26 April 2021

You can’t play a symphony alone, it takes an orchestra

Preparing for the launch of the latest edition of our Environmental Funding by European Foundations publication, I mentioned the topic to my eldest son who said that this was the most important thing he had heard me work on since I started my new job at the EFC.

For many reasons, he may very well be right.

After all, he will be 20 when we reach the deadline of the SDGs and of the 2030 Climate Target Plan. By then, unless we act today, damage due to climate change will be irreversible and in his lifetime he will see

  • 90,000 more people die each year of heatwaves,
  • 2 million more people flooded in coastal areas,
  • An increase in infectious diseases such as the pandemic we are living through today.

All this in Europe alone, and to just name a few of the detrimental changes that lie ahead.

Calling this an existential crisis for the world is not an exaggeration, and as tends to be the case, crises do not form an orderly queue in order for us to deal with them one at a time. So while our focus may have shifted responding to the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year, the urgency of the climate crisis did not decrease… quite the opposite, the health of our planet is inextricable from the health of the people on it. As we saw philanthropy come to the fore for Covid-19, so, too, must it be part of a holistic, cross-sector approach to preventing irrevocable damage to our planet.

Only with a joint effort on the part of all sectors, including philanthropy, can we hope to safeguard the future of generations to come. The latest edition of our Environmental Funding by European Foundations publication aims to contribute to exactly that. The publication represents the most comprehensive study to date into support for environmental initiatives provided by European philanthropic foundations, based on the analysis of 5.358 grants by 127 Foundations granting a total amount of 745,6 million € for environmental work. It also aims to start drawing a critically important picture of the different behaviours and attitudes of environmental funders in Europe, as with each edition we get new insights, allowing us to track multi-year trends.

The fact that it is the 5th volume, making it the longest running EFC mapping series, underlines the importance, but also the longevity and complexity, of the challenges we face when it comes to the environment.

During EuroPhilantopics last year, which focused on the twin crises of climate and Covid, the lead author of the mapping, Jon Cracknell, described the environmental movement as being like an orchestra. Our latest environmental mapping builds on this analogy as it attempts to give an overview of the different instrument sections, i.e. the themes, geographies and methods these funders focus on. Knowing who is doing what also allows environmental funders to identify gaps in the field – which sections of the orchestra are overrepresented, underrepresented or in some way disproportional? Like any orchestra, we need all sections adequately represented to achieve harmony. And starting with the good news, we’ve made a lot of progress since we first embarked upon this symphony:

  • There has been an overall growth in the total value of environmental grants
  • Large foundations have set up new grants and others are scaling up
  • More recently, philanthropic infrastructure committed to join forces towards a carbon neutral world by 2050, several initiatives are already in the pipeline, such as the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate initiative, led by the colleagues of DAFNE.

But in recognising the positives, we must also recognise that there is even more still to be done:

  • Only 2% of philanthropic giving is currently directed towards mitigating climate change
  • There is still a severe lack of EU-wide grantmaking activity, a stark contrast to the 80% of environmental legislation framed at the EU level
  • While foundations take pride in their ability to take risks, we see that only a small minority of grants support the more radical change needed to safeguard the future of my son and so many others like him

Of course, grants are not the only tool in the toolbox of Foundations, yet as with many pressing challenges, funding will continue to be needed to turn the tides. These points bring me to my call to action. We need to mobilise more funders outside the environmental field to see their role in addressing climate change, because whatever their main sphere of activity there will surely be a climate lens to it; we need to find mechanisms to ensure that we increase EU-wide grantmaking; and last but not least, with philanthropy priding itself on its independence and ability to take risks, we should consider ways in which some of us can engage with those radical projects needed to achieve the radical change required. The risk of not doing something will be far greater.

A difficult question, so here are a few suggestions rather than concrete answers:

  • (Over) cautiousness of some trustees not wanting to rock the boat
  • Difficulty in measuring the impact of more radical protest type action
  • Lack of awareness of the different discourses, i.e. funders not really thinking in terms of the spectrum from incremental to radical change
  • Funders who are active in the more radical discourses sometimes form self-reinforcing groups that are constantly frustrated with others but are not necessarily easy for those others to join
  • All this despite a movement on the part of younger staff for their organisations to be more radical, not just in the environmental funding field but in terms of racial and social justice, tackling inequality, etc.

It would be wonderful to have your thoughts on these, and the general topic of risk taking. Of one thing I’m certain: The risk of not doing something will be far greater.

Only a full orchestra, with an eclectic repertoire, will be able to slow down the pace of climate change and we all have an instrument to play.

Find out more about the EFC’s European Environmental Funders Group