2 November 2021

What if? Imagining climate-positive philanthropy

By Karalyn Gardner, Dafne & Philanthropy Coalition for Climate

The Next Philanthropy series “What if? Reimagining philanthropy” is a space to ask thought-provoking questions, re-think our work and challenge our perspectives. The second event focused on the question: what if every foundation cared about climate?

What if every foundation cared about climate?

Human-induced climate change affects every region of the world. The news cycle features a seemingly unending succession of extreme weather events: droughts, flooding and wildfires are increasingly frequent occurrences on our doorsteps and on the other side of the world. Still, less than 2% of European foundations’ giving goes towards climate change mitigation and of over 147.000 foundations in Europe, only 350 have committed to integrating a climate lens across their work as part of the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement. What, then, will it take to get foundations to reconsider their work in line with a climate-positive world?

We started the event by exploring who was in the room. It was interesting to see that most participants worked both in philanthropy and on addressing the climate crisis. This raises the question: How do we reach beyond the bubble of people who are already involved in and committed to addressing the climate crisis? We also asked participants what role philanthropy should play in addressing the climate crisis. Funding. Social justice and just transition. Leadership and leading by example. Innovation. Advocacy. These were some of the answers that appeared most frequently. So, how do we turn this vision into our reality?

Why fund climate justice?
Rewatch Kristina Johansson’s inspiring speech

We were fortunate to be joined by Kristina Johansson, Founder and Director of the Solberga Foundation and activist for racial, gender and climate justice. Kristina shared with the group the personal journey that led her to climate activism and to an understanding of the potential of organised social groups. Kristina reminded us that the climate crisis is by far the greatest threat to humanity and that “everything it touches, it exacerbates.” We need now to radically transform our societies. The good news? We have the solutions and we know how to effectively address this crisis but we are running out of time. We need all hands on deck. So, how can foundations make a dent in this far-reaching and all-consuming crisis?

“The climate crisis is by far the greatest threat to humanity and that “everything it touches, it exacerbates.”

Given the scale of the crisis, Kristina highlighted how worrying it is that less than 2% of philanthropic giving is directed to climate change mitigation. When considering how to give effectively through the Solberga Foundation, Kristina and her family were conscious that individual actions and corporate actions are not enough – we need bold climate legislation and investment from the government. Kristina underlined that political will determines how fast we move. Because of systemic discrimination, those who are most affected by climate change, including young people, Indigenous people, women and people of colour, are often overlooked by the philanthropic community and severely underfunded. These activists, however, are also fundamentally changing the climate debate and have an outsized effect on the current crisis. These people on the frontline are most intimately familiar with the solutions and can point us to the most effective answers. Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to take risks and support this transformative work with flexible funding.

“We need bold climate legislation and investment from the government.”

Kristina outlined three concrete ways for foundations that are not traditionally climate funders to integrate the climate dimension across their work:

  1. We cannot consider climate to be separate from other funding areas and it cannot be treated as such. Neglecting climate undermines philanthropic giving in all areas.
  2. We can no longer treat the investment of our endowments as separate from our grant-making. We need to ensure our endowments provide more value than they are extracting by investing in local, democratic and regenerative action.
  3. Join the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement!
Addressing the elephant in the room: is divestment the answer?

“A bright pink elephant was the bold graphic accompanying this event and, in the conversation on climate and philanthropy, divestment feels like the bright pink elephant in the room.”

A bright pink elephant was the bold graphic accompanying this event and, in the conversation on climate and philanthropy, divestment feels like the bright pink elephant in the room. Eva Rehse reminded us that, at best, foundations use 5-10% of their endowments in grant-making and the remaining 95% is invested. As such, divesting is perhaps the biggest difference philanthropy can make. Recently, several high-profile foundations have made public their plans to divest, including most recently the Ford Foundation. However, this remains a complex and sensitive issue for many foundations for a number of reasons, legislation is one of them. What will it take for divestment of endowments to become mainstream in the European philanthropy sector?

What future would we like to imagine?

Three challengers encouraged us to rethink what philanthropy’s role could play in addressing climate change:

Eva Rehse from Global Greengrants Fund UK encouraged foundations to include people with lived experience of climate change, among them Next Gen philanthropists and activists, in the decision-making processes. Eva highlighted that nothing beats peer learning and influencing especially at board level – to achieve this, she recommends finding allies, language and concepts that are able to connect the heart and the mind.

Philanthropy can play a pivotal role in reimagining a sustainable future for humanity. Tom Brookes challenged the group to remember that a zero-carbon society is not necessarily a truly sustainable society and that philanthropy can bridge the gaps between these two visions by tackling the root causes of the climate crisis. Moreover, philanthropy can provide space for conversations around all of the intersections with climate and, in a long-term way, think through the implications for all the sectors involved.

“The climate movements and sector has often been unsuccessful in communications and needs to move to a framing based on vision.”

“What do we want the future to look like?” – this was the question Sophie Marple urged us to ask in order to move beyond the often-paralysing fear we have in the face of the climate emergency. The climate movements and sector has often been unsuccessful in communications and needs to move to a framing based on vision. For philanthropy, Sophie reminded the group, it is vital to take risks and take risks now. What we do now is worth tenfold in what we can do in a couple of years.

What next, philanthropy?

The “What if? Reimagining philanthropy” series is built around the recognition that there are no ready-made answers and simple solutions. The concept of intentional learning, experimentation and inclusive participation through “questioning” is at the very heart of Next Philanthropy. Undoubtedly, most participants left with more questions than answers. Here are a few to ponder:

  • What can we learn from the climate movement, which is diverse and well connected?
  • How do we go beyond the circles that we are comfortable with?
  • How can we communicate the climate crisis in a compelling and strategic way that it will speak to all foundations and drive them to action?
  • How can we shake up the full spectrum of European philanthropy so that all foundations care about climate change and its impact on people’s lives?
  • How to convince boards of the urgency to act and to act and to act wholeheartedly?
  • What can philanthropy do to ensure that we transition to a low-carbon economy in a way that takes into account justice and equity, making sure not to leave those most vulnerable behind?

Eager to tackle one of these questions? Would you like to share your thoughts or relevant news, write a blog post, suggest a speaker for one of the What if? Reimagining philanthropy events, contribute resources to the Next Philanthropy Knowledge Hub, offer funding or become a partner of Next Philanthropy? Get in touch!

Related blog posts:
  • Why fund climate justice? Kristina Johansson, Founder, Solberga Foundation, shares her personal story on becoming a climate activist and establishing a foundation addressing climate crisis. She also reflects on the role philanthropy can play in tackling climate change and the need to trust grassroots movements.
  • 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”, writes Eva Rehse from Global Greengrants Fund in her recent blog reflecting on the #NextPhilanthropy What if event.
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