The People Closest to the Problem Hold the Solutions: Investing in Grassroots Climate Justice Philanthropy

Sunday November 15, 2020

By Meredith Miller Vostrejs


In 2019 only 2% of the $730 billion in overall philanthropic giving was allocated to climate change mitigation, primarily for sustainable energy (Climate Works Funding Trends 2020 Report). When we talk about funding climate change, the conversation often turns to initiatives like reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuels that require large-scale investments and public-private sector engagement. Yet what about the communities affected by climate change? Where do our Peace Corps host country communities and partners we lived and worked with – and often those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – fit into this philanthropic landscape?

Unfortunately, too often, they don’t. An even smaller fraction of climate change philanthropic giving reaches grassroots groups and social movements. This is surprising given that climate change is a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing inequalities, and the communities most impacted often have the least resources to adapt. Local solutions are also critical to sustainable mitigation and adaptation. Grassroots voices, insights, and experiences are rarely present at the decision-making table – let alone recipients of climate change funding.

One exception to the philanthropy status quo is The Global Fund for Women, led by RPCV Latanya Mapp Frett (Lesotho 1994-1996). The Global Fund for Women is committed to movements for gender justice and supports shifting power and resources into the hands of community leaders, many in the Global South, who are most impacted by the issues they seek to address. They view the struggle for women’s rights and gender justice as inextricably linked to that of environmental justice, citing UN figures that indicate 80% of people displaced by climate change are women and that women farmers who produce the majority of food in developing countries own less than 20% of the land.


The struggle for women’s rights and gender justice

is inextricably linked to that of environmental justice.


The purpose of Global Fund for Women’s Climate Justice initiative is the promotion of rural and indigenous women’s leadership in the face of the global climate crisis. Since 2017, they have granted over $2 million to 44 organizations in 13 countries. Their climate justice portfolio takes a holistic approach in supporting movements and collective action for gender justice with focus areas on: food, land, and agriculture; women human rights defenders who are under threat as they fight to protect their land and natural resources; the right to live in healthy environments and to address exploitation and harm done by extractive industries; and climate change induced crises. Working in solidarity with their grantees, they provide core, multi-year support and ground their partnerships in trust-based philanthropy.

During a recent webinar, Global Fund for Women CEO Frett was asked about how best to address climate resiliency. She replied, “We have to lift up voices, women farmers and girls who are carrying water miles every evening…we have to look at the various constituencies affected…To effect big change, we have to support little changes at the community level to turn the tide.”


“To effect big change, we have to support little changes 

at the community level to turn the tide.”

-Latanya Mapp Frett, CEO, Global Fund for Women & RPCV Lesotho 1994-96


Another RPCV, Sara Ferree, is Global Fund for Women’s Director of Philanthropic Partnerships. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica from 2003-2005, working on environmental education in schools. When asked how Peace Corps has influenced her career trajectory, Ferree recalled a story she heard when she arrived at her site about a previous volunteer who started a mushroom farm. “The community walked me out to the back of the school yard to show me a falling down building that was part of the project. That building stood until a hurricane came and destroyed it during my second year. I held this in my mind throughout Peace Corps and my career, where I’ve been committed to supporting projects, organizations, and collective efforts led by those closest to the issues and the solutions. When we think of sustainability, I think of the importance of local creation, leadership, and ownership. I need to support and stay out of the way.”


“I think of the importance of local creation, leadership, and ownership. 

I need to support and stay out of the way.”

-Sara Ferree, Director of Philanthropic Partnerships & RPCV Jamaica 2003-2005


This sentiment, investing in local leadership and trusting community partners, is imbued in the way Global Fund for Women conducts its business. As Ferree explained, “We provide general support funding because we believe they [local partners] know best what to do with limited funds, and they will shift and pivot to address the most critical needs in their community…The people closest to the problem hold the solutions.”

When it comes to climate change, investing in locally led, long-term efforts for systemic change may be the exception, but many Peace Corps Volunteers agree it should increasingly become the norm.


A women’s group in Tanzania. Photo by Mark Tuschman, for Global Fund for Women

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