Trust-Based Philanthropy Is the Key to a Just Transition

Photo Courtesy of Native Renewables.

After finishing college, Janell was looking for a way to use her business administration degree to do something beneficial for her Diné (Navajo) community. She stuck with what she knew and worked in the fast food, hospitality and educational services industries in a border town of the Navajo Nation. But she couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to do more. In 2021, she saw a social media post from an organization with a name that attracted her attention. 

Native Renewables Inc. (NRI) is an Indigenous-women-led nonprofit, which trains and employs local technicians to install solar power systems across Diné (Navajo) and Hopi territory. NRI was formed in response to Indigenous communities being left behind in the transition to renewable energy. Over the past seven years, the organization has installed more than 60 solar power systems and trained dozens of people through its workforce development program. 

Janell liked the idea of learning to install solar to help Indigenous people become more energy-independent, so she signed up for Native Renewable Inc.’s workforce training program. 

While organizations like NRI spearhead grassroots efforts to democratize energy access across the country, in Washington D.C., leaders have primarily focused on expanding utility-scale and industry-centered initiatives. Last year, Congress passed the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), allocating a half-trillion dollars in spending and tax incentives, with a major focus on reducing carbon emissions and expanding renewable energy access. 

One of the centerpieces of the Biden administration’s agenda, the IRA extends existing tax credits for solar and other green energy, invests in the clean energy workforce development pipeline, and directly supports low-income areas and other “energy communities,” including through a $7 billion EPA grant program to expand zero-emission technologies like solar. While we applaud the EPA’s grant program for solar and other renewables, most community-based and grassroots organizations lack the internal resources and external networks to apply for, access and manage direct federal funding.

To fill gaps in federal funding and ensure that all communities can benefit from the transition to renewable energy, trust-based philanthropic institutions have a key role to play. For small, community-centered organizations like NRI to scale, they need investment from donors who trust their expertise, support their ambition and won’t overburden their staff teams with red tape.

Trust-based philanthropic grantmaking needs to be an essential component of the investment strategy for any institution serious about advancing a just and equitable transition to renewable energy. This isn't only an opportunity to mitigate climate change; it’s a vital opportunity to reinvest resources and power into communities that have historically borne the brunt of economically and environmentally extractive industry. 

Since 2021, the Honnold Foundation has partnered with NRI to expand their work and invest in leadership and organizational development. As one of a very few intermediary funders focused on renewable energy access in marginalized communities, the Honnold Foundation works alongside grassroots and community-based organizations that want to use solar energy solutions to improve the wellbeing of their communities, fostering sustainable, positive impacts for people and the planet. 

The Honnold Foundation’s approach is based on the understanding that communities best know their own needs, and recognizes that to effectively partner with communities, it’s essential to address longstanding gaps in philanthropic support for grassroots resource access and movement building. The Honnold Foundation has committed over $700,000 to NRI over the past three years, expanding its solar installations and workforce development program, and investing in its leadership team through the Levine Impact Lab.

Native Renewables Inc. envisions a near future when all homes on Navajo and Hopi land are electrified with renewable energy so that families and communities can be self-sufficient and resilient. And NRI’s understanding of resilience extends beyond just access to electrification: The organization’s workforce development program has opened up technical career paths, enabling young people like Janell to stay close to home and better provide for themselves and their families. For Janell, this work is also part of ensuring that her culture thrives far into the future, sharing that “this job gives me even more pride in being a Diné woman.” 

With Climate Week around the corner and philanthropy, business, government and civil society convening, we need more than just conversations about building community climate resilience. Climate and clean energy funders must put marginalized communities at the center of the movement to develop a new energy paradigm, seeding and scaling solutions that are equitable, culturally relevant and environmentally sustainable. The need for investment in community renewable energy access is only growing. We must rapidly mobilize more trust-based philanthropic resources to fill gaps in IRA funding, invest in the solutions and vision of grassroots communities, and accelerate the just transition to renewable energy.

Dr. Suzanne Singer is executive director and co-founder of Native Renewables Inc. Emily Teitsworth is executive director of the Honnold Foundation.