An Evolving Regional Funder Focuses in on Rivers

the verde river in arizona. photo:  Tim Roberts Photography/shutterstock

the verde river in arizona. photo:  Tim Roberts Photography/shutterstock

Freshwater issues have been a growing concern in philanthropy, with funders taking on a range of problems and solutions, from drought to stormwater. One example of this issue's complexity can be seen in the grantmaking of even a single funder, which has an interest in rivers, but in two very different geographies. 

The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust is almost certainly the only philanthropy that divides up giving between Arizona and Indiana, the namesake and donor’s two home states. While the environment has always been one of a few key issues for Pulliam, the foundation has been honing its giving in the past couple of years, supporting water and river conservation in these very distinct regions. 

Related: "Change From the Bottom Up." A Funder Looks to Build Support for Watershed Protection

While in Arizona, the focus is on water management related to scarcity, and the Verde River, in Indiana it’s about the polluted White River and its relationship to neighboring Indianapolis. The latter was recently the focus of a $4.9 million pool of funds, spread across three years and nine nonprofits, for a variety of projects to restore the river and engage nearby residents in caring for it. 

The White River, like a lot of Midwestern waters, has experienced high levels of pollution due to industrial waste and agricultural runoff, and in 1999 drew national attention when 4.6 million fish were killed as a result of contamination from an auto parts factory. Many cleanup efforts followed the incident, but the White River still has a long way to go. 

The grants will support a mix of work that includes water quality monitoring and research, reducing runoff from coal ash and fertilizer, infrastructure improvements, as well as educational programming and efforts to encourage recreation on and appreciation of the river. That last part has echoes of the strategy we’ve seen from William Penn Foundation, which focuses on building local reverence for the Delaware River watershed.

This is a large grant for Pulliam, and a big commitment to one strategic focus, which is the result of a recent refining of the foundation’s programming, according to one recent profile

Related: Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust: Arizona Grants

The foundation has been around since 1998, formed after the death of Nina Mason Pulliam, journalist and newspaper publisher. While the funder supports helping people in need and community work, Pulliam was devoted to the environment and animals in her lifetime, so that interest is carried on through the trust. After President Gene D’Adamo took over in 2014, the foundation underwent a program review, sticking with the key interests, but making its environmental giving more targeted. 

Part of that has been a big emphasis on environmental journalism in Indianapolis and Phoenix. The other big focus has been water issues, in particular, rivers. 

Staff at the foundation have said the timing of the adjustment has to do with experience the foundation has gained since it formed, but also the development of environmental groups in the region. There’s certainly a lot happening in freshwater conservation all over the country, and Pulliam’s one of a number of foundations looking to orchestrate collaborative work on this weighty topic. 

Related: "Extremes Are Becoming the Norm." Why Water is the Next Big Issue For Philanthropy