The Millionaires and Billionaires of Environmental Politics


There’s a story that’s told in newspapers, on news networks, and in the buzzing of Twitter. In this story, there’s a clear good guy, a heroic underdog fighting the good fight, and a clear villain cackling in a corporate boardroom. This is a tale of grassroots environmentalists, banding together to solve the so-called climate emergency and financing their campaigns from small dollar donors impressed by and invested in the cause that these organizations are supporting.

Although green groups do engage in grassroots fundraising, the most influential typically also seek high-dollar donations from wealthy individuals, foundations, and government agencies.

Indeed, some of the best known environmental groups are funded foundations set up by billionaires such as Tom Steyer’s TomKat Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, and the Rockefeller family’s foundations.

The annual revenue amassed by the biggest environmental groups is astonishing. In 2017, for instance, the Sierra Club took in a hundred and forty million dollars, and the Sierra Club Foundation seventy million more. The Environmental Defense Fund took in a hundred and forty six million dollars, the Natural Resources Defense Council nearly a hundred and eighty million, and the World Wildlife Fund over two hundred and twenty million dollars. The most astonishingly large is the Nature Conservancy, with a total revenue for 2017 of over $1.7 billion—some of which, it’s true, goes to conservation efforts, but no small amount goes towards activism. To contextualize, the total revenue last year for the Heritage Foundation, the largest conservative non-profit, was under a hundred million.

Much of that money is not coming from small-dollar grassroots fundraising, either. For instance, the Environmental Defense Fund received $71 million from the Walton Family Foundation in 2010. It received an additional three million dollars in 2016 from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Greenpeace had nearly ten percent of its funding in 2014 come from Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation. The Nature Conservancy received $55 million from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and $28 million from the Marisla Foundation. The American Lung Association, which has often lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency, received more than $24 million in EPA grants as of December 2012.

Many of the private donations are also obscured by being routed through charitable “pass-through” entities, such as the Energy Foundation. One foundation will donate to a pass-through—for instance, in 2018, the Hewlett Foundation donated $20 million to the Energy Foundation—and the pass-through then sends the money to another organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Niskanen Center, or others. No one can say for sure that any particular donation to the original foundation definitely went to the final organization; it’s plausible deniability for these wealthy donors. The Energy Foundation has close ties Tom Steyer’s environmental foundation as well.

The narrative of green Davids taking on industry Goliaths is tempting to believe. Americans like the underdog—we root for the little guy. And that’s what environmental groups often appear to be. In reality, many are large and just as vulnerable to financial conflicts of interest as the corporate interests they oppose. Rather than spontaneous expressions of the popular will, they’re often influenced by wealthy billionaire family foundations. Environmental policy debates should be settled on the merits by the facts, rather than by the false narrative some activists want you to believe.

Data on revenue and donations from Influence Watch and GuideStar