Spitfire Strategies

Connecting Foundations with Diverse Voices of the Environmental Movement

Midy Aponte

By Midy Aponte
Senior Vice President

As a communication strategist who specializes in system-building, with a long history in public interest work and grassroots organizing, I suffer from a condition I describe as Connector Syndrome.

My Connector Syndrome is defined as: having a lot of information about really great work that a lot of different people are doing; combined with a strong desire to connect the people doing the great work with each other for the purpose of moving everyone’s agenda forward. Boom. Sounds easy, right?earthday

Not so fast.

Friday is Earth Day. People everywhere will be doing great things to bring attention to a variety of topics: greenhouse gasses, carbon emissions and climate change; air toxics and pesticides; causation of health disparities among underrepresented populations due to environmental pollutants.

Earth Day may present a perfect intersection for all groups and people working on the environment. It’s likely that several large foundations may seek out diverse community groups to amplify their message to specific target audiences. Those community groups may seek to break through the noise and leverage today to bring attention to their own issues, hoping to catch an NGO’s eye in the process.

The impetus to this delicate dance stems from Green 2.0’s report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations and Government Agencies.” We also can trace the roots to the Ford Foundation’s move to a new impact investing model, which seeks first to understand what grantees need, and then provide grants to amplify grantee impact.

Though diversification in the environmental movement is evolving, there is much room to accelerate progress. My Connector Syndrome often is impaired when sidebar conversations about groups end up cueing unfortunate misinformation and misunderstandings about one another, like:

  • We understand there are new groups coming into this work, but we’ve been fighting this fight a long time and we’ve always done it this way. Wait, we’ve been working this space for decades. We just talk about things differently; and WE do it THIS way.
  • They asked us to do X, Y, Z for free. We asked if we can apply for a grant, but they said their budget is limited. Really? We only need to do X, Y, Z in this specific area so we can show these data sets to our funders.
  • We already have a diverse ambassador on the issue. Why should we consider this other organization? They only reach out to the same people. Meanwhile there’s potential to do so much more, if only they broadened their outreach.

As someone of a diverse background who has been on both sides of the
table, this is when my connector smiley face turns into a frown. Thankfully, Spitfire’s philosophy on cultivating relationships is grounded on tapping into emotions, as well as exercising intellect, when engaging with groups of all types to move the needle on social change. This philosophy is anchored in understanding the values and barriers of your intended audience, as follows:

  • Know what your audience cares about. What makes them tick and what type of experience do they have? It’s important to acknowledge their values.
  • Understand what prevents your audience from taking action. Identify what is interrupting their engagement. Then seek to overcome their barriers through smart communication.

With this in mind, the following are some considerations when establishing relationships with diverse organizations doing really great things in the environmental space.

  1. Many diverse community organizations are entirely self-founded. That’s founded, not funded. Many diverse leaders in the nonprofit space have opted to forgo the established structure of a large NGO in favor of creating their own organization. These leaders come from all types of backgrounds: they’re lawyers, authors, educators, lobbyists and business owners. Diverse leaders at the helm of their own organizations pave a more authentic and culturally relevant approach when bringing attention to particular issues. They also draw deeper connectivity and loyalty from members, followers and constituents who value, admire and celebrate these leaders’ commitment. These folks aren’t just gutsy for starting their own thing: they’re rock stars in their own right.

Here’s a tip for engaging with founders of diverse community organizations:

>Know their professional history and work experience. A founder who comes from the policy world will have a different approach to leading an organization than someone whose work experience stems from education. Get to know them. Take them out for coffee or lunch. Try to understand why they decided to start their own thing rather than just joining something bigger. You’ll likely find what makes them tick and what their passion points are. You’ll also uncover an incredible story that can inform how your organization is best matched for future collaborations with this group.

  1. Many diverse community organizations are entirely self-funded. Revenue for these organizations often comes from small grants, and more often than not from corporate sponsorships. Small organizations may prefer not to be beholden to a corporate sponsor, but bills must be paid. This is why grants, particularly large grants, are so critical for the longevity and survival of these organizations. Further, organization leaders tend to think big. Though they may have only a few people on staff, they divide their operations just as a large NGO would: finance and accounting, governance and board of directors, communication, development and programs. This points to their ambition to grow the organization, and to make it bigger, better, stronger, more effective and credible.

Here’s a tip about asking diverse organizations to become partners, and getting through the uncomfortable funding conundrum:

>Consider your partnership with diverse community organizations a valuable investment. Provide a grant for the work you are asking them to do. There is a tendency when working with diverse groups to barter for their participation. On the receiving end it sounds something like this: My group is bigger than yours, so your participation with us will bring you visibility. Aren’t we awesome?

No. Promising to increase a diverse organization’s visibility, but not offering monetary support for that partnership, will have a fundamental and detrimental impact on the very structure and operation of that organization. You’re stretching their bandwidth beyond what they’re able to do and making them work for free. Who works for free?

Consider your partnership an investment and provide a grant for the work, not a stipend. As you prepare for your next fiscal year, begin budgeting and line-iteming grants to diverse organizations if the programs you are conceptualizing align with areas they can support. Make this a fundamental pillar of your budget planning; and then formalize the process through well-structured grant applications that outline expectations.

I love the saying, “Rising tides raise all ships.” You equip them with actual resources, they help expand the movement, and everyone benefits.

  1. Many diverse organizations work in coalitions with other diverse organizations. Together, they are very powerful. It is natural to underestimate the influence of an organization based on its size. This is not a smart approach, especially when it comes to diverse organizations. Diverse organizations, and the leaders who represent them, are well-networked influencers who can, and will, move the needle on social impact when provided with the right resources.

Here’s a tip about not underestimating the power and influence diverse organizations have in their space:

>Don’t underestimate the power and influence diverse organizations have in their space. They can be your most powerful allies. Work on your relationship as you would with any other organization. Be an active participant in their effort. Attend their meetings and conferences. Send your diversity officer and other representatives from your team. Never regard their event as a “diversity thing,” and always seek to learn from them and about them.

Diverse organizations represent millions of individuals from throughout the country: from the LGBT community to Latinos, Asians and African Americans, veterans and many other groups. The opportunity to expand work far beyond your own base is limitless.

There is an enormous amount of good work out there to conduct on behalf of the Earth. There is great potential to engage in all sorts of wonderful and mutually-beneficial partnerships with diverse organizations to move the needle on climate and the environment. In fact, the Earth is demanding it.


“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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