The Quiet Hedge Fund Heir Who's Engaged in Massive Climate Giving

The Sea Change Foundation gives tens of millions annually to fighting climate change, making six- and seven-figure grants to some of the most progressive groups working on the issue. While Sea Change is notably lacking a public presence, the philanthropist behind it is a powerful player on climate and energy, and part of a family known for its big giving.

Nathaniel Simons is the son of famed philanthropic couple Jim and Marilyn Simons. Nat is a wealthy investor by day and climate crusader by night. Okay, it’s not quite that dramatic, but Simons is more political and far more private in his giving than his family.

Nathaniel established the San Francisco-based Sea Change Foundation in 2006, and he and wife Laura Baxter-Simons are the only trustees. Sea Change has granted between $45 million and $55 million annually in recent years, in the form of large sums to prominent climate change groups. The Energy Foundation, a collaborative for climate funding, is a huge grantee, receiving several million in recent years. The Center for American Progress, the Sierra Club Foundation and the Partnership Project are also frequent beneficiaries. 

Despite all of this activity, Sea Change flies well under the radar, with what is quite possibly the world’s least informative website. The low profile has drawn the ire of more than one conservative blogger suspecting conspiracy. But it doesn’t take much investigation to see who is behind the giving. 

Nat Simons is the heir to hedge fund empire of Jim Simons, the math wizard who founded Renaissance Technologies and is worth about $12 billion. He’s also a principal of the investment firm, and oversees the Meritage Fund, a hedge fund offshoot of Renaissance. Nat’s wife Laura Baxter-Simons has worked at Meritage and Renaissance as counsel. 

Aside from following in Jim Simon’s footsteps professionally, Nathaniel is part of a family tradition of philanthropy. Jim and wife Marilyn Simons run the Simons Foundation, one of the country’s largest funders of basic science and math. Marilyn has also personally given to a handful of progressive causes.

But Nat’s giving is decidedly more political, both as a large Democratic donor and through his work with Sea Change. The foundation holds investments in both Renaissance and Meritage, and the primary donors every year are Nat and Laura. But it has also posted significant income from a vaguely named company based in Bermuda, which doesn't exactly discourage conspiracy theorists.

As for the younger Simon's approach to philanthropy and climate change, he is on record speaking at a Center for American Progress event, along with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in 2009 (thanks C-SPAN!):

To get it done, quickly, is going to take a Herculean effort from all sides. Because it’s not really a question of whether we move to a low carbon economy. I think it’s clear we’re moving there…the question is how quickly. The role of philanthropy is really to facilitate that process... It’s not going to be ramming something down the throats of certain people. We know that that’s not going to work. We’ve seen that, we’ve watched that movie before. We know it’s not going to happen. We can’t take this momentum and let it stall. So philanthropists, foundations, they have a huge responsibility.

He’s quite pragmatic and even diplomatic about the cause, seeing the role of foundations as uniting disparate parties by adopting a neutral stance.

So why the low profile? Maybe he's trying to protect the foundation's neutral appearance. Maybe the elder Simonses are more gun-shy about politics, or more involved than they seem, but under the radar. Or maybe they're concerned about folks they rub shoulders with while working at a hedge fund seeing them on TV handcuffed to a coal plant. Either way, the younger Simonses may be the most powerful philanthropic couple working on climate change today.

Read more IP coverage of the Simons universe and Sea Change below:

The Simons Foundation

Sea Change Foundation

James Simons

Marilyn Simons

Stephen Colwell, Executive Director of Sea Change