A growing mountain of research suggests that climate change is likely to aggravate every problem now confronting humanity: hunger, gender inequality, ethnic conflict, unemployment—you name it. So you'd think, by now, that this existential threat would be a top priority of philanthropy.
You'd be wrong. Less than 2 percent of all philanthropic dollars go to the cause, and much of it comes from just a handful of funders. Where is all the money?
When you write a lot about environmental philanthropy, it’s easy to be impressed by big gifts and new foundations tackling climate change. But the larger picture is that not nearly enough money is flowing to move the needle on this urgent challenge.
Recently, Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, and Carol Larson, president of the Packard Foundation—two of the biggest climate funders and also board members of philanthropic climate initiative ClimateWorks—wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Philanthropy challenging other foundations to start funding climate work, and fast. The authors cite plenty of progress, and say nothing to discount the foundations that are truly championing this cause. But that 2 percent figure is hard to get past.
Back in 2010, things were looking pretty good for climate philanthropy. The Foundation Center issued a report (pdf) that the number of climate change-related grants doubled from 2000 to 2008, and giving spiked in 2008 to nearly $900 million (although that number was hugely skewed by the launch of ClimateWorks, and the massive related giving from Hewlett and a few other big funders that year).
While I couldn’t find a climate change-specific analysis of what’s happened since 2008, Foundation Center data on environment grants overall isn’t that encouraging. After the 2008 spike, environment giving plunged post-recession, and in 2012, overall giving for environment and animals was up only about 8 percent (to $1.6 billion) since 2007. Again, that’s not climate change-specific, but it doesn’t suggest the rapid climb you’d want to see.
Kramer and Larson’s point is that every foundation program out there can and should find a place for climate funding, given that it’s a global crisis that affects work related to poverty, developing countries, wildlife, public health, safety. “Climate change isn’t just an environmental problem. It is an everything problem.”
So why are so many funders standing down? Here are a few possible answers.
Funders think others are on the case. Given the attention a few years back to all the new money flowing into climate work, you could see how many funders might still see this as a crowded field where additional philanthropic players aren't needed. Everyone wants their funding to make a unique difference, and it will take some work to correct the misimpression that enough foundations are working the climate issue.
Funders are too rigid about priorities. If you still don't understand that climate change is an "everything problem," you might see no easy way for your foundation to work on this area if its priorities lie elsewhere—say, in education, health, or the arts. It requires a highly versatile mindset to both make the substantive connection and then shift around real money. Foundations aren't well known for that kind of versatility and, as a practical matter, existing program priorities tend to be heavily defended by champions within the organization. You can see how it could be a tough sell to get a board at an arts foundation to back work on climate change—especially if that means cutting back funding in other areas.
Even environmental funders aren't fully on board. Surprisingly, even some green funders aren't as attuned to climate change as you might think, or yet ready to shift funding away from conservation activities which, historically, have commanded a big portion of all environmental philanthropic dollars. A wildlife or conservation funder may work to protect a chunk of sensitive land, overlooking the fact that climate change stands to completely alter that ecosystem. The Walton Family Foundation is a good example right now of a conservation funder that is largely sidestepping climate change. Walton is now one of the largest environmental funders in the country, giving more than $100 million in 2014, but with very little discernible priority being given to climate change, or even much public acknowledgement of this issue. Meanwhile, Walton is funding work on rivers and ecosystems that are already being profoundly threatened by climate change. Talk about looking downstream.
Funders are risk averse. This, sadly, is probably a big factor, and one we talk about a lot on this site. Foundations are notoriously protective of their endowments and their public images. They also increasinly want to fund only projects that can post a traceable return on investment. Why try to profoundly influence U.S. public opinion, or shape global energy policy, when you can just keep writing checks to direct service organizations that you know feed and house people right now? As for protecting endowments, it's worth noting that Kramer and Larson didn't say anything about their two foundations paying out more annually in grants to confront what they're calling the most urgent problem in the world. Humanity's future may hang in the balance, but sticking with standard payout rates apparently trumps that fact. "Leadership matters in this fight," they write. Yes, it does, and dipping in a big way into the $15 billion in assets Hewlett and Packard have between them would be a striking way to show such leadership, on top of all the other leadership these two funders have already shown on this issue.
Funders don’t believe in climate change (or are at least acting like they don't). It’s hard to accept that this could be the case, but then again, a Gallup poll today shows that fewer than four in 10 conservative Republicans think that global warming will occur in their lifetimes. Only 27 percent of that group believe humans are mostly responsible. There’s a chunk of the country that just won’t move on this issue. How much of that exists in philanthropy? Hard to say, although there are certainly wealthy donors working directly in opposition to climate work.
All is not lost, by any means. Foundations and nonprofits are doing incredible, and very smart work in this arena, and some new funders have entered this space in recent years.
Still, there’s that 2 percent figure. More leadership, and more giving, is imperative. Philanthropy is one of the few pockets of power that could really flex its muscle on the climate issue. There’s no election coming up, no shareholders, no term limits, very little media criticism.