Philanthropy is in the business of preventing and alleviating disasters. And plenty of those need addressing right now. A global pandemic has killed more than 120,000 Americans. The accelerating climate crisis resulted in the hottest May in history and an early start to what promises to be a catastrophic hurricane season. Then, this spring, these twin disasters converged with a simmering one: systemic racism.

Recognizing the gravity of these problems, foundations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in areas such as health research, the development of alternative-energy technologies, and support for policies that would decrease carbon emissions. But all those dollars would have a far greater impact if they were backed up by media and communications projects that raised awareness and educated the public about current and impending environmental and health crises, including their disproportionate impact on people of color.

Covering the Climate Crisis

First, the good news. Many foundations are making grants for media projects intended to address the dangers associated with climate change. Grant makers awarded $167 million in grants for a variety of environmental media projects and organizations from 2009 to 2019, according to a new report from Media Impact Funders, the organization I run. Those grants are substantial and appear to be growing. But the severity of the problem calls for a much larger investment, commensurate with the risk and the need to alert people to the catastrophe we face if we don’t take immediate action.

Such investments could help sustain more media-friendly campaigns such as Jane Fonda’s “Fire Drill Fridays” climate protests in Washington, D.C. In a recent interview with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, conducted for our organization’s Media Impact Forum, the actress-activist explained her decision to participate in the weekly acts of civil disobedience that landed Fonda and colleagues in jail numerous times late last year. “We have to behave like we are in a crisis and be moved from our comfort zone,” said Fonda. “I thought, well, I’m famous and I’m old, and if I can do this every week, people are going to take notice, and they did all around the world.”

Fonda is a big-enough media personality to create a large impact through her own social-media campaigns. On Facebook, where her Fire Drill Fridays now take place on the first Friday of each month, she has reached as many as 550,000 people, with nearly 19,000 signing up via text message for follow-up actions.

Beyond her own activism and the media coverage it sparked, Fonda argues that philanthropy needs to step up its funding of journalism, especially climate-focused media at the local and national levels. “We will lose our democracy if we don’t maintain local media,” said Fonda.

Some important environmental media projects are already underway, including Covering Climate Now, a collaboration founded by the Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, with financial support from the Schumann Media Center and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. Covering Climate Now is a coalition of news organizations working together to expand and improve environmental coverage by sharing story ideas and amplifying each other’s work. It has attracted the participation of more than 400 media partners, including the Guardian, NBC News, and PBS NewsHour.

Raising up the voices of those often left out of the environmental movement should also be a key goal of grant makers.

“For far too long, the mainstream environmental movement has largely excluded these voices, especially low-income people of color, which diminishes our collective ability to create equitable, sustainable, and lasting transformation,” writes Crystal Hayling, executive director of the Libra Foundation in our new report.

She cites grantees such as Grist and the Indigenous Environmental Network as organizations that highlight and promote the contributions of people of color, providing a more complete and inclusive picture of the environmental realities facing these populations. She calls on grant makers to “advance climate justice by supporting organizations that uplift the stories of communities on the front lines of climate change.”

The Pandemic Beat

Covid-19 media coverage is currently pervasive. But since the widespread outbreak of the virus in March, media outlets large and small have been forced to suddenly develop the expertise and resources to provide the public with informed pandemic coverage.

Before this health disaster, media stories about the potential for a global outbreak were sparse. One exception was Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s 2015 TED Talk, titled “The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready.” In it, he warned that “if anything kills over 10 million people over the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.” The warning was clear and delivered on a high-profile platform, but it went largely unheeded.

Even before Gates delivered his TED Talk, the science author David Quammen presented a more comprehensive warning in his 2012 award-winning book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Quammen traveled to wet markets where infectious viruses sometimes emerge from host species in a “spillover” event, infecting humans. He warned that the next major global pandemic would likely emerge from a bat, by way of a food market where live animals are sold — the likely cause of the current pandemic.

With greater philanthropic support for health and environmental journalism, such warnings would likely have received more coverage and the United States might have been better prepared for the coronavirus.

One of the few examples of foundation-sponsored media efforts to warn and prevent the spread of deadly viral disease did have a significant impact.

A public-health campaign created by the international wildlife-conservation advocacy group Wild Aid and funded by EJF Philanthropies urged consumers not to eat the endangered pangolin, in part because of the risk of exposure to highly infectious disease. This path-breaking campaign, which featured Chinese actor and musician Jay Chou, has helped raise awareness in China of the dangers of disease transmission through the trade in wildlife. The initial video message was created back in 2016, but it garnered newfound attention this spring following the Covid-19 outbreak, resulting in more than 20 million views. This was followed by a new round of promotions online and in print, as well as on billboards and kiosks in airports and train stations, reaching upward of 90 million viewers.

But much more needs to be done to inform and persuade the public about health and environmental disasters. To increase popular awareness and shape public debate, we need to devote the kind of resources that consumer industries spend advertising their products. In 2018 alone, the top 10 property and casualty insurance companies spent $6.7 billion on advertising to convince consumers that purchasing insurance policies would protect them from any number of potential calamities.

Philanthropy has a lot of work ahead to similarly convince the public and policy makers about the need to prepare themselves for coming health and environmental disasters. Perhaps it’s time for environmentalists to consider replacing their unofficial spokes-animal—the polar bear—with the Geico Gecko.

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on June 24. Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist. He is also a board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.