Named for Cervantes’ fictional knight errant, the Quixote Foundation was established in 1997 by Stuart Hanisch, a civil rights activist and documentary filmmaker who poured his family’s wealth into social causes. With a mission "to see free people in fair societies on a healthy planet," the Seattle-based foundation has been focused on progressive causes in the areas of the environment, reproductive rights, civil and human rights, and media reform.
In 2010, Quixote announced it would spend down — or, as the foundation puts it, "spend up" — its endowment by 2017. (As of year-end 2014, its assets totaled approximately $12 million.) Grants awarded in recent years have supported the Media Democracy Fund’s campaign to ensure net neutrality and the National Wildlife Federation’s diversity, inclusion, and leadership development efforts. MDF founding director Helen Brunner was awarded the Council on Foundations' 2016 Robert Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking for her work with the foundation, while NWF recently recognized it for its guidance and support with the National Conservation Organization Award.
PND spoke with June Wilson, who joined the foundation as executive director and board member in 2013, about diversity in environmental organizations and across the nonprofit sector and the foundation's "spend-up" process.
Philanthropy News Digest: A 2014 study by Dorceta E. Taylor, a University of Michigan professor of environmental justice studies, found that minorities and people of color are underrepresented on the staffs of environmental organizations. Since then, fellowship programs and other efforts have been launched to address the gap. What is behind the lack of diversity in the field, and why is it imperative for the field to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?
June Wilson: The report lays out some of the issues behind the lack of diversity in the field very well, such as the lack of cross-race and -class collaboration, as well as employment/recruitment practices. And I think looking at DEI in the environmental movement is imperative because those who are most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change are communities of color and poor communities. Hurricane Katrina is one of the most obvious examples: Katrina affected the entire city of New Orleans, but the communities that suffered the worst impacts, those whose residents couldn’t come back because they lacked the resources, those whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed, were mostly black communities.
We put so much effort and resources into conservation policies and encouraging people to access the outdoors and the natural environment, and those benefits are meant to be shared by all, so engaging communities of color in the environmental movement is imperative.
PND: Quixote has invested in the National Wildlife Federation's commitment to improving DEI in its internal and external practices through training and leadership development. Can you describe the foundation’s work with NWF — what opportunities did you see in the chance to work with the federation, and what are some of the successful outcomes of that work?
JW: NWF is one of the few grantees we've worked with on a consistent basis since the foundation was created. We talked about our commitment to DEI efforts with NWF’s [then-director of individual philanthropy] Chris Harvey, who connected us with [then-vice president for affiliate and regional strategies] Dan Chu, who was looking at how to develop a leadership program that really could affect the leadership pipeline, increase diversity, and educate staff internally about issues around structural racism, equity, and inclusion. So it just felt like a win-win: there was someone at NWF saying, "This is important for this organization," and we were saying, "We want to champion this." In 2010, we funded the Leader to Leader program for NWF staff with a three-year grant, and Dan felt it was important to frontload the grant to maximize its impact in terms of increasing understanding within the organization's leadership.
Our investment was pretty significant, and we could see how the program and related trainings and workshops were beginning to have some impact at the individual level. But at the end of the grant period, in 2013, we hadn’t seen a lot of change at the organizational level in terms of executive-level leadership transitions and capacity. So, even though we didn't give them an additional grant, for the last two and a half years we've been in conversation with the team there about their work around DEI and continued commitment to ensuring that it is sustained. [Associate director for the Pacific] Les Welsh, who was part of the Leader to Leader program and is truly committed to that work, brought board members and Collin O'Mara, NWF's new president and CEO, into the conversation, and it's been remarkable to see how constant engagement and investment in our relationship with the grantee beyond the grant is enabling the long-term impact we seek, including the implementation of new policies to diversify the organization’s leadership pyramid and a lot of interest on the part of key members of the board.