Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

I spent last weekend in Charleston, WV, with my daughter, her husband and my two grandsons. They’re doing well. The same can’t be said about the state where they live.

Nearly one in five people living in WV fall below the poverty line, which is $23,834 for a family of four. The percentage of children living in foster care is higher than in any other state. WV has the second highest rate adult obesity rate in the US, behind Louisiana. WV is also plagued by “a drug crisis that is ravaging our state and has left us with the highest overdose rate in the nation,” says Carol Casto, the U.S. attorney for WV’s southern district. My son-in-law, a federal prosecutor, recently helped extract a guilty plea from a doctor who admitted that he wrote over 370 oxycodone prescriptions totaling 22,255 pain pills in a single day. Unbelievable.

Rural whites in WV are hurting, in part because of thedeep decline of the coal industry. Their pain, as well as their anger, helps explain why Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the popular vote (68.6%) in West Virginia than in any other state. Coal country in WV, Kentucky and Pennsylvania went heavily for Trump, who connected with coal miners and factory workers. Urban elites, by contrast, ignore poor white Americans, or regard them with scorn.

Big Philanthropy has been part of the problem. Many foundations that were attuned to racial injustice, or the climate crisis, or global health paid little attention to coal country or to other parts of the South. According to studies from Grantmakers for Southern Progress, grant-making by 1,000 of the country’s largest foundations between 2010 and 2014 averaged $41 per capita in the Alabama Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, compared with a national average of $451. I haven’t found comparable data for WV or KY, but I’d bet the results would be similar.

Thankfully, that’s changing. Foundations big (Bloomberg, MacArthur) and small are turning their attention to what’s called a just transition–that is, a transition from fossil fuels to a clean-energy economy that does not leave workers and communities behind. Corporate foundations could help, too, by supporting economic development or even helping people move out of declining communities to find work.

Just transition isn’t a new idea. More than two decades ago, labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, an executive with the oil, chemical and atomic workers union, wrote: “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.”

In the current issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, I’ve got a story [paywall] about a small foundation called the Chorus Foundation, led by Farhad Ebrahimi, a 39-year-old heir to a family tech fortune. The story says that, unlike mainstream philanthropy, Ebrahimi has chosen to work

not with Washington policy makers, corporate executives, or Wall Street investors but with grass-roots organizers in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, the wilds of Alaska, and the working-class precincts of Richmond, Calif., and Buffalo, N.Y. His ultimate goal is to help build a climate movement from the bottom up — one that delivers economic justice and invigorates democracy while saving the planet.

“We’re in a populist moment,” Mr. Ebrahimi says. “Trump’s approach was right-wing populism. It was about nostalgia and scapegoating. Ours is a progressive populism that’s about real democracy and inclusivity.”

Chorus is an exemplary grant-maker. It makes long-term commitments (10 years!) to its grantees, provides general operating support and intends to spend down its endowment by 2024.

Like Farhad, I was impressed by what I learned about the just transition movement while reporting the story. In Kentucky, for example, Chorus supports the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), a community-development finance institution, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grass-roots advocacy group, as well as the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that, among other things, inspired the John Grisham novel Gray Mountain. “The Kentucky nonprofits envision a new, diversified economy built on clean energy, energy efficiency, local food systems, tourism, and environmental remediation, among other things,” my story says. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which is based in Winston Salem, NC, has also been an early and important supporter of just-transition work in Appalachia. [Please consider subscribing to The Chronicle to support journalism about philanthropy.]

Some much bigger foundations are dipping their toes into just-transition arena. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Philanthropies has granted $80m over the years to support Sierra Club campaigns to shut down coal-fired power plants; last month, the foundation said it will grant $3m to three organizations building new economies in coal communities. They are the Coalfield Development Corporation, which works in southern West Virginia; the Just Transition Fund, a collaborative effort of the Appalachia Funders Network and Rockefeller Family Fund that works  with activists, government officials and funders across the country; and the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a network of grassroots groups in coalfield communities in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado.

While most of the money in the latest round of climate and energy grants from the MacArthur Foundation flows to the usual suspects, MacArthur also made a $1m donation to the Partnership for Southern Equity, which focuses on social justice as well as climate change, as Tate Williams reported at Inside Philanthropy. The Atlanta-based group says on its website:  “In order to truly re-balance the political, economic and social balances of power, change must come from and be led by communities themselves.”

A role for business

Some responsibility for a just transition also lies with business, argues Leo Raudys, a former environmental regulator and Best Buy executive who has begun talking with companies about the transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. The decline of coal country creates a variety of business risks, he argues, not least because anger against environmentalists and regulators has helped elect federal and state politicians, including our president, who want to do little or nothing about climate change.

“Companies have created great wealth and prosperity, in part due to decades of cheap coal,” Raudys recently wrote in GreenBiz. “They’re also reaping the benefits of more recent policies and subsidies that have allowed renewables to flourish to a point where they are cheap and reliable sources of energy.” Those companies owe a debt to those who have been left behind, Raudys says.

So, arguably, do the rest of us.

One thought on “Philanthropy, coal country and a just transition

  1. Chuck Palmer says:

    Great piece, Marc. There needs to be a strong political commitment that when market forces decimate an industry and an area, it is government’s responsibility to step in and figure out what policies need to be implemented to help those people affected. However, the current climate in the ascendant Republican federal government is that less government is better. And Trump feeding them a fantasy that less regulations will bring back their jobs is a cruel hoax. And so the social costs of our government’s neglect are but one of the bitter prices to pay.


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