On the same day as an Environmental Grantmakers Association conference in Miami last week, the Everglades Trust, which identifies itself as a "group of activists, businesses, and community leaders who are committed to protecting the Everglades," ran advertisements in the New York Times and the Miami Herald criticizing the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for listing the environment as one of its grantmaking priorities even as it maintains a controlling interest in U.S. Sugar, a major polluter of the Everglades, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports.
The Michigan-based foundation's chairman, William S. White, also chairs the board of U.S. Sugar, which Everglades advocates claim has contributed to the environmental degradation of the freshwater ecosystem. Although neither Mott nor EGA responded to questions from the Chronicle, U.S. Sugar officials said they had met with representatives of the environmental coalition a number of times and that sugar farmers had given up nearly a hundred and twenty thousand acres of land to assist with restoration efforts in the region.
Lisa Ranghelli, director of foundation assessment at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, told the Chronicle the coalition made a smart move in going public with the dispute after years of trying and failing to secure a meeting with White. "Foundations aren't accustomed to being called out in a public way — it's not part of the culture of philanthropy," said Ranghelli. "I think it's very refreshing. I hope more people feel emboldened to call out foundations when they undermine their impact with the investments they make."
Investments by foundations and colleges and universities in fossil fuel and tobacco companies, as well as their associations with sometimes-controversial donors, have drawn more scrutiny and criticism in recent years. In 2014, for example, protesters gathered outside the Seattle offices of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to urge the foundation to divest itself of its holdings in a private company that operates prisons and then returned a year later to protest the foundation's portfolio investments in major fossil fuel companies. By timing the ads during the EGA conference, Ranghelli told the Chronicle, the Everglades Trust put pressure on that group to devote more attention to the broader issue of foundations investing in companies and activities that work at cross-purposes to a foundation's grantmaking goals.
"I hope that any funder affinity group would use something like this as an opportunity to have an open conversation," said Ranghelli. "It doesn’t mean that they have to call out a peer. But they could arrange for an open conversation around the question, 'What does it mean to have investments that may work against our values and our mission?' "