The Green Environment Fund: Exiting a Field

Since its inception, Keren Karev, the Israel-based branch of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, recognized the potential force of the grassroots environmental groups in Israel. In 1996, Israel director Janet Aviad and CFO Ehud Afek presented to the Board about intentionally entering the environment funding landscape. This was an area where the challenge was formidable and where few foundations were active.

Local and national NGOs were emerging to spread awareness about environmental issues and sought to influence the policies of industries, municipalities, and the national government. Keren Karev wanted to join the movement by prioritizing funding to these organizations, as well as to schools in Israel for environmental education. We launched the Sheli Fund in 1997, in collaboration with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, to support hundreds of grassroots environmental activists and local ventures seeking bottom-up change. At the time, the chances of success for the Sheli Fund were believed to be very high because there was an overwhelming need for small, focused, capacity building grants.

The initial idea was to fund the major environmental NGOs – such as Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) as a major legal force and SPNI: Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel as a conservation specialist – but also to support grassroots environmental initiatives, on the assumption that only by supporting civil society organizations could the Israeli government mobilize on this issue. Building a strong civil movement, the Fund thought, would enable the organizations to deal with future threats and promote a sustainable future for Israel.

The number of environment-focused NGOs in Israel increased from fewer than five in 1990 to 72 organizations in 2000. This unique timing when environmental civic society was growing and philanthropic funding was increasing resulted in this “baby booming era” of national environmental groups.

The Green Environment Fund (GEF) was launched in 2001 with Keren Karev, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Dorot Foundation, and New Israel Fund, and later joined by the Morningstar Foundation and the Samuel Sebba Trust. Keren Karev provided back-office support for GEF, including office space in Jerusalem and financial support as partners.

The two most important learnings from GEF were the importance of having a dynamic strategy and recognizing the opportunity for collective impact. When it was created, GEF looked at what was happening in the environmental field in Israel more strategically to find gaps and determine the opportunities that philanthropy could provide. It already had learned that philanthropy could be a catalyst for organized initiatives, but what emerged was that philanthropy could also be a discrete convener of organizations working in the same space. What was clear was the need for top-down and bottom-up approaches organizing the local grassroots activists and providing capacity building, while allocating funding to national environmental organizations.

Even though most of GEF’s funding partners had some experience working in the environmental field, and they had professionalism and logic, most of them did not have the strategy and mission to sustain the work alone. There was this amazing synergy between the fact that there was finally funding for the environmental field and that there were so many passionate groups with an agenda. It worked because the field was ripe for this type of work. GEF was an example of a partnership promoting partnerships.

As a funder, GEF was successful in calling in additional funders to help convene the movement, an asset to all grantees who could not have otherwise received a variety of funding. When NGOs proposed similar programs, it was GEF that would encourage them to collaborate. There was no branding; the support was discrete. Each foundation had the confidence to put their egos aside and focus on the development of a strong, united coalition.

The announcement of ACBP’s spend down after 14 years pointed to a sustainability challenge: with the bulk of back end support and coalition organizing stemming from the Keren Karev office, GEF would need both replacement funding and replacement operational support. Although the spend down was communicated early, adequate replacements were not found and so GEF, too, announced its exit from the field. 

While GEF’s closing might have posed challenging to the future of the environmental movement in Israel, the core objectives of the Fund were achieved. A sophisticated social environmental movement emerged that engaged many partners to think strategically and cooperatively, raised national awareness and developed a dialogue and partnership with the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

At a recent farewell event in Israel for Keren Karev, I commented to Charles and my former colleagues how amazing it was that they had faith in me to lead the coalition together with our partners. It was a privilege to gain collective wisdom from our funding partners and now participate in building a social environmental field in Israel’s civil society. In the 14 years of GEF, we recognized and supported a shift in many of the issues; from conservation activism to social environmental change and sustainability. We left the scene having improved environmental awareness in Israel to the extent that now the majority of people are thinking more critically about the issues to protect the future of the land.

The environmental movement in Israel is continuing to develop and shift. There is broad environmental awareness, and it has mainstreamed and entered many other areas of life from education to business. The level of environmental awareness in the government has increased, but the government is still far from implementing deep changes to ensure a sustainable future.

Local and national government in Israel have the opportunity to make environmental initiatives a priority, with help from private funding – some from new, and some from existing funders in this space. There is ongoing need to support this field, especially in these times of rapid development of such a small country. The first step can be to educate funders about the opportunities in Israel. One recent example is the newly published Jewish Funders Network (JFN) Greenbook: Funding Environmental Stewardship in Israel, which could be a jumping off point for the next iteration of environmental funding in Israel. 

This is the twenty-sixth post in the "Making Change by Spending Down" series, produced in partnership by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and GrantCraft. Please contribute your comments on each post and discuss the series on twitter using #spenddown. See related content below for more posts in this series.