Nathan Cummings Foundation on Enviromental Innovation

Lance.jpg I was fortunate enough to get some phone time earlier this week with Lance Lindblom, the President and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Peter Teague, the Foundation’s Program Director of Environment and Contemplative Practice.

First, in reference to Mr. Lindblom’s initial question at the Drum Major Institute event we covered in this space last week (which gave rise to my curiosity): the Cummings Foundation has been dedicating a lot of their time to the causes that the Port project represents. Much like the Drum Major Institute, they are always looking for policy that works, and the foundation has an impressive track record of growing the seeds that they find out there into big trees.

The discussion also gave me a lot more background on the L.A. project, and on the community organizations that helped bring it to fruition. One thing that we didn’t get a lot of information on at the DMI event was the early groundwork laid by groups like Liberty Hill. As Mr. Lindblom noted, they present an interesting model for philanthropy: one centered around community organization, and direct feedback from their donors. Both Liberty Hill and the Cummings Foundation are interested in advancing ideas of social justice, and every aspect of the L.A. ports proposal was weighed against possible effects on the community and chances to advance social concerns, as well as the potential environmental gains.

It’s always nice to be able to paint with a wide brush when one is looking to give money, and it's exciting for me to be able to report on the ever widening brush being used to paint the economy green. Groups like the Apollo Alliance are working to bring all sorts of social activists to the table so that the lines between environmental activism, community based activism and social justice activism all begin to disappear.

The Cummings Foundation hasn’t only been supporting and organizing with the crews from L.A. Rather, they’ve been working with cities all over the U.S. to advance large scale green projects that also focus on social justice. Piecemeal progress has been made in many different places. In Milwaukee, this city is trying to design a plan to finance retro-fitting of buildings while also getting a solid financial payback on the project. In Chicago, groups are trying to turn every roof in the city green. And close to home for me, there is Bloomberg’s exciting PLANYC 2030 initiative. (Which, unfortunately, seems to have hit a little Hiccup on the whole congestion pricing thing) There were plenty more examples, but I've already written too much here!

Now we come to most interesting point in the discussion for me, and the one most relevant to the discerning donor. What role does philanthropy play in all these cool projects? Well, Mr. Lindblom envisions organizations like his as the stewards of information: keeping track of what has (and has not) worked around the country and the world, and helping organizations consider the wide range of information in the green field. As was pointed out (I believe by Peter Teague, though it was difficult to be sure over the phone) during the conversation, no one has the correct answers to the question of what will work in a green economy, so an open discussion of mistakes and failures is just as valuable as a catalogue of things that work.

Over the last few years, America has been building what amounts to a quilt of environmental solutions - with plenty more to come. Only, right now, we don’t know how the pieces fit together. The most exciting thing I can imagine would be PhilanthroSourcing each city, town, and project to create a single flexible pattern of how to convert segments of energy policy, economy, and society in one dramatic motion. It’s the job of groups like the Cummings Foundation to work on that scale, and it’s the jobs of people like us to support them in realizing it.

Alan Smith

Posted at 1:00 AM, Oct 23, 2008 in Cross-Sectoral Strategies | Economic Development | Environment | Philanthropic Strategy | Technology | Permalink | Comment