activities. Lastly, this research includes the perspective from DEI point people—staff who are uniquely positioned to recognize the nuances of DEI challenges and opportunities since they work at the hub of DEI capacity building efforts.


The Funder section is organized around grantmaking practices of established DEI capacity building grantmaking programs—how the program is structured and designed and how these funders are supporting DEI efforts in environmental organizations. The research provides insights into how to establish effective DEI capacity building grantmaking programs; how to improve current programs; and what, whom, and how to fund. Grantmaking practices discussed include focusing on long-term change, hiring an external thought partner, building internal DEI capacity at the foundation, growing and partnering with grantees, assessing readiness for DEI work, and providing additional funding for people-of-color-led groups and justice-focused organizations working on environmental issues.


Staff of Color and DEI Point People

The research in the Staff of Color and DEI Point People sections is organized differently than the Funder section. We identify metathemes and themes—topics or issues that multiple people mentioned—that emerged through the survey responses to questions about what is and is not working well, regarding DEI capacity building efforts within their organizations. The Staff of Color section includes a special focus on their experiences. Names of survey respondents were kept confidential, which allowed for frank, unfiltered, and deeply informative responses. Illustrative quotes and other qualitative data are provided. Each section concludes with insights for funders to consider.

Metathemes and themes of significance from these sections include:

  • The Staff of Color Experience: Inconsistent Inclusion & Enduring Exclusion: Our research reveals that DEI capacity building activities do not guarantee consistent positive impact for staff of color. Approximately 86% of staff of color reported experiences of being valued and supported, while at the same time—and in the same setting—experiencing marginalization and exclusion in various ways, both subtle and overt. While moments of inclusion occur, the exposure to exclusion remains. This is a serious issue, as these traumatic experiences engender deep wounds and may be root causes for staff of color leaving environmental organizations. Shifting to consistent inclusion will require DEI growth, culture change, and transformation.

  • Transformation, White Dominant Culture, and Culture Change: The metatheme (Transformation) and themes (White Dominant Culture and Culture Change) are discussed together because of their interconnectedness. Staff of color and DEI point people desire deep, high-impact change work that addresses root issues (such as white dominant culture, institutional racism, and white privilege) and actively shifts to an inclusive culture of trust, support, openness, acceptance, respect, authenticity, kindness, curiosity, and vulnerability. Culture change is the essence of transformation, and addressing white dominant culture requires deep soul-searching work (both individually and organizationally). Organizations need to adopt a change management process to support this shift. In order to evolve through culture change, an organization cannot just be committed to the idea of change. It must understand how to shift from white dominant culture to an inclusive culture.

  • The How: Staff of color and DEI point people reported that the quality of the staff of color experience and the effectiveness of the DEI effort are more important than the actual DEI activity. “The how” focuses on quality rather than quantity and is the essence of DEI transformation. How an organization does the work is more important than what they do. For example, DEI Point people ranked, in order, trainings, hiring, and ongoing learning activities as the most effective and, also in the same ranked order, the least effective DEI capacity building activities. The difference was in how the activities were executed. For instance, all staff trainings are effective, and trainings that do not provide tools to apply learning to action are ineffective. Staff of color addressed the importance of “the how” when they shared the ways in which successful (and not-so-successful) approaches to DEI affected their experiences and the organization’s overall DEI capacity building efforts.

  • DEI Beginners:  Many of the environmental organizations and foundations featured in this report are in the early stages of DEI growth (although some may not recognize this). DEI Beginners are organizations at the early stages of DEI work regardless of the length of time they have been engaged in DEI capacity building. These early stages are often the most challenging because of the difficulty of making measurable progress amid a shift to new systems, structures, approaches, practices, and mindsets. Survey respondents describe several early-stage characteristics: resistance or defensiveness from staff and leaders; not prioritizing DEI; the need to collectively raise awareness; centering on “the what” rather than “the how”; and a workplace culture that has not yet integrated DEI behaviors and approaches. While this report features several examples of organizational growth, these DEI Beginners still struggle to have dependable resources and sufficient capacity, systems, culture, and approaches to maintain the work and consistently achieve positive DEI outcomes. The beginner stage is a necessary phase because it is during this time when organizations establish a foundation and path forward, adjust the organizational mindset, and prepare for the journey ahead. It is also a critical time to invest resources, and a critical time to ensure resources are being invested well.

The metathemes and themes led to more than 15 major insights for funders, which can be found at the end of the Staff of Color and DEI Point People sections. Noteworthy insights for funders to consider in their DEI capacity building grantmaking include:

  • Support people of color networks since they are critical for staff of color to survive and thrive and foundational for all DEI work.

  • Build relationships directly with staff of color and create communication pathways to receive unfiltered feedback since staff of color experiences serve as “DEI barometers.”

  • Support DEI capacity building that focuses on “the how,” transformation, and culture change.

  • Invest in transformational racial equity trainings for all staff and board.

  • Provide opportunities for organizational leaders to develop and grow their DEI knowledge, skills, and competency that is needed to effectively lead an organization committed to DEI.

  • Provide adequate and consistent resources to environmental organizations over a long time period to support the DEI change process.

  • Support readiness for organizations embarking or advancing on their DEI journeys since many are in the DEI Beginner phase.

16 Recommendations for Funders

Below we provide guidelines to funders on how to set up a DEI capacity building grantmaking program at their foundation and recommend what to fund to support effective DEI capacity building efforts in individual organizations and across the environmental movement. (We also include recommendations specifically for staff of color, DEI point people, and staff leaders in section VII of the report.)

Grantmaking Guidelines

  • Wisely invest significant funds and for the long term. DEI change work does not occur in one-year grant cycles and requires sustained, wise investments in effective, high impact, and transformative DEI work over many years.

  • Develop a guiding vison/goal and a “why” statement to guide your DEI capacity building investments. The statement will clarify why DEI is important to your foundation’s overall vision and mission, and the vision/goal will support your grantmaking approach.

  • Hire an external thought partner. The thought partner can provide crucial support and wisdom for the effective development, implementation, and troubleshooting of the program.

  • Be patient and commit to a growth mindset (for yourselves and your grantees). Consider developing a long-term strategy (5-10 years) that includes a vision, a change process, time for reflection (to assess lessons learned and adjust as needed), and deliberate funding strategies at varying growth stages.

  • Partner with staff of color and grantees. Co-create a DEI capacity building grantmaking program with grantees (and other environmental organizations within the region served) and staff of color from these organizations. Gather information to gauge interest in and build support for DEI capacity building and to shape a program relevant to its users. Intentionally build relationships based on trust and safety, especially with staff of color, to create an atmosphere that encourages frank feedback.

  • Support organizations that are authentically committed to transformation. Funding the approaches and efforts recommended in this report will support transformation: follow “the how”; shift from a white dominant culture to an inclusive culture; listen to and follow the advice of staff of color; learn about and address institutional and systemic racism; leaders grow their DEI competency; and all of the staff and board members do this work and grow together.

  • Add support for people-of-color-led/justice-focused groups working on environmental issues. All funders interviewed also provided funds to groups that are led by people of color or that focus on justice, which was a top funder recommendation. These groups are currently the most effective at achieving both racial equity and environmental outcomes, whereas many mainstream environmental groups will not achieve consistent and high-impact racial equity outcomes until they reach a more advanced DEI stage. Building DEI capacity to reach this advanced stage takes time.

  • Build DEI capacity at your foundation. To reap the same benefits for doing DEI work as your grantees, you and your colleagues at your foundation must be deeply introspective about your own DEI journey—humbly understanding your own current state of DEI competency and being honest with yourselves about how much work you need to do to achieve your own DEI transformation. A shared experience of learning and growing together with grantees promotes authenticity, integrity, and a mutual appreciation for the importance of DEI capacity building and the need to do it well.

How to Support Individual Organizations

  • Support effective, ongoing trainings for all staff and board members, especially leaders. Focus on personal development, deep transformation, and racial equity that addresses white dominant culture and institutional and systemic racism. 

  • Hire DEI consultants and staff that can guide and implement report recommendations and insights. For example, they can facilitate racial equity trainings, guide change management, and co-develop new organizational systems and structures that support the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion and that do not reinforce white dominant culture. DEI consultants and dedicated DEI staff can teach, guide, and coach staff and board members and, when used discerningly, can expedite DEI progress.

  • Support readiness work to prepare organizations beginning the DEI journey. It is important to set organizations and staff up for success and on the right footing from the beginning, focusing on high impact change work that addresses root issues. This readiness work should include all staff and board racial equity trainings and making the case for DEI.

How to Support the Environmental Movement

  • Support people of color networks.  Doing so would support the retention, survival, and success of staff of color and provide a solid foundation for all DEI work in this sector.

  • Support readiness across the environmental movement for organizations embarking on their DEI journeys. Provide a space for leaders and DEI change agents from several organizations to learn about racial equity and organizational change management together and participate in facilitated discussions about why DEI is important to each of their missions. These activities will help build awareness and commitment and equip change agents and leaders with knowledge, skills, and approaches to more effectively advance DEI at their organization. 

  • Support learning cohorts for organizational leaders. To effectively lead an organization committed to DEI, leaders must continue to increase their DEI aptitude. To support this growth, funders should create sustained learning and support cohorts comprised of leaders from multiple organizations.

  • Support the development of a staff of color cultural assessment. Since the experiences of staff of color are the barometers for the effectiveness of DEI work, evaluating these experiences over time can provide critical information about effective DEI practices and approaches and the environmental movement’s growth.

  • Produce a report (or report series) of case studies about organizations sharing how DEI capacity building is adding value to their mission and making them a better organization. This report could motivate and inspire others to do DEI capacity building and dispel the myth that DEI is mission drift, which commonly blocks DEI progress.

If the environmental movement is to become truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive, we must be “all in.” Committing all that we have now—time, funding, people, brainpower, and heart—will ensure a stable and sustainable foundation for future generations, especially in our future when people of color are a majority of the U.S. population. Transformation calls for fearless commitment, utilizing our collective power to achieve this evolution.  It will require the wise investment of an unprecedented amount of resources.  If we are focused and fearless in our efforts, we will realize the promise of DEI and, through doing so, achieve an unparalleled level of success in protecting a flourishing, healthy, and sustainable planet.


Now that you have read the executive summary, what are you curious to learn more about? What resonated with you? What do you think about the findings and recommendations?



References Cited

Fery P, Kobayashi N, Speiser M, Lake C, Voss J. (2018). American Climate Metrics Survey: April 2018. Demographics in Focus: Latinos and African Americans. Washington, DC: ecoAmerica and Lake Research Partners. 

Metz D, Weigel L. (2009 October 6) Key Findings from National Voter Survey on Conservation Among Voters of Color [Memorandum]. Los Angeles, CA:  Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. 


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