What if every foundation cared about climate?

We are all climate funders in a world that is shaped by the climate crisis. Eva Rehse, Executive Director of Global Greengrants Fund UK, provides four suggestions for how foundations can begin their journey into climate philanthropy, including the one thing all endowed foundations should do today.

The time for what ifs is decidedly over – every foundation needs to care about the climate crisis, because everything you hold dear and do is impacted by and impacts the future of humanity and our planet.

Now is the time to move climate funding out of its environmental silo. Even if your foundation is “not an environmental funder”, you have the responsibility to understand the societal implications of climate change on your mission, whether that is education, health, women’s rights or economic equality. And let’s not forget that not even every environmental foundation has a clearly articulated climate strategy yet.

This field of climate philanthropy as it is emerging is one that we all need to build with each other – small and larger funders, endowed and public, community or global, regardless of the causes we care about and are here to address. Below are four reflections from many conversations I have had with funders in recent years. If you are about climate, and are interested in employing a “climate lens”, why not begin here, today?

1. Build the field of climate philanthropy together

Caring about climate is one thing, but we cannot underestimate the difficulties foundations experience when trying to change strategies and investments, especially where change is driven by staff from the bottom up. This is particularly the case with concepts like climate justice and just transition. It is clear that an intersectional and systemic approach to climate change is needed to achieve the emissions reductions required to ensure global heating remains below 1.5C, and to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.

“It is clear that an intersectional and systemic approach to climate change is needed to achieve the emissions reductions required to ensure global heating remains below 1.5C, and to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.”

The 1.1C world in which we already live today is built on “sacrifice zones”, in which it is accepted that some parts of the world suffer so that others can continue to live a high polluting and consuming lifestyle. The only way to address these interconnected social and environmental causes of the climate crisis is with a climate justice lens. In fact, this is the reason why my fund, Global Greengrants Fund, exists. But if your foundation has never framed its work in intersectional or justice concepts, this seems like a very radical step indeed.

On the other hand, these concepts can help make the connections to existing work – from disability services to girls’ education – easier for us. This is not work that happens in isolation, and as a community we need to keep organising, sharing, and collaborating to help each other make the necessary shifts and become comfortable and familiar with the language that many of our boards may just find too progressive yet. Funder networks like Dafne or EDGE Funders Alliance are great organising spaces for these peer exchanges.

2. Find the right messengers

In my experience trying to organise for climate change within the philanthropic space, nothing beats peer-learning and influencing. This is particular true at board level. Trustees of foundations tend to respond better when approached by other trustees who are facing similar challenges. My advice would be to find your allies on your board, and on boards outside of your foundation, to start connecting the dots. A community like Dafne is perfectly placed to create a trustee-learning network in which decision-makers can openly exchange what they are learning on their climate journey, and hold each other accountable to take the necessary steps.

“Find your allies on your board, and on boards outside of your foundation, to start connecting the dots.”

3. Involve the next generation and lived experience leaders

The climate crisis is fundamentally a deeply human crisis. We need to connect the heart and mind in our response. We need to appreciate the trauma and anxiety we all experience in facing this emergency, whether we are already living with the impacts or see them on the horizon. It is therefore of utmost importance to ensure that we involve those already most affected and with lived experience of the crisis in our strategy setting and decision-making. This also includes the next generation of family foundations. More than anyone else, the younger members of families have driven change in climate philanthropy, as the ones who will experience the impacts of climate change most directly.

4. If you only do one thing, divest!

Despite the urgency and the increased interest from many parts of the philanthropic sector in understanding and investing in tackling the climate crisis, recent mapping has shown that only 2% of philanthropic funding today directly addresses climate mitigation (and even less to the all-important and often community-led adaptation and grassroots climate solutions).

“Philanthropy would have much more of an impact in tackling the climate crisis if all endowed foundations divested, today.”

At the same time, we know that endowed foundations at best use 5-10% of their endowment in grantmaking; the remaining 90-95% are invested, often in industries that are directly detrimental to the impacts of the funded work – what good is a climate strategy if you invest the majority of your funds in fossil fuel industry? Philanthropy would have much more of an impact in tackling the climate crisis if all endowed foundations divested, today. I would rather the 98% of you who do not already have a climate strategy divest, instead of starting a climate grantmaking programme. Here again, the sector has some wonderfully inspiring leaders and has successfully collaborated to understand and move into mission investing. Engage with the divestment movement, start speaking to your investment team – this is the biggest thing you can do for future generations today.

photo eva rehse edited

Eva Rehse

Executive Director, Global Greengrants Fund UK

@RehseEva, @greengrantsfund

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