14 December 2021

Being bold: What can philanthropy do differently to tackle climate change? And how can research help?

On 2 December 2021, the International Research Conference of ERNOP (the European Research Network on Philanthropy) celebrated its 10th edition. This conference, which brings together researchers working on philanthropy in Europe as well as practitioners, is always a great occasion to exchange on key topics and issues of the philanthropic sector. At this conference, we had the chance to organise with the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate a panel on climate philanthropy entitled “Being bold: What can philanthropy do differently to tackle climate change? And how can research help”, which gave us a space for a very enriching conversation. The speakers were Liz McKeon (IKEA Foundation), Michele Betsill (Copenhagen University), James Magowan (European Community Foundation Initiative) and me, and the discussion was moderated by Max von Abendroth (Philea).

What role for philanthropy?

One of the key questions we asked was about the specific role of philanthropy in helping to fight climate change, compared to other actors (governments, companies, NGOs etc.). First, philanthropy can be more ambitious in terms of funding, by financing more projects and programmes that will help solve the climate crisis, as we know that climate philanthropy only represents 2% of total philanthropic giving: an increase in environmental funding from philanthropies is crucial today.

But funding is not everything: During this conference, we also mentioned the key role of investments and endowments as divesting and investing responsibly would already make a big difference. Third, foundations have a more political role to play and could in particular use their interstitial position, at the crossroads between different fields (economic, social, political), to influence and put pressure on other actors. One of the interesting specificities of philanthropic actors is that they are one of the only actors who are close to both civil society and decision-makers. Concerning decision-makers, the role foundations played at COP26 was, in this sense, quite revealing, as they were instrumental in supporting the presidency and driving some commitments from the public and private sectors. Concerning civil society, community foundations are crucial as they experience first-hand the disastrous consequences of climate change on local communities and how it affects people’s lives very concretely, and they can help them fight and adapt, by building more resilient communities.

Mobilising for climate: A new movement

What has happened in the last couple years is quite interesting, as a new global movement has emerged (the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement). It began in 2019 with the birth of the Funders Commitment on Climate Change in the UK, then the launch of two other national coalitions in France and in Spain in 2020. In September 2020, a European coalition for climate was created with Philea (the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate) and the International Commitment on Climate Change at the international level with WINGS. Two new national coalitions have also been recently founded in Italy and Canada. The role of these coalitions of foundations is to mobilise foundations beyond climate foundations or foundations already addressing climate issues. The idea is that all foundations, regardless of whether their mission is art, poverty, education, health or any other topic, should engage in fighting climate change as the crisis will have effects on all these fields and on the philanthropic sector itself.

This is a change of paradigm for a sector that is deeply attached to working in silos within the causes that each foundation defends. By signing a #PhilanthropyForClimate commitment, foundations engage to apply the “climate lens” to everything they do, by working on “seven pillars”, which are the different entry points for foundations to engage in climate action, from educating and committing resources, to integrating climate across their programmes, their operations and their investments, but also advocating and being transparent.

Understanding the obstacles foundations are facing

When we look at this movement, one would think that all foundations would like to join, as philanthropic actors are usually deeply aware of the importance of the climate crisis: so why do some foundations hesitate? This is a phenomenon well documented by climate social scientists: It is known as the “climate crisis paradox”, which is characterised by a widespread awareness of the problem that does not translate into public action. In the case of philanthropy, the number of involved foundations is growing, although still only around 350 out of the 150,000 foundations in Europe are signatories of the commitments ‒ There is still a long way to go. To progress, it is key to understand the obstacles foundations are facing, from a lack of resources, skills or time to not knowing where to start or how to convince their board members. To overcome these obstacles, it is key to commit resources (financial and human resources) to accompany foundations all along the way and think about the “how”, to embrace the diversity of foundations, to plan ahead with a vision and clear objectives, but also to bring a systemic response to this systemic problem by understanding how the system works. This underlines the role of infrastructures and networks, who are uniquely placed to coordinate these movement and actions, and foster climate leadership among philanthropic actors.

The crucial role of cognitive and discursive aspects

Mobilising for climate is deeply impacted by cognitive and discursive aspects: how we think of/perceive the crisis and the possible solutions, but also how we talk about it. The importance of taxonomy was underlined during the conference panel: “Climate” is a large and blurry notion, and a lot of foundations are funding climate-related projects without describing it that way. Communications are also key to find the right words to convince. There is a lot of research on climate communications that shows that mobilizing is also about finding the right narratives and listening to the people to “find them at their bus station” (not impose your views, but understand their viewpoint and try to go from there). Listening means being open to all views and looking at what beneficiaries and grass-roots movements have to say. Being able to engage all stakeholders and mobilising everyone depends on the space you are able to create for each one to commit.

It is also important to build new imaginaries, and art can help to do this. There is no path for this: It is also about relying on imagination, new ideas, finding new ways of doing things and thinking outside the box.

How can research help?

One of the main questions we asked during this conference panel was the way research can help and how to build bridges between researchers and practitioners. There is a significant lack of academic research on climate philanthropy. We pointed out that we need research about the field but also research with the field that embraces a collaborative approach, even if both actors have different priorities. There is also value in doing research with the field to do research on the field, as it provides greater access for researchers. It becomes a negotiated space but also provides a platform. It is vitally important to spread the knowledge academic researchers are producing within the sector, along with the work foundations are doing, but also to create a network of researchers who are working on this question, and encourage young academics to enter the field. Last but not least, we have to think of a way to foster better collaboration between researchers and practitioners, by creating a space to exchange about this crucial issue of climate change.


Anne Monier
Research Fellow at the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair

Ecole Normale Supérieure Alumna, Anne Monier holds a Ph.D in social sciences from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and is a Research Fellow at the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair.