Opinion
October 17, 2016

How Foundations Can Stay Relevant in the Age of Networks

Across our economy, our society, and our democracy, networks of all sorts are reshaping traditional institutions. Uber and Airbnb radically transformed the taxi and hotel industries in a few short years. Both major political parties have been transformed by outsider candidates engaging large, previously untapped networks in just one election cycle. As smartphone cameras bring to light a long history of police brutality in communities of color, activists have been using social media to put racist, violent policing at the forefront of the national debate in a way that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Or consider the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a grass-roots group forged in the early 2000s in the fight over the Black Mesa Mine in northeastern Arizona.

Jobs have always been hard to come by in the Navajo and Hopi communities in this high-desert region, one possible reason tribal leaders agreed in the mid-1960s to allow mining by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company. To transport the coal, though, Peabody began drawing up to 3 million gallons of water a day from the Navajo aquifer — the only source of drinking water in the vicinity — to mix with ground-up coal, creating a toxic slurry that was pumped by pipeline to a power station hundreds of miles away.

Ten years ago, the mine was shut down, in large part because the Navajo Nation stopped the slurry pipeline, and in 2010 Peabody’s permit for the Black Mesa Mine was revoked. Today there is hope that these local communities, in which some people still lack running water and electricity, will no longer have to choose between employment and health.

A key contributor to that hope is Black Mesa Water Coalition. Its organizers dream of a "just transition" from coal to solar and wind energy. This approach, which is growing more popular among social-change activists, requires all solutions to climate change to focus not just on the environment but also on social justice, labor protections, and human rights. They are working in tandem with indigenous communities and other allies to reshape the local economy in ways that reflect tribal values and traditions and a vision for a prosperous, clean-energy future.

Networks have always been at the heart of the coalition’s strategy. Its connections to national and international amalgams like the Our Power Campaign, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the New Economy Coalition have been critical to a string of recent successes. The same goes for the coalition’s alliance with tribal leaders and groups from across Indian country campaigning to protect the environment and project a new energy vision by protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The coalition continues to promote and develop solar projects on Black Mesa, and it worked with the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative branch of the tribal government, to pass unprecedented green-economy measures. The coalition and its allies are using just-transition strategies to fuel a clean-energy revolution that has the capacity to transform the way we power all our communities.

Economic and Environmental Good

At my organization, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, we continue to refine our investment strategies to stay relevant in this rapidly changing, "you are what you’re connected to" world. And we want to have a conversation — a kind of call and response — with leaders in philanthropy about how we’re doing it.

From where I sit, the question is whether philanthropic institutions see this new era of connectivity and shifting power relations as a path toward change and transformation or a threat to traditional grant-making models. How are we shaping our investments to make an impact that reverberate beyond the traditional financial bottom line? If the Navajo Nation can successfully transition from coal to clean energy alongside a network of other tribes and allies, what does it mean for the American economy? For public health? What can philanthropy do to move the needle?

Groups we support, like the Black Mesa Water Coalition, exist in economic and social networks. At Noyes, we have a long history of connecting economic and social systems, beginning in the 1990s with shareholder activism to help our environmental-justice grantees battle corporations and continuing through our current work using the concept of just transition.

As my family always told me, "Dime con quien andas, diré quién eres" — "Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are." A connection to the movements we fund is at the heart of the Noyes foundation’s grant making and programs. That longstanding commitment to the communities in which we invest is reflected in the foundation’s decision last year to hire me, a Chicano community organizer and former grantee, as president.

Endowment Shift

Noyes already uses a range of tools, including impact funds and community investing, to use 100 percent of our assets to promote our values. Now we want to push deeper. We want to explore how shifting part of our endowment into investments in community economies, including boosting cooperatives and other nontraditional forms of business ownership, can be a game-changing way to bring philanthropy into the age of networks.

As part of this push, Noyes recently announced an open call for letters of interest from investment advisers. We want to gather knowledge about advisers and firms active in the fields of sustainable, responsible, and impact investments and find partners to advance our own strategy for mission-aligned investing.

Noyes wants to be on the ground floor of using philanthropic assets to help communities thrive and achieve sustainability in a rapidly changing world. Can indigenous communities make a just transition from coal to clean energy? Can domestic workers lead the care economy? Can black, brown, and indigenous farmers mix tradition and innovation to bring healthy, organic food to our tables? Can social movements rewrite the national narrative on race?

We believe the answer to all those questions is, "Yes, we can," and we’re going to bet on it. Who’s with us?

Genaro Lopez-Rendon is president of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.