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Becoming a Climate Funder: How Philanthropists Can Take Action on Climate and Justice

In many parts of the United States, our weather is growing more extreme. Recent headlines shout about record-breaking heat domes, severe drought, and dangerous wildfires. In Texas, communities experienced freezing winter temperatures and electrical grid failure, followed only four months later by extreme heat and more power outages. And people are dying; extreme heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the U.S., with heatwaves now coming more often.

What is causing this frightening increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters and extreme weather? In large part, the cause is climate change. The root of our acute weather-driven disasters is a slower-moving climate crisis. How can philanthropy take action, both preparing to respond to future disasters, and addressing the root cause of climate change?

Learning from philanthropy’s COVID-19 response to prepare for future disasters and crises

As foundations prepare to support communities that face climate-driven disasters, there are several lessons from philanthropy’s response to COVID-19 that can strengthen future disaster response:

  • Increase collaborative efforts, in partnership with communities, and institutionalize the infrastructure and relationships created for rapid response funds in preparation for the next disaster
  • Increase the amount of funding available in times of acute crisis and recovery
  • Increase the speed and flexibility of funding (e.g., provide general operating support)
  • Decrease the administrative and reporting burdens for grantees
  • Direct substantial resources specifically to the people most vulnerable to the impact of a particular crisis

On this last point, disasters and crises cause the most harm for the most vulnerable—both during the initial impact and in the recovery—as we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis. Philanthropic resources can help vulnerable communities and families prepare and increase resilience; and in the wake of disasters, response funds can support community-led efforts to serve those families and regions most impacted.

In the U.S., the long history of structural racism means that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are often the most vulnerable to the impacts of disasters. This was certainly true of the COVID-19 crisis. While many foundations committed to supporting racial justice ideals in 2020, the data reflects more tempered actions: Research from Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy shows that, of the COVID-19 response grants from institutional philanthropy (corporations, foundations, and public charities) that included data on the recipient and communities served, only 13% of grants in 2020 were directed to communities of color. To prevent the worst harms from future disasters, philanthropy must direct significant resources specifically to BIPOC-led efforts and BIPOC communities for disaster preparation and response.

Addressing climate for a more livable future

While short-term response to acute disasters is important work for philanthropy, it is critical that the sector mount a long-term, systemic response to the underlying root causes: climate change and its drivers. When talking about climate change, we often hear about greenhouse gases and fossil fuels. Those are important, but so are the less explicit drivers, including extractive economic practices, environmental destruction, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Ultimately, confronting these multi-dimensional root causes demands that philanthropy, in partnership with governments and the private sector, begin to pursue dual and intertwined goals around climate and justice.

Why is it imperative for philanthropy to engage with climate and justice together?

Engaging with climate justice will help build a more equitable, regenerative society—with the power to positively impact human health, poverty alleviation, economic opportunity, racial equity, democracy, and human rights. This call to action does not mean that every foundation must become a technical expert on greenhouse gas mitigation. We need a chorus of actors, contributing resources and expertise across a wide range of areas and representing diverse communities’ lived experience, to equitably shift systems related to our climate—energy, food, urban environments, civic engagement, jobs, and more. All funders have an opportunity to take a climate lens to their work.

For funders new to considering a climate lens, where to start?

Here are several early findings from FSG’s current research on expanding philanthropic engagement in climate action:

  • Think about and name climate explicitly, and yet define the climate crisis broadly as you find your path to action. Climate is not just about mitigating carbon dioxide emissions and responding to sea-level rise; the climate crisis is also about the future of economic opportunity, health equity, clean air and water, housing stability, food systems (on land and in the ocean), and democracy. Talking about climate and defining it broadly can help funders and grantees recognize common challenges and opportunities, even when stakeholders may use different language. Action on climate demands that philanthropy work across issues, collaborating with multi-solvers and embracing the cross-cutting ways that the climate crisis manifests for people in frontline communities.
  • Build power, especially among frontline and BIPOC communities, to lead this work. As a sector, we must reconsider our own notion of who is an expert in climate change and generously resource frontline communities to lead us in a just transition of our economic and energy systems. For example, the grassroots group RISE St. James in Louisiana is fighting to stop the expansion of petrochemical facilities that negatively impact human health, environment, and greenhouse gas emissions in the St. James Parish along the Mississippi River. The Indigenous Environmental Network is supporting Indigenous-led efforts fighting for economic and climate justice—including the successful advocacy against the Keystone XL pipeline and the ongoing fight against Line 3 in Minnesota. Funders can generously fund and support leaders from frontline communities, especially Black and Indigenous women. As one step in this process, donors can consider signing the Donors of Color Climate Pledge. Finally, in building power among frontline communities, funders must orient to the process as much or more than the outcomes.
  • Do not act alone. The problems and opportunities are too big, too complex and systemic for any one actor to work alone. Build relationships, join alliances and networks, pool funds, and collaborate across sectors for both learning and action. Many intermediary funds (sometimes called re-granting organizations)—such as the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, and the CLIMA Fund—also exist to help donors pool funds and pursue climate justice strategies in the U.S. and globally.
  • Be brave in trying new approaches, learning, and communicating with peer funders. Changing our mindsets and shifting our practices is hard work; foundation staff and leaders must act with courage. Communicating with peers about climate action is an important part of its impact, contributing to changing the narrative around who is a climate funder and what is effective.
  • Layer your strategies and tools, promoting multiple interventions. For effective action in any system—from local to national in scale—place bets in multiple parts of the system, using different levers, tools, and partners.

A decade ago, society was on a projected path toward 4°C global average temperature warming; today the projections have dropped to 3°C. We are moving in the right direction, but we need more action—much more—in the next decade to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and transition to a regenerative economy. Philanthropy has a critical opportunity to work alongside markets and governments, and specifically to play a role ensuring that any and all climate action contributes to a more just and equitable world.

Laura Tilghman

Director