With Birds at Risk, Audubon Jumps Into Climate Issues in a Big Way—With Big Funders

Audubon has identified climate change as the biggest threat to birds in North America, and launched an ambitious initiative to fight it. The society’s picked up some huge funders so far—and it’s only getting started.

Two years ago, when the National Audubon Society released new research on the threat that climate change poses to bird species, it marked an emphatic entrance into climate advocacy that you might not expect from the 111-year-old institution. 

The chapter-based society best known for its appreciation and protection of birds is not exactly Greenpeace, after all. But like many conservation groups, it’s been compelled to join the fray. Its reason: Climate change puts 50 percent of North American birds at risk, according to its 2014 report.

Related: Funding Conservation Through the Lens of Climate Change

Ospreys, orioles, loons, warblers, even bald eagles are among the 314 species either climate endangered or threatened, standing to lose more than half of their climatic ranges if global warming continues at the current pace. 

Audubon responded by launching a five-year initiative that makes climate a top priority, with plans to put as much as $60 million toward the cause. According to Matthew Anderson, the society’s VP overseeing the initiative, donors have responded in a big way, with more than $14 million in commitments secured so far. 

That includes large grants from major climate funders like McKnight, the Energy Foundation, Skoll Global Threats Fund, and the Energy Foundation. But the biggest supporter is MacArthur, which made a $9 million grant as part of its relatively new climate program, one of the biggest in Audubon’s history, Anderson says.  

The society has a lot to offer funders, most notably its diverse constituency. Current membership is 40 percent Republican or independent, and Audubon seeks to bring 1 million new people to the climate issue through their passion for birds. One of its outreach campaigns is called “Conservation Doesn’t Have a Party.” That kind of approach is a big draw for funders like MacArthur, which launched a climate program as part of its 2015 overhaul. 

Related: MacArthur is the Next Big Climate Funder. Here's What to Expect

The foundation has been a massive environmental funder for years, but never had a dedicated climate program, until recently coming around to the idea that the threat will have a profound impact on everything else they work on. And one way the foundation seeks to make the U.S. a leader on climate is by reducing the political toxicity of the issue. 

Part of that strategy involves working at local levels, something else Audubon is a good match for, with its 500 or so chapters. The group draws a lot of participation from its members, including galas and birding activities, but also grassroots actions. Their members are deeply devoted to birds and polling shows they are receptive to the climate issue, so the society might mobilize a set of people on the subject where, say, 350.org might not. 

The group is also putting a lot of its advocacy work toward places that will become strongholds for bird species amid climate change, prioritizing them for protection, as well as promoting clean energy. 

We’ve been beating the drum for more funders, and nonprofits for that matter, to pay greater attention to climate change and figure out how it fits into their work, and this is a prime example. As Audubon continues to fundraise and prioritize its climate initiative, hopefully it will inspire others to have a similar reality check. 

Related: How Funders Are Using the Power of Their Investments to Impact Climate Change