Stories in philanthropy

Strike the match: Philanthropy’s role in supporting movements

“Move your money, go to the rally, lift up your advocacy voice and speak truth to power,” urges Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, who is in Australia for the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network’s 10th anniversary conference.

Nicole Richards, March 2018

Ellen Dorsey thinks big. As Executive Director of US-based Wallace Global Fund, she was a driving force behind the DivestInvest movement, launched in 2014, which has seen $6 trillion in combined assets divested from fossil fuels in favour of investing in climate solutions. In acknowledgement of her efforts, Dorsey received the 2016 inaugural Nelson Mandela – Graca Machel Brave Philanthropy Award.

With a mission to promote informed and engaged citizenry, fight injustice and protect the natural environment, the Wallace Global Fund, named after 1948 presidential candidate, Henry A. Wallace, works to build movements and constituencies, advocates for structural change, and helps train the social change leaders of tomorrow.

Among the chaos of delayed flights while en route to Australia to present the keynote address at the ECO:Investing – Philanthropy Energising the Green Economy conference, Ellen Dorsey shared her thoughts on the philanthropic sector’s role to support movement building with Philanthropy Australia’s Nicole Richards.


NR - Wallace Global Fund is renowned for its creative philanthropic strategies. What are the key factors for philanthropy to consider when it comes to catalysing truly transformative change?

ED - I think foundations need to see themselves as part of an ecosystem of players that are advancing social change and ideally supporting social movements.

If you only think you are making ‘grants’ then you only see one tool for one type of actor: NGOs. But if you think of yourself as part of the ecosystem of change or supporting social movements more broadly, it is easier to recognise that you have multiple tools and can support a variety of actors. In your toolbox you have your investments that can be aligned with your mission, grants, convening power, and an advocacy voice as a foundation. And you can support movements by funding leadership development, analysis, strategy planning, and direct support to a range of NGOs that are supporting the movements in diverse and complimentary ways.


Wallace Global Fund was instrumental in the development of the Divest-Invest movement, funding activities to test and support a divestment campaign as far back as 2010. Has the movement exceeded your expectations? What is the biggest misconception about Divest-Invest that you most often hear from philanthropic funders?

It has dramatically exceeded our initial expectations - you cannot predict when a match gets struck and grass roots, distributed activism explodes. You can try to support it, create new opportunities to grow it, but real movements are hydra headed, developed in a myriad of different ways by activists breathing life into the movements vision in their own ways and in their own communities. We have contributed by organising strategic convening among organisations supporting the movement and funding them directly, funding support to strengthen the capacity of activists championing divestment at universities, cities and faith groups, research to amplify the objectives of the movement, and then organising our own sector of philanthropy as a network within the larger global movement.

The biggest misconception is that moving your money out of fossil fuels and into climate solutions will be costly. Our experience shows the reverse, it has made us money and we no longer own the companies driving climate change, denying the science and lobbying our politicians into inaction.


How can philanthropy best support movement building?

If you think about a movement, you go beyond supporting only NGOs in a linear transaction from grant to recipient.

You think about all of the needs of a movement and how you can strengthen it, support its objectives, and help champion its demands, including implementing them in your own organisation!


How does WGF navigate and address the inherent power differential between nonprofits and its role as funder?

This is an age-old struggle in charity and philanthropy. I think the best way to do so is through transparency of your objectives, honesty about your process, and authenticity in walking the walk with your grantees. Move your money, go to the rally, lift-up your advocacy voice (within the boundaries of the laws governing philanthropy, of course!) and speak truth to power.


What role do you think philanthropy can, or should, play when it comes to advocacy?

You don’t have to champion candidates or specific policies to be an advocate. You can be an advocate by saying climate change is urgent and we all have a responsibility to act or say investing in women brings better results. You can use your advocacy voice and your social capital to defend your mission, broadly, and should.


Ecological collapse is one of the key trends Wallace Global Fund tries to address by building powerful new constituencies. Can you describe the kinds of activity you grant to for this purpose?

This would be voluminous as we support a range of issue from supporting divestment form fossil fuels, investment in climate solutions, advocacy for 100 per cent renewables, support of keep it in the ground movements, support for climate litigation, support for recognising the impact of climate on women, and commitment to ending energy poverty by 2030 with safe, clean and affordable energy for the billion-plus people who don’t have it today. 


Do you think philanthropy is taking enough risks? Is philanthropy being bold enough?

Risk and philanthropy rarely exist in the same sentence unless it is to caution not to take it.

When we are facing twinned global existential threats to democracy and the environment, we are not doing nearly enough that is bold, experimental or even robust enough. Why are we sitting on our assets? Our foundation just committed to doubling our grant budget and not grow our endowment one penny from last year’s market boom.


Given the turmoil generated by the current US administration, what are the issues that keep you awake at night?

Besides the apocalypse of climate change? Our democracy is captured by special interests, pitting the interests of a few against the needs and rights of the majority. We are also facing a new onslaught of racial hatred and fear. And these two things are related. We have a leader who is stoking the flames of hatred, pitting those in fear for their economic future against people with different skin colour or religion.

What allows me to have some solace is the unprecedented response - people are getting politically active who have never been active before and theirs is a pink wave of activism that is truly exhilarating. My daughter’s generation is not motivated by hatred or economic gain like those that have preceded it. So, if we can calm the storms, the horizon looks bright.


WGF has given some grants in Australia. Can you explain why WGF sees Australia as a destination for its philanthropy?

There are some really significant fossil fuel fights happening in Australia. There are projects so big and damaging that if we let them proceed, they will have irreversible impacts for the climate. Plus, you have awesome activists!


What’s one key learning from your time in philanthropy and social change that you’ll be looking to share with Australian funders during your visit?

We are privileged beyond belief to be working in philanthropy and supporting social change. 

Don’t sit on the side lines passively giving money to grantees, but see yourself as part of the equation for their success.

Run together with your grantees to solve the world’s most daunting problems and enjoy the people you work with along with way!   


Read more about the work of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network and the DivestInvest Philanthropy Guide.

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