BY Brooke McPherson, TFN Communications and Engagement Associate

I’ve been working with TFN now for more than six months, but it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I got to finally connect with my colleagues in person. Last month, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Austin, Texas to participate in TFN’s Spring Convening of the GREEN, Urban Water Funders and Mobility and Access Collaborative working groups. 

The convening was the first time TFN had gathered these three working groups together, but between the enthusiasm for shared learning and the energy on our site visits, a newcomer like myself could have easily mistaken this for a family reunion. 

The agenda was absolutely packed and covered a broad range of intersectional topics from water conservation efforts by the City of Austin to power building in politically hostile environments across the country. It was a lot to take in, and I’m still processing all I’ve learned weeks later. Here are some of my main takeaways from our time together in Austin:

Leading with Action

A central focus of the convening was the need for bold philanthropic leadership with a clear bias towards action, so it made sense that TFN should model what we preach. 

It’s been a longtime practice at TFN to open meetings with a land acknowledgement as a way of honoring the Indigenous peoples connected to the land we gather on. TFN’s President and CEO Dion Cartwright highlighted how Indigenous communities continue to see the worst impacts of the climate crisis yet only receive a sliver of philanthropic dollars. I was particularly excited to hear Dion introduce a new practice at TFN: 

Whenever we hold any in-person event, TFN will make a donation to
a local Indigenous tribe or
Indigenous-led organization.

For this gathering, TFN donated $1,000 to the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, a non-profit that works to restore the traditional relationship between the Lipan Apache and the native Bison, providing the Indigenous communities of Texas a pathway to tribal and food sovereignty. You can learn about their important work here.

Money Talks; Let’s Amplify The Impact 

Christopher Coes, assistant secretary for Transportation Policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation, joined us and shared his take on the transformative potential of philanthropy. 

In this current era of massive government investment in infrastructure, environmental and clean energy projects across America, the conversation around philanthropic action is no longer a matter of “Can we do this?” Substantial, transformative change is happening across the country thanks to the work being accomplished by organizations large and small, so the real question now is “How can we do it better?” 

Coe’s solution? Storytelling. 

Success stories are an essential tool in justifying the new models that progressive policies are working to put in place. Effective storytelling brings the numbers behind reports to life, captures people and policymakers’ attention and can drive them to action. 

As a member of the communications team here at TFN, I’m always keeping my eye out for ways we can amplify our funders’ work. After hearing from Coe, I’ve started thinking about social media less as a way of keeping folks informed and more as a catalyst for direct change. 

TFN has partnered with the Health and Environmental Network and Neighborhood Funders Group on a joint effort to help funders connect their communities to federal dollars. This work is ongoing, and includes a round-up of resources and a downloadable “tip sheet” for funders. We’re also working on amplifying ways place-based foundations can help their communities access these historic federal investments and ensure those dollars get to those who need them most. 

If you have any stories from your organization to share, don’t hesitate to reach out by emailing me at

Long-term Strategies in Politically Hostile Environments 

Austin has long been considered a progressive center, in stark contrast to Texas’ otherwise highly conservative landscape. A lot of our conversations throughout the gathering focused on the hard-earned lessons from funders supporting those working on the frontlines in politically hostile environments. 

We heard from funders investing in and testing a wide range of strategies to advance climate, transportation and water justice throughout conservative communities. They emphasized the need to look at the big picture and advocate for longterm, sustainable solutions to systemic issues instead of short-sighted, reactive policies. 

The funder fishbowl discussion led by Dana Okano of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Elizabeth Love of the Jacob & Terese Hershey Foundation and John Mitterholzer of the George Gund Foundation particularly focused on the challenges of advancing equitable outcomes and countering conservative backlash. The conversation opened up to the entire room, inviting funders to jump in and share stories of strategies that are working and lessons learned from those that aren’t. 

Doug Lewin, author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter and host of the Energy Capital Podcast, shared the ongoing efforts to increase wind and solar energy in Texas as a way of improving affordability, reliability, equity and sustainability across the state. He told us: “Think in terms of institutions, and think less in terms of one-off projects. Where there is project-based funding, ladder up to projects that don’t end: organizing, civic engagement, communications, technical assistance.”

Learning from Place 

Leading up to the Spring Convening, I was definitely most excited for the site visits. I’ve heard so much from funders and TFN staffers alike on how impactful and fun they can be, and how important it is to learn from place. I’ve been to Austin a few times before this trip so I was thrilled to see one of my favorite cities through a new lens that focused on the field leaders advancing climate, water and transportation justice. 

And boy did we cover a lot of ground! We started with an outdoor lunch at City Hall with regional transit advocates and then we headed to Austin’s stunning Central Library, where we heard from water advocates about Water Forward, Austin’s nationally-acclaimed,100-year integrated water resource plan. 

We ventured beyond downtown to explore the Dove Springs neighborhood with Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA). We walked through the beautiful, flower-filled East Williamson Creek Trail, an outdoor space supported by nonprofits and residents to combat gentrification and flood displacement, providing a safe and accessible environment for the community. 


The Time for Collaboration is Now 

If there was one single point I walked away with, it would be the absolute necessity of collaboration. While the GREEN, Urban Water Funders and Mobility and Access Collaborative working groups each focus on distinct areas, the reality is that these issues intersect and impact communities as a whole. 

Emily Foxhall, a climate reporter from The Texas Tribune, drove this theme home. Foxhall, who joined us for an evening reception at Anthem restaurant, recounted her experience covering the climate crisis in Texas, citing events like Hurricane Harvey’s devastating effects and the deadly consequences of extreme heat. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom supported by individual members as well as corporate and philanthropic donations. Foxhall’s climate beat is supported by a grant from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation. 

Foxhall noted that the collapse of once-robust local journalism has meant that newsrooms are struggling to cover important issues in their communities, such as the impacts of a worsening climate crisis. Between job cuts, funding shortages and a relentless stream of news to cover, reporters who once jockeyed to cover stories are overwhelmed and simply unable to cover it all.  As Foxhall put it directly, “There’s just not enough of us. It’s starting to feel like if I don’t get to a story, who will?” The Texas Tribune works to meet the growing need by cultivating a culture that rejects gatekeeping and freely shares stories and resources among news partners.

I felt this approach perfectly illustrated the overarching goals of this convening. Philanthropy has an opportunity to help communities, especially marginalized and historically underfunded communities, access historic federal investments that can move the needle on environmental justice. But we are also facing increasingly daunting challenges and opposition to this work. If we’re truly committed to meaningfully addressing these issues, we need to work together, strategize and share resources wherever possible. 

The spirit of collaboration and shared commitment to addressing these pressing issues was palpable between the working groups throughout the Spring Convening, and I am so excited to see what we can accomplish together moving forward.


Check out more highlights from the Spring Convening by clicking through the slideshow below👇


About the Author


Brooke McPherson is TFN’s Communications and Engagement Associate, and works across the intersections of communications, membership and data management at TFN to build connections, expand learning and deepen engagement across our network.