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‘And’ Approaches in Philanthropy: Funders Can Meet Their Missions AND Address Climate Change

Date: July 14, 2022

Shawn Reifsteck

Vice President of Strategy, Collaboration, and Brands, ClimateWorks Foundation

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Climate change alarm bells have been ringing for decades, but only more recently has the crisis begun to unfold at a breathtaking pace with far-reaching impacts that leave no community untouched. As the climate emergency has intensified, the philanthropic response has shifted from whether to act to how quickly and at what scale we must act.

Philanthropy has often stood at the vanguard of drawing attention to wicked problems and mobilizing resources to create needed change. Climate change is one such wicked problem to which philanthropy has been steadily increasing its attention over the last 15 years.

While global philanthropic giving dedicated to climate change mitigation remains at less than two percent of total philanthropic giving, there are positive indicators of growth in giving to climate. From 2019 to 2020, there was a 14 percent increase in giving to climate, including more giving from major donors, new funders, and collaborative commitments — and this trend is likely to continue and accelerate. But with less than a decade to cut in half global emissions, the world needs to move faster, and philanthropy must challenge itself to do more. With the climate clock ticking, slowly winning is akin to losing.

New Report Sheds Light on the Growth of Climate Curious

The latest report from the Center of Effective Philanthropy (CEP), Much Alarm, Less Action: Foundations & Climate Change, outlines how the ranks of the climate curious have grown among foundation and nonprofit leaders alike. Over 90 percent of foundations and nonprofit leaders said climate change was an urgent problem. And more than 70 percent said climate change will negatively affect the issues their foundation focuses on and their foundation’s ability to achieve its goals. But despite agreement that public and private sectors should do more to address climate change and that philanthropy can engage more deeply and effectively to combat climate change, leaders described foundation efforts as relatively limited in terms of grant dollars and investment practices.

While there is widespread recognition of the threats posed by climate change, less is understood by many funders about the “what” and “how” of engaging on the issue. The good news for philanthropic and nonprofit leaders is that there are myriad opportunities to explore intersectional approaches that leverage the power of collective action to benefit their work, tackle the climate crisis, and improve people’s lives in communities around the world.

Philanthropy in Action: Intersectional Approaches, Bold Action

Whether a funder is geographically- or issue-focused, great examples highlight the power of working collectively to take intersectional approaches and advance bold action. Barr Foundation in New England stands out for its community investments to shift to clean energy, prioritize equity, and create climate resilient communities in its work across arts, climate, and education. Also, the George Gund Foundation’s efforts to strengthen community in Cleveland has led them to tackle interrelated issues through a local lens, including climate change and environmental degradation, inequality, and weakened democracy.

Or take an issue that touches most: transportation. Transport emissions impact air quality and health. But considering it only through the lens of transport didn’t yield the funding needed to bring transformation necessary to benefit the climate, public health, and the economy. A new approach with the Drive Electric Campaign exemplifies the rapid progress possible when the collective power of diverse groups is tapped.

Drive Electric is powered by more than 80 organizations and a global strategy that leverages smart government policies, business leadership and action, and people power, including diverse organizations and coalitions representing the environment, local communities, health, labor, consumers, business, and equity. Launched in 2020 and working in over 65 countries, Drive Electric partners have already made incredible progress. Today, 24 percent of world transportation is committed to transitioning to 100 percent zero-emission by or before 2050. By accelerating electrification, Drive Electric will help avoid over 160 billion tons of cumulative carbon pollution over the next 40 years, avert trillions of dollars in climate damages, save lives, create jobs, and improve the economy.

Cooling is another intersectional area where funders and partners with varying priorities across energy access, climate mitigation, and climate adaptation have come together through the Clean Cooling Collaborative to collectively advance the climate and development benefits of efficient, climate-friendly cooling for all. Since 2017, the Clean Cooling Collaborative has mobilized the investment of over $600 million in public and private finance for efficient, climate-friendly cooling, advanced cooling programs and policies in 57 countries, and secured over 2.4 gigatons of avoided CO2 emissions by 2050.

Resources to Learn and Act on Climate

Perhaps the most promising data point uncovered in CEP’s report is that 45 percent of foundation and nonprofit leaders have not closed the door on the possibility of funding climate change. This reinforces that there is a large number of folks within philanthropy that are open to joining the climate fight but may not know where to start.

With the growing and diversifying ecosystem of expertise across regions, sectors, and people-centered strategies, there is help funders can turn to. These organizations have resources to support philanthropic funders new to climate and connect them to high-impact solutions related to their respective organizational priorities: the African Climate Foundation, the Clean Air Fund, the Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI), Energy Foundation, the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, and The Solutions Project, just to name a few. My organization, ClimateWorks Foundation, is also a resource for funders looking for climate insights, investment-ready programmatic strategies, and collaboration opportunities with fellow funders.

The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time, and the window to avoid the worst outcomes is rapidly narrowing. CEP’s report is an important contribution to broader dialogues on the widespread implications of climate change and the role philanthropy can play to ramp up momentum. By moving more resources into multi-solutions faster and driving radical collaborations across the broad philanthropic landscape, funders can address issues near and dear to them AND tackle climate change. There is room for everyone in philanthropy to lend a helping hand, and it’s never been easier to jump in. Welcome!

Shawn Reifsteck is the vice president of strategy, collaborations, and brand for ClimateWorks Foundation. Find ClimateWorks on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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