The Family Foundation That’s Become a Hero for Fracking Opponents

Some will recognize the Park Foundation's name from the dulcet tones of public radio announcers thanking their sponsors, or possibly the millions in annual scholarships it gives at two universities. But this scrappy, upstate-New York-based foundation has earned another claim to fame in recent years, on the frontlines in the fight against fracking. 

In the past five years, the Park Foundation has given close to $6 million in grants explicitly related to gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Significant giving to the cause began in 2009, with just over half a million, and has steadily increased to around $1.8 million last year, now a dominant issue in the foundation’s water-focused environment program.

The Park Foundation is a family philanthropy led by Adelaide Gomer, daughter of the late media exec Roy H. Park. Park first found success by co-creating the Duncan Hines packaged food brand, and later built a sizable media company dealing in print, radio and television. Gomer, who is also an active donor to Democratic candidates, is the president of the Park Foundation and her daughter Alicia Wittink serves as vice president. Park granted $27 million across six main programs last year.

The foundation’s environment program has always been focused on water issues, with a particular interest in the public right versus privatization of water. But with geographic roots in North Carolina and New York, the fracking fight hit home. 

Hydraulic fracturing has exploded across the United States, creating a gold rush of fossil fuel companies setting up in communities atop deep underground natural gas deposits. The Marcellus Shale formation, spanning from New York State across Pennsylvania and into Ohio and West Virginia, has been a major hotspot for drilling, and opposition from environmentalists. New York is one of few states to pass a moratorium pending more research.

Park has become one of the more dedicated and staunch opponents of fracking—citing threats to water supply, environmental health and clean energy development—while some other funders are either hedging on the subject, tolerating it, or even supporting it. In some states, a ban is far from political reality, and even some environmentalists are walking softly on the issue. 

Not the Park Foundation. They’re after a straight-up ban, and it’s landed them some attention. Fracking supporters have criticized the amount granted on the issue as special interest funding, perhaps overlooking the fact that the oil and gas lobby regularly outspends environmental groups many, many times over. Fracking opponents have hailed Park as a champion, with Common Cause honoring Gomer for her work.

For Park, however, it’s a continuation of their program to protect clean water, with an emphasis on New York and North Carolina. Park’s giving on the subject goes primarily toward public policy, with a mix of grassroots organizing, research on the impacts of fracking, and public education. They also fund media projects on fracking to a lesser extent, and some corporate campaigns.

The foundation’s larger anti-fracking grantees include: 

  • Sustainable Markets Foundation, a climate and anti-fracking outfit with no Internet presence but a healthy budget, has received about $767,000 since 2009.
  • Food & Water Watch, a membership-based environmental advocate, has received more than $400,000 toward a New Yorkers Against Fracking coalition.
  • Prominent researchers on the environmental effects of fracking at Duke University and Cornell have received nearly half a million in combined funding. 

Park is a small place, but it's better staffed than a lot of family foundations its size, and, most notably, its Executive Director, Jon Jensen, is a veteran of environmental philanthropy. Jensen spent 14 years at the George Gund Foundation, which has a strong environmental program (we wrote about it here) and is deeply involved in the kind of local and regional environmental fights that Park is taking on with fracking. In a much earlier life, Jensen spent nearly five years as Executive Director of the Wildlife Preservation Trust International. (See IP's full profile of Jensen here.)

Learn more about Park Foundation’s funding here, and see its grant guidelines here.