As Sea Levels Rise, This Community Funder is on the Front Lines

Realest Nature/shutterstock

Realest Nature/shutterstock

Predictions about sea level rise grow increasingly dire, and the coast of Louisiana is on one of the (receding) front lines of this slow-motion crisis. Climate change and the fossil fuel industry are among the primary causes for the loss of stable waterfront land in this state. The central community foundations here—the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation—play crucial roles in supporting coastal conservation.

Protecting the New Orleans area has historically been a major focus for both public and private funding efforts in Louisiana, at times leaving other, smaller communities competing to be recognized. This trend, in part, inspired the establishment of Bayou Community Foundation (BCF) in 2012. BCF is a locally focused funder for Terrebonne Parish, Lafourche Parish and Grand Isle. It empowers these vulnerable coastal areas to collect disaster-relief funding, make shores resilient, and support community programming during calmer times. It emerged as a donor-advised fund of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and in 2018, its cumulative grantmaking passed the $1 million mark when a record $230,000 brought the total to $1,012,270. Many of its grantees work in local coastal preservation, education, workforce development and other social services.

Funding for Climate Change and Vanishing Coasts

Funders of many stripes are involved in the growing but still insufficient response to climate change. While work to curb greenhouse gas emissions has typically taken top billing, we’re seeing more grantmaking geared toward adapting to the effects of climate change. For example, in 2014 in Louisiana, the Environmental Defense Fund, with funding from the Rockefeller, Kresge, McKnight and Walton Family Foundations, along with Shell, backed a coastal resilience challenge. At the same time, a report last year found some of the people best demonstrating what this type of resilience looks like—marginalized communities in the southern U.S.—are often overlooked by larger funders.

As the South Grows: Weathering the Storm,” a joint publication by the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and Grantmakers for Southern Progress, spotlights communities in Southern Louisiana and Eastern North Carolina that are uniting to face these threats with minimal backing from philanthropy.

Meanwhile, the coastal crisis in Louisiana becomes ever more acute. Oliver A. Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University in New Orleans, told the New York Times that the loss of coast in the state “is the largest ecological catastrophe in North America since the Dust Bowl.” Louisiana’s coastal dilemma is indeed monumental; more than 2,000 square miles have been lost since 1932, and more than an acre of wetlands now disappears about every 100 minutes. This steady loss of terra firma and the storms and oil spills of the last few decades have caused economic and social upheaval in coastal areas.

Long-term crises like the one in Louisiana clarify that climate change is an all-hands-on-deck situation. Peter Teague, vice president of the Resources Legacy Fund, which specializes in cross-sector collaboration, recently wrote a compelling argument for collective, solutions-focused action in response to climate change on IP that certainly applies here. He believes that both private and public investments will be essential, and that “the necessity of investing in public goods—in sea walls and marshlands, fortified water and sewage systems, in schools, hospitals, and roads that will have to be elevated, shored up and moved—is not a sign of market failure, but a recognition of the need for collective responsibility and leadership.”

Louisiana’s public coastal conservation funding is complex and contentious—for example, it draws from both federal offshore oil leases and lawsuits against the oil companies—and we won’t fully explore all its forms here. One notable stat that illustrates the size of the problem is that FEMA’s federal flood insurance program has paid $19.5 billion in claims in Louisiana since 1978—30 percent of the nationwide total. Louisiana created the Coastal Master Plan after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in an effort to develop more thorough planning and responsiveness. The proposal’s $50 billion price tag is double the entire state budget, and some experts say it will be outpaced by rising seas regardless.

BCF’s Multifaceted Work in Coastal Parishes

The Bayou Community Foundation has modest resources, especially considering the scope of the challenges it’s grappling with. But it plays an important role in the communities it serves. Last year, it supported Restore or Retreat’s program educating teens about career opportunities in coastal restoration. In the past, it has funded volunteer coastal plantings, estuary preservation education, wetlands awareness programs, and staffing for the Maritime Management Program at Nicholls State University. In 2018, it also backed Friends of Bayou Lafourche’s efforts to “educate residents and visitors about the importance of Bayou Lafourche in the community.”

BCF also funds human and social services to keep the parishes it serves thriving day-to-day. Recently, these include mentoring, tutoring, parent education, hunger relief, re-entry programs for incarcerated adults, free medication initiatives and counseling. Past gifts have ranged from $1,000 to $40,000, and the largest of 2018 was $15,000 to Terrebonne ARC, which serves people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, to fund the purchase of commercial kitchen equipment for its new bakery.

BCF Chairman James Leonard said the 29 recent grant awards “demonstrate the care and compassion we have for our fellow residents and our commitment to strengthening this unique place we call home.”

BCF’s steady increase in giving since 2013 could not come at a more crucial time for these communities. And it can be seen as part of a hopeful trend of increasing philanthropy in the South. As we mentioned earlier, while major climate adaptation funding is lacking in some coastal areas, overall grantmaking in the Southern U.S. is on the rise. In 2017, an industry report called "Philanthropy as the South’s Passing Gear: Fulfilling the Promise” found that during the preceding decade, the number of foundations in the South grew by 34 percent, their assets grew by 76 percent, and total giving increased by 81 percent. Louisiana, along with Arkansas and Kentucky, saw the greatest growth in assets.

The BCF grants application process for nonprofits working in the Bayou region typically runs from January into February or March—in 2019, it accepts initial grant requests through late February. Grant awards are typically announced in June—check out its site for more details.

Related: "We Get the Crumbs." How Foundations Overlook Climate-Vulnerable Communities in the South