Just two years after it was founded in 1974, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation was funding projects that addressed environmental issues in New Jersey, and its only two leaders both have had strong connections to the environmental movement. Founding president Scott McVay was well known for his work with whales, while the foundation's current president, David Grant, was an environmental educator who, with his wife, founded the Mountain School, an independent semester program of Milton Academy that provides high school juniors with the opportunity to live and work on an organic farm in rural Vermont. Recently, PND spoke with Grant about the history of the foundation's Environment program, its approach to grantmaking in the environment area, and what the foundation is doing to make itself a greener organization.
Philanthropy News Digest: What is the history of the environmental program at the Dodge Foundation, and how has it evolved over the years?
David Grant: Our environmental program was established in 1976 — though not under that name — and the types of issues we have funded in this area have remained remarkably consistent since then. Several of what we called "Public Issues" or "Critical Issues" then would be called environmental issues today. For instance, we made a grant early on through the Critical Issues program to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and if you look at some of our other early grant recipients, such as the Trust for Public Land and the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission, it's clear that New Jersey land-use decisions were going to be crucial to us. They remain so today.
Dodge has always taken a portfolio approach, bringing together specific challenges — conservation of natural resources, ecosystem health, and community development issues, for example — with a real concern for how people understand those issues. We realize that every issue is related to every other issue, and our grantmaking reflects that approach, in that it focuses not only on open space and ecosystem protection but also on the environmental health of New Jersey's cities. We support the "widening of the tent" of environmentalism. For instance, a group called Greenfaith in New Brunswick has been challenging communities of worship to be better stewards of God's creation. As a result, all over the state you're seeing more solar panels on the roofs of churches, synagogues, and mosques — an example of the broadening of the base of support for these issues and of people beginning to move beyond the concept of the environment to the larger concept of sustainability. New Jersey is a crowded place, but it's also full of innovative people doing really exciting work.
PND: Does the foundation fund environmental programs nationally or only in New Jersey?
DG: We are a midsize regional foundation with a primary focus on our home state. But our grantmaking has always been a blend of national and local funding, especially when the expertise of a national group can boost our work closer to home. For instance, we funded the Environmental Defense Fund to assist the New Jersey Highlands Council with the development of a Transfer of Development Rights program as part of the council's Regional Master Plan. We also just awarded a major grant to the Trust for Public Land for a Parks for People program they're doing in Newark. And we fund organizations like the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, which has done pioneering work on energy issues, and Island Press, whose publications really elevate the level of public understanding of land use and environmental issues.
In addition, our local grantees frequently tell us they would like to develop working relationships with national groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, or EMS/Science Communication Network, which works to explain tough, environmental science issues to the general public. In those cases, we try to help by making the introductions or otherwise support a system where groups can work together.
PND: While most people would measure the success of land preservation by the number of acres protected, the Dodge Foundation has supported a different approach that measures the protected land's value to the community. Can you explain your approach and what it means in practical terms?
DG: In the absence of a conscious assessment process, people tend to measure things that can be measured easily — acres and dollars. But the land trust movement is interested in the health of local communities, which in turn tend to be interested in concepts like fairness and justice. Those concepts matter to us, too. For that reason, we support the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont, and I personally have been involved in helping them design an assessment tool called Whole Measures that puts more of a focus on values that matter a lot but are hard to measure. The tool has been featured at land trust rallies around the country and has come to the attention of thousands of people, many of whom have used it to influence the debate over public lands nationwide. If our grantees are interested in using Whole Measures, we send them to Vermont to get trained at the source. In fact, recently we sent sixteen New Jersey environmental leaders up there for a week-long training session. Back home, they're now working together and reinforcing for one another the idea that if you try to measure what really matters, you can change things on the ground. In practical terms, this means building relationships between groups that otherwise might be adversarial, or might not know, understand, or trust each other. The theme of the Center for Whole Communities is "No one can win unless the whole is successful."
PND: What is the Dodge Foundation doing to address climate change?
DG: Rather than make grants to international climate change initiatives, we tend to focus on our own behavior by living our values and by promoting climate-conscious behavior among our grantees and other foundations. Our only grant that specifically addressed climate change was a research grant to Michael Oppenheimer at Princeton, who oversaw a study about climate change and future sea level rise and how it is likely to affect New Jersey. Beyond that, we support the efforts of local governments and land trusts to go green, underscoring the link between land preservation, education about sustainability, and climate protection.
PND: Closer to home, what is the foundation doing to make itself and its own operations greener?
DG: There's already quite a buzz about the new green building we're moving into this fall. We believe it will be designated LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council, and we're particularly excited about our "bio-wall," a three-story interior wall of living plants that will filter the air for the whole building.
We've also created a Green Committee at the foundation that reviews our practices at work and maintains a Green Toolbox on our Web site. Because our program staff is always on the road making site visits, we created an incentive five years ago to help employees buy hybrid cars. Today, nine of us are driving Toyota Priuses or Honda Civic hybrids.
Other climate-conscious actions we've taken include committing to meet a hundred percent of our electricity needs with wind-generated power purchased from the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm. And we've incorporated elements of green event planning into the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival, including printing all materials on recycled paper, establishing on-site recycling, and providing ride-share opportunities and free shuttles to and from events. In addition, at our Technical Assistance Workshops for grantees, which we hold frequently, we use biodegradable food service items, and we strive to serve local foods to emphasize that an important part of being green is supporting your local food economy.
Finally, regarding computers, instead of having individual hard drives at every desk, we have "thin clients" that connect users to a central computer and use a fraction of the electricity. We've also invested in technology that allows us to work remotely, so on days when staffers need to write up site visits or make phone calls, they don't have to drive to the office.
All of these things are good — not only for the earth but also for people, because they reinforce the notion of community, the idea that we're all in this together. Climate change may be the most dramatic of our long-term challenges, but it's hard for me to imagine solving this or any other significant environmental or social problem unless we can come together more effectively in this age of fragmentation.
— Alice Garrard