Just Transition Fund

The Evolution of a Hybrid Model

From Buffalo to the Ohio River Valley to Montana, workers and communities are struggling economically as the coal economy changes. To help people on the frontlines, we created the Just Transition Fund. Our mission is simple. We help create economic opportunity for the most vulnerable people, hardest hit by the transition away from coal. As a hybrid initiative—part grantmaker, part catalyst—we provide direct investments to help communities create 21st century jobs, and technical assistance to empower local leaders to act.  

Why a Hybrid? 

Early on, we recognized communities would need more than grants to jumpstart transition, particularly in power plant communities. Given the financial, economic, workforce, and often environmental challenges at play, communities need access to specialized types of expertise, an understanding of best practices, and often simply help getting started.

To start, we built on what we learned from the Rockefeller Family Fund’s investment in economic transition. Just outside Buffalo, the Clean Air Coalition spearheaded one of the first known cases of power plant transition in 2011.  While the Family Fund’s grants to Clean Air boosted the organization’s capacity to work with local stakeholders and engage labor, the community struggled with a range of complex challenges: How will the tax base be affected by the plant’s closure? How do we work with the public sector to find replacement funding? What are the workforce options for plant workers?

To help with the first question, the Rockefeller Family Fund brought in the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). IEEFA’s analysis highlighted the potential impact on the tax base and presented, objectively, that the plant was likely to close for economic reasons. Once the Just Transition Fund was up and running, we provided additional help by linking Clean Air with the Delta Institute and federal partners at the U.S. Economic Development Administration. A nonprofit focused on sustainable solutions with planning expertise, Delta provided additional capacity to Clean Air’s efforts, and helped the coalition navigate the challenging federal landscape to successfully access an EDA POWER grant.

Through this work, we found that grants to frontline community-groups—augmented with technical assistance to navigate local challenges—pack a powerful one, two punch. 

"Through this work, we found that grants to frontline community-groups—augmented with technical assistance to navigate local challenges—pack a powerful one, two punch." 

1 Part Grantmaker, 1 Part Field Builder

Today, the Fund awards traditional grants and provides technical assistance, in a variety of forms. Although we initially contracted with Delta to provide technical assistance to our grantees, we’ve since brought this expertise in-house. Cindy Winland leads this work, and we’re providing technical assistance in places like Montana, Minnesota, and the Ohio River Valley. 

We’re helping communities with a range of activities, from launching community-led transition processes, to accessing federal funds, to creating state pools that provide stop-gap fiscal relief.  We’ve found that communities experiencing power plant closures face the same challenges that surfaced in Buffalo, though the local context varies. More often than not, local leaders—in the absence of easily accessible best practices or models of success—are paralyzed to act. Often our role is to help communities get started. 

We’re also acting as a matchmaker, connecting communities with relevant expertise—a SWAT team for transition, if you will. Communities need financial experts to determine the fiscal impacts of closures; economic development experts to identify replacement sectors and workforce options; and—at a time when the clean energy sector presents tremendous potential to generate local wealth—renewable energy expertise to scale projects. We’re connecting our community grantees with these resources, and we’re building learning around these topics into our regional and national convenings. 

A Model That Works

At the Fund, we’ve embraced this hybrid model. Our technical assistance—which gives us a more complete understanding of the on-the-ground context—helps us make better investments. We’re continually applying what we learn in communities to our grantmaking processes, offering more rapid response times and supporting different types of activities with our grants. Together, this complementary hybrid model is helping us achieve real impact and accelerate change.