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How Can Philanthropy Rise to Meet the Challenge of the Climate Crisis?

Date: August 16, 2022

Jehan Velji

Director, Effective Philanthropy Group, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

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The Hewlett Foundation believes that the climate crisis is one of the most pressing issues of our lifetime and impacts everything we do — it’s why we have dedicated over $1 billion to driving climate solutions and why we’ve been huge advocates to get more money into climate philanthropy. As our president, Larry Kramer, said: philanthropy must stop fiddling while the world burns.

So why, then, does climate philanthropy still receive only 2 percent of philanthropic funding? Our Effective Philanthropy Group, which focuses on strengthening the philanthropy sector, set out to learn more by supporting CEP’s latest report, Much Alarm, Less Action: Foundations and Climate Change, on foundation and nonprofit perspectives on the topic.

While I’m not an expert on climate, it’s certainly something that interests me both because of our foundation commitment and because of my personal experience as a California resident. This is why I was not surprised to see that more than 90 percent of foundation leaders think that, in the coming decade, climate change will negatively affect the lives of the people they seek to serve, as well as the geographic areas in which they operate. It was also encouraging to read that more than 70 percent acknowledged that climate change will negatively affect the issues their foundation focuses on and that more than three quarters of nonprofit leaders said that, if not addressed, the negative impacts of climate change will exacerbate the issues nonprofits focus on and will threaten progress already made.

As one foundation leader said, “Climate change will be a significant stressor on all the issues we seek to address, through degradation of quality of life, competition for resources, physical and mental insecurity, and community fracturing.” Another added that “…the advancement of social justice and racial equity will be dramatically affected.” And, as one nonprofit leader in the study said, “The implications for the future are clear: we are all at risk and the risks and dangers will get worse.”

Climate change is already negatively affecting people and communities. It is not something happening over there; climate change is happening here and everywhere and it intersects with so many of our efforts as funders collectively to support the well-being of people and the planet. As one foundation leader said, “We see climate change influencing all our portfolios because climate change will impact marginalized people first, more deeply, and over a longer timeframe than the rest of society.” Another leader said, “From small to big things, climate change is an existential threat to all of our missions.” These acknowledgments speak to the reality that foundations know that climate change isn’t something in the distant future and recognize that the climate crisis isn’t just impacting environmental issues.

Despite this recognition, it seems that many funders are leaving climate change for someone else to solve. Almost 80 percent of leaders at non-climate foundations have said that they don’t fund climate because it’s not a part of their mission. And 80 percent of community foundations — many of which are closest to climate impact — reported that when donors seek guidance, the foundation does not explicitly prioritize encouraging donors to fund climate efforts.

If more funders don’t take additional action, we not only risk not making progress, we risk losing ground on issues we and the communities we support care about. Climate change is overwhelming, under-resourced, and, yes, abstract at times — yet for these very reasons, funders have an opportunity to do more and to use more of our tools to address it. Bringing a climate lens to what and how we fund is critical for driving impact. And it does not require setting up a separate climate program or going it alone. Here are a few steps that funders can take:

  • Look for opportunities to incorporate climate change in current grantmaking and programs. For example, our Climate and Performing Arts teams funded the Center for Cultural Power, an artist-led organization that recently launched the Good Energy Playbook to empower writers by giving backstory into climate science and accountability, in depth tools for climate storytelling, and resources for artistic health and partner opportunities. This collaboration came about because Hewlett recognized the interplay between the climate crisis and the arts space.
  • Ask grantees how climate is affecting their work and their communities. I recently learned from a homeless services provider in northern California that they now have to set up cooling centers in the summer. Learning from grantees about how their work is shifting will help to inform how you support their work.
  • Since boards were cited in the study as a potential barrier to engaging more on climate, talk with your board about how the climate crisis is relevant to your work. You could lift up what you are hearing from grantees or perhaps invite an outside speaker to bring in new perspectives.
  • Connect with a collaborative fund to pool resources and learn more. If you do international work, consider supporting the Global Methane Hub; if you are focused on advancing justice and equity, take a look at the Climate & Clean Energy Equity Fund or the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice.
  • Reach out to those with deeper expertise. For example, tap into organizations like the Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI), which we helped found, which has an explicit mission of helping new funders navigate their entry into climate funding.

To address the climate crisis, we will have to get out of our silos and look for the intersections across our work. Prioritization matters, but we also need to be able to see the full picture of our work and to shift our frame so we can address multiple issues at once.

Just as there are many ways to engage in philanthropy, there are many ways to use philanthropic funding to support efforts to address climate change. It will take all of us working at different geographic levels and at different scales to advance efforts to adapt to the current effects of climate change and mitigate future effects. However, we can’t get there if we don’t see that climate cuts across all of our work. I’m heartened by the 45 percent of leaders of non-climate foundations who are open to or considering funding climate. Philanthropy cannot be effective if we are not recognizing and incorporating climate change into our efforts.

We know climate change is an urgent issue that affects us all; the question is, what else do we need to act?

Jehan Velji is the director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She is also a member of the CEP Advisory Committee. Find Jehan on Twitter at @JVelji and on LinkedIn.

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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