Equity is at the Heart of Innovation in California

Brian Baer, California State Parks

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy physical, emotional, and economic toll across the globe. As devastating as it is in the moment, we must brace ourselves for the enduring impacts of this crisis, which will last long after we contain its viral growth. As with many crises, the hardest hit and the slowest to recover will be low-income communities. Through our work in the California Conservation Innovations (CCI) program, we hope we can provide support, thought partnership, and comradery as we continue to support new, ethnically diverse leaders and their important work in California’s underserved communities.

The CCI program is a multi-year effort funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that advances enduring conservation in California through new policy and funding initiatives. The “innovation” of this program, however, lies in its objective to engage and build a younger, more ethnically diverse field of leaders, organizations, and coalitions who will advocate for conservation outcomes that benefit their communities and better meet the needs of California’s changing demographics.

Nearing the end of the initial phase, we can confidently count substantial wins on the policy and funding fronts. For example, CCI grantees played a significant role in shaping and passing a $4.1 billion bond for parks, water, climate, and coastal protection that for the first time prioritized funding for underserved communities. CCI grantees also were instrumental in advancing innovative measures in Los Angeles County on transportation, parks and water; and expanding low-cost accommodations along California’s coast.

Evaluating progress on our goal of increasing constituency engagement, however, has been more challenging. In 2019, we engaged Harder and Company Community Research to do just that. The resulting evaluation includes findings about CCI’s grantmaking and partnership approach, impact of that approach on outcomes, and recommendations for RLF to consider in the future. Our team is reviewing the results and sharing lessons learned with our colleagues, board, grantees, funding partners, and other audiences. Here are three key takeaways, among many more in the full report, that we want to highlight:

1) CCI is adding value to grantees in meaningful, measurable ways. CCI supports organizations throughout the project lifecycle: developing strategies, connecting grantees to decision makers and experts, convening coalitions, and helping them follow through on implementation once policy and funding measures are approved. Harder and Company’s evaluation confirms that this approach is making an impact and that RLF is viewed as more than just a funder, but rather, as a strategic connector and thought partner. To measure impact, the evaluation team developed 16 indicators to assess grantees’ policy engagement skills, integration of environmental and conservation issues, and leadership development. Grantees reported statistically significant increases across all 16 indicators when scoring themselves before and after receiving CCI support, with an average increase of about 0.65 points on a five-point scale. While CCI is not billed as a capacity building or leadership development program, the results clearly show that our partnership approach is having a measurable impact on grantees’ capacity, specifically their ability to make a meaningful difference on conservation outcomes that benefit their communities and the state.

2) There’s room for improvement in our collaborative approach and grantmaking. The evaluation also offers RLF several recommendations to consider as we seek to be a more effective partner and funder, both for CCI and other programs. For starters, RLF is encouraged to make longer-term grants to organizations that can strategically implement programs with durable conservation impacts. CCI ’s grantmaking has tended to focus on project-specific, short-term (one year) grants that target near-term outcomes, which makes sustained engagement challenging and can contribute to activism fatigue. While these targeted grants will continue to add value to the program’s goals, CCI can and should invest more intentionally in organizations that are emerging as leaders. The report’s findings also indicate that RLF can take a more collaborative approach to its grantmaking, engaging grantees earlier in the process to set priorities on issue areas and outcomes. CCI and grantees’ priorities are well-aligned when it comes to expanding parks access, clean water, and climate change resilience strategies. But when opportunities emerge that require fast action, there is little time for collaboration, putting RLF in the driver’s seat. Yes, getting to the destination is important, but the evaluation reminds us about the value of the journey and the benefits of collaboration. To guide RLF and its funders, the report advances a framework for grantmaking—looking at the duration of grants and the extent of collaboration—that suggests a portfolio-wide approach to increase the effectiveness of CCI’s constituency engagement strategy and the durability of conservation outcomes.

3) Having an explicit focus on equity matters. Advancing equity has been a part of RLF’s approach since our founding 20 years ago. But CCI is the first program to have an explicit focus on equity: engaging younger, more diverse constituents is central to its strategy. That intentionality is making a difference—the majority of grants in the CCI portfolio are given to organizations working with disadvantaged communities and advancing equity as a core aspect of their work. These organizations have contributed to successes like the passage of the Parks, Environment, and Water Bond Act of 2018 as the most equity-based conservation bond in California’s history. According to the evaluation, grantees recognize and appreciate CCI’s authentic integration of equity in its program goals and approach. But at the same time, the evaluation pushes RLF to play a more prominent leadership role in the field by demonstrating its commitment to inclusion and equity, and championing these values with other funders and grantees. In this sense, the evaluation comes at an opportune time. RLF recently began working with the Avarna Group on a year-long effort to further integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into our work, both internally and externally. We’re conducting all-staff trainings and engaging our board to understand and overcome our unconscious biases, set organizational priorities, and make an increasingly meaningful difference with our work. Stay tuned for updates on our DEI work.

We are really proud of the work we’ve accomplished with our grantees under the CCI program. Programs like CCI highlight California’s leadership to innovate new strategies that achieve multiple beneficial outcomes—conservation gains, climate resilience, and social equity—and can inform efforts in other states to achieve similar outcomes.

This program evaluation provides useful insights on what’s working and what we can improve upon going forward. We hope the report and our takeaways resonate with you, and we invite you to join the conversation as we apply these important lessons to our work, and continue to live up to the “innovation” in CCI, especially in these challenging times.