We began to think in terms of establishing a dialogue with other funders. So I decided to go to the annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in October, 1994 to sound out the American foundations. The EGA is a subset of the American foundations that each have an active environmental program as part of their policy objectives. My original idea was to form an international foundation that would support the further development of the ecovillage movement. However, I was in for some surprises that forced me to rethink the entire strategy.
My first surprise was how little international support was coming out of the USA from the EGA. Almost 80% of the foundations had restrictions in their charters that limited them to funding American projects only. Those that did some international funding often had a narrow regional or sector program. That pretty much scuttled the idea of an international foundation.
A second observation was that they were in a period of crisis. They were being criticized and obviously hurt by the Wise Use movement – a right-wing property-rights movement, which accused the environmental movement of being out of touch with the common man, sitting in their ivory towers at the academic institutions. The Wise Use movement had taken over the environmentalists’ grass roots organizing talents and were “kicking our ass”, as Dave Foreman (founder of Earth First!) bluntly put it. In truth, I had to agree with some of the criticism. They badly needed a new, more positive, vision.
I felt that support for the ecovillage movement would be an ideal response, and said so at every opportunity. It could promote a positive vision of sustainability that was very much on-the-ground, and provide an effective counter attack that was not just a defensive move, but put forth a new vision. But the idea met with very little understanding or sympathy, a response that I have since met many times from people working in the traditional funding environment of foundations, governments, World Bank, etc. They do not yet appreciate the potential for real change in this movement. Mainstream funders tend to think top-down, large scale, and sectorially, where our strategy is a more holistic, bottom-up, organic approach. There is a clear clash of cultures and approaches here.
My experience is that you get the most bang for the buck supporting with small amounts of money, people who have already demonstrated an ability to complete a successful, small project. Then let the amounts grow as the person grows. I have also observed that the best money is often given to support meetings between people, for networking. Many of the best people working on the ground can simply not afford to travel. But this point does not seem to register with many funders. Their traditional approach shuns both of these lessons. Several of the EGA members said it was directly against their policy to support meetings. Ironically, the one foundation officer that supported my view was also the only one that was a former grass roots activist. She agreed that financing meetings was the single most important thing for the grass roots.
My final surprise was the lack of coordination between the grantmaking activities and the investment activities in the American foundations. Except in the very smallest foundations, the two functions were managed completely separately, often in different cities. I pointed out that their investments were often supporting the very things that their environmental grants were fighting against – much the same argument as we used in the Rainbow Bank project. I outlined our policy in Gaia Trust which was to invest, through subsidiary Gaia Tech, in companies that were supporting the same vision as the grantmaking activity. If they allocated just 10% of their investments in the same way, it could have a tremendous impact, as their investments funds are in the trillions of dollars. There was very limited understanding of this argument also, as it went against the grain of their traditional way of thinking. There was, however, a small minority that was thinking along similar lines and intended to push the issue to the forefront of their future agenda.