The North Face leans on outside expertise (and celebrity) to promote DEI

The brand's new Explore Fund Council—led by Jimmy Chin and actor Lena Waithe—will oversee the allocation of $7 million in DEI-focused grant funding.
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The North Face's new DEI campaign, Reset Normal, includes a $7 million pledge to outdoor diversity efforts. Courtesy.

The North Face's new DEI campaign, Reset Normal, includes a $7 million pledge to outdoor diversity efforts. Courtesy.

It's been 10 years since The North Face launched its widely praised charitable giving initiative Explore Fund, which has provided millions of dollars to outdoor nonprofits over the years. With a stated mission of enabling exploration and fostering a love of wild places, Explore Fund has powered hundreds of 501(c)(3)s from coast to coast working to increase participation, break down barriers, and invite more people to the outdoors.

Up to this point, the recipients of Explore Fund grants have received plenty of attention, but little if any communication has come from The North Face about the selection process itself—the people driving decisions about where Explore Fund money goes.

In 2021, that will change. This month, the company announced a new phase of its DEI efforts called Reset Normal, an effort to "radically accelerate" the work of diversity funding in the outdoor industry.

Several big changes are wrapped up in the new campaign. First, The North Face has pledged $7 million to the effort. The sum is far greater than any single commitment the brand has made to DEI efforts in the past. The Explore Fund, for comparison, has awarded about $500,000 a year over 10 years in $5,000 to $25,000 grants.

Second, the company is putting a spotlight on the allocation process for those dollars by creating a new Explore Fund Council—a group of leaders across "culture, entertainment, academia, and the outdoors" who will advise TNF leadership on where to invest its DEI grants.

Through the new program, the company is increasing the transparency of its funding process while simultaneously creating a marketing hook for the program itself through the celebrity of Explore Fund Council members. The first group (participants rotate annually) will be led by Emmy-winning actor/writer/director/producer Lena Waithe and the Oscar-winning director of "Free Solo," Jimmy Chin.

Emmy-winning actor, writer, director, and producer Lena Waithe will lead the first Explore Fund Council. Courtesy.

Emmy-winning actor, writer, director, and producer Lena Waithe will lead the first Explore Fund Council. Courtesy.

It's a notable change from the old Explore Fund process. Bringing together a group of leaders to decide how to allocate DEI funding is a big step toward engaging directly with underserved communities, said Teresa Baker, founder of the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge. Baker said she sees potential pitfalls, however, in leaning on entertainers to promote DEI when there are "already enough of us who have been doing this work for years."

"If the audiences of those celebrities start to speak up and reach out to brands, calling attention to their lack of inclusion, that would be awesome," Baker told SNEWS. "My hope is that the celebrities getting involved are genuine, though, not just being paid to say they care."

Baker also said The North Face would do well to invite outside diversity experts into the selection process for the campaign's leaders.

"It would be amazing if they would bring everyone together for a roundtable," she said. "All of us who have been doing this work for years should be privy to the process of choosing these representatives."

Amy Roberts, The North Face's senior director of sustainability and brand impact, said of the effort, "We hope to move from a more traditional approach to grant-making that’s included support from key industry partners and internal TNF associates to a participatory model that shifts more involvement into the hands of the those who represent and reflect communities we hope to impact through funding. While we’ll still work with partners and associates, our fellows will help advise on opportunities, assessment and funding as we seek to be more inclusive in this process. "

"Communities of color are three times more likely to live in nature-deprived places, and often face racism and other systemic challenges when they do explore," Roberts told SNEWS. "As a leader in the outdoor industry, we are committed to enabling people from all walks of life and abilities to get outside, explore and feel safe and welcome doing so."

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