A medium-sized family foundation with big ambitions like the Surdna Foundation has a couple of options when it comes to focusing its resources. It can go deep in a particular geography, or it can hammer down on some key strategies.
For Surdna’s environment program, that focus is uniquely all about infrastructure, including sustainable and equitable water infrastructure in American cities, ranging from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The foundation’s been a key funder in the push for green infrastructure and urban water management since around 2013, giving out around $8.7 million to date, according to its grants database. Its subprogram is focused on some important locations, but grants have gone all over the country, and toward developing national resources and best practices in the field.
While ocean conservation is a real juggernaut in green funding circles, freshwater management has also emerged as a major philanthropic issue in response to the ongoing Flint water crisis, drought in the American West, and flooding related to intense storms and other consequences of climate change.
Of course, philanthropy has a long history of bankrolling water projects overseas. It's been striking to watch the United States emerge as a locus for such funding, although the issues are quite different—and, in many places, present intriguing opportunities. As cities are responding to more runoff pollution, aging water systems, and federal stormwater regulations, all with tight budgets, some funders are trying to steer away from dirty pipes and gutters in favor of “green infrastructure,” like parks and landscaping features that can absorb water in place.
So Surnda, under Sustainable Environments Program Director Helen Chin, supports community engagement in these decisions, and water infrastructure projects that can counter poverty and create local benefits. The foundation seeks to build up capacity and innovation in the overall field, while backing actual infrastructure projects in cities and metro areas.
The foundation has backed a bunch of national groups like the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Climate Interactive to work on best practices and tools for establishing green infrastructure. Local funding is spread around, with grants going to big cities like Los Angeles and New York, but there’s also a lot of interesting work being funded in Pennsylvania and Louisiana.