8 May 2024

Community Foundations: The hidden champions of philanthropic climate action

Image credit: Lance Cheung/USDA

In the realm of philanthropic climate action, community foundations stand out for their unique approach rooted in local engagement and partnership. Drawing from ECFI’s recent collection of climate stories and the collective experiences of the members of the ECFI climate action peer group, a diverse European landscape of climate initiatives emerges. From country-wide endeavours to grassroots efforts, community foundations exemplify a holistic approach to addressing climate change. Here we delve into the distinctiveness of the community foundation approach, highlight ongoing efforts in the field, and extract valuable lessons learned.

What’s the State of Play?

Across Europe, community foundations are engaging in community-based climate action, reflecting the diversity of the field through a myriad of approaches. While newer foundations (set up in the last 10-20 years) often have an environmental or even climate focus from inception (such as Heusenstamm Community Foundation founded in 2022), the previous generation of community foundations are increasingly formalising climate as a strategic priority, sometimes even amending their statutes to reflect this commitment. Rheda-Wiedenbrück Community Foundation, for example, set up in 2006, recently went through the process of formally changing its statutes to include climate as an additional thematic focus.

Currently, only a fraction of the around 850 European community foundations are signatories to one of the Philanthropy for Climate Commitments (in the UK, Italy or Spain for example). Those who are benefit from the structure of the multi-pillar approach and the support offered via the national commitments. The Italian Novarese Community Foundation, for instance, already substantially increased its funding for climate (to 9% of the foundation’s total grantmaking in 2023) and is planning to grow this amount by another 50% in 2024 (Pillar 2 – commitment of resources). Tot Raval Community Foundation from Barcelona is helping its community to cope with heat waves by creating a map of “climate shelters” that allow parents and their kids to escape the blazing heat, while also offering reading groups, playgrounds, and family friendly places for children aged 0 to 6 (Pillar 3 – Integration of a climate lens). In the UK, Kent Community Foundation, is looking for ways to decrease its operational carbon footprint (Pillar 5 – Operations) as well as that of its endowment, by making environmental sustainability a core part of its investment strategy (Pillar 4 – Endowment and Assets). Community Foundation Ireland strategically invests in the capacity of local climate organisations to support them in making their voices heard vis-a-vis more powerful and established interest groups, such as farmers’ associations (Pillar 6 – Influencing and Advocacy).

What Makes the Community Foundation Approach Distinct?

At the heart of the community foundation approach is a focus on the community itself. These foundations identify local needs and opportunities for climate action, fostering consensus and building relationships with stakeholders from civil society, the public sector and local businesses. When it comes to climate action, there are (at least) two distinct “superpowers” that community foundations can draw on as a result of their rootedness in the local context. The first is their ability to broker new local partnerships around climate. Partners for local climate action can include municipalities, local businesses, sometimes even local banks, citizen groups and, of course, the myriad of civil society organisations operating at a community level. A second strategy that a number of community foundations is pursuing is the creation of “positive climate spill-overs” within the community. Examples of this approach include Foundation Scotland’s “nudging” of grant applicants to consider their climate contribution by including a simple question in the application form and the inclusion of climate guidelines in the grant applications of Novarese Community Foundation. In both cases, this approach helped to start the conversation around the intersectionality of the climate crisis among local civil society. Another approach is that taken by Kent Community Foundation which through its “Green Impact Forum” in March 2024 sought to empower and upskill those local organisations already delivering significant initiatives within the voluntary sector and act as a catalyst for those who want to get started, even with small steps, and be a platform for new ideas to emerge.

Challenges and Opportunities

Communities across Europe are feeling the effects of the climate crisis already today and a rapidly growing number of community foundations are realising the need to act. As in other parts of the philanthropic sector, progress is, however, not fast enough and not at a scale commensurate to the challenge. One of the main reasons for this is that many other issues are also competing for resources and attention at a local level, such as, for example, social inequality and a growing political radicalisation. The numbers are also showing us that the scale and level of ambition of community foundation climate action is positively driven by the existence of a national climate commitment. There is currently no German climate commitment for instance and accordingly – even though the country has the largest community foundation sector in Europe (over 400 community foundations) – there are no German community foundation signatories as of early 2024. A German climate commitment – analogous to the national climate commitments in the UK, France, Italy and now Poland – would constitute an important entry point for German community foundations.

Expanding partnerships and building new relationships requires effort and resources, yet they can also be driven by opportunities such as new funding streams for climate and the ability to influence local government strategies on the issue. However, limited capacity within many community foundations poses a barrier to strategic thinking. Community Foundation donors and others funders therefore play a crucial role in recognising and supporting the need for capacity-building within community foundations, ultimately empowering them to become game-changers in the realm of climate action.

Key Learnings

The journey towards meaningful climate action requires at least one motivated “first mover”, be it the CEO, an engaged member of staff or someone from the foundation’s Board, strategic partnerships, and a broader organisational shift. Community foundations benefit from connections with peers and the space to share insights, learnings and challenges, while rising donor interest in climate initiatives presents new funding opportunities. However, the limited capacity within many foundations underscores the importance of donor support in facilitating strategic thinking and organisational development around climate.


Community foundations across Europe are demonstrating the power of local engagement and collaboration in addressing the urgent challenge of climate change. By embracing a holistic approach rooted in community needs and partnerships, these foundations are not only effecting change within their organisations but also catalysing transformation in their local communities. As they navigate challenges and seize opportunities, the sustained support of donors and funders is essential in empowering them to become true game-changers in the fight against, and adaptation to, climate change.


Kathrin Dombrowski
Climate Lead, European Community Foundation Initiative
Francesca Mereta
Peer-learning expert, European Community Foundation Initiative