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

After years of peppering climate funding across its other programs, MacArthur is making it official—under its new focus, it will not only offer a climate change program, it will be a top priority. We asked Jorgen Thomsen, the new program’s director, what we can expect. 

When the MacArthur Foundation’s new president Julia Stasch announced last week a major overhaul of the funder’s priorities, the first things that jumped out were the cuts. MacArthur, with its more than $6 billion in assets and staff of 185, had become a little unfocused over the years, and Stasch is very quickly sending a clear message that it is narrowing its focus big-time. 

Related: At MacArthur, a Foundation Chief Who Favors Big Bets and Is Handy With an Ax

But another huge change is the creation of the funder’s first proper climate program. Climate change has been named one of two focuses that Stasch is calling “big bets,” or “all-in” commitments by the foundation to affect timely, profound issues (the other is criminal justice in the U.S.). The climate program kicks off with $50 million in commitments for 2015.

“We have kept an eye on this issue for some time, but I think where we are, where the board is, is realizing that climate change is one of the issues that will certainly define this century, but will also have an impact on everything we do as a foundation,” Thomsen said in an interview.

“Regardless of where we work and what we work on, climate change will somehow have an impact on that, and it is time for us to step up and make our contribution.”

Until now, although a juggernaut in the environmental community, MacArthur has not had a dedicated climate program. It has focused mainly on global conservation efforts through a geographically targeted Conservation and Sustainable Development program, and has thus far preferred to fund climate work as components of that and other programs.

That’s not been insignificant, as it's funded work in climate adaptation, energy efficiency, and carbon sequestration. But now the foundation, under Stasch’s leadership, is saying that this impacts everything, and it’s moved center stage. A little late to the party, but that’s a big deal.

Related: MacArthur Delves Deeper into Climate and Fracking

We actually predicted this was coming back in September when we began to see some hints of uncharacteristic giving from the foundation, and have frequently wondered aloud why some big green funders don’t seem fully invested in fighting climate change. But I have to say, this is even more of a shift than I expected. 

In anticipation of the program’s unveiling, Thomsen took a moment to explain what role MacArthur might play in this issue now and in the future. Here are some takeaways: 

Big general support for a handful of groups

Fine, I’ll cut to the chase—here’s who is getting the money. The initial $50 million commitment from the foundation is what they’re calling a “down payment” on what the program will become. But the most compelling thing about this first round is that about 60 percent is going to general support for a handful of large green groups:

  • $20 million to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy;
  • $3 million to ClimateWorks Foundation, which was created by Hewlett, Packard and a few other foundations in 2008;
  • $3 million to the Energy Foundation;
  • $3 million to the NRDC; and
  • $1.5 million to the Environmental Law & Policy Center. 

In addition, today, the foundation announced it was giving $15 milion to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

These grantees should come as no surprise. ClimateWorks and Energy Foundation are two of the dominant mechanisms through which large funders back climate work. And EDF and Nature Conservancy are two ubiquitous grantees, the former a favorite among environmental foundations enthusiastic about the role of industry and markets. 

Not too surprising, but still a big move for MacArthur. “So much of our work in the past has been project driven,” Thomsen said. “We are now seeking partnerships and will definitely include general operating support at a significant level as part of our repertoire.” 

It won’t work like other programs

Part of the point of starting with big chunks of general support to a handful of key partners is the idea that they will help the program take shape. Remember, this is coming together mostly from scratch. 

Rather than hiring a program director from outside, staffing up and charting a course, MacArthur’s climate giving will instead gather its direction from the foundation’s existing staff and from grantees and other partners. 

“It is breaking with the traditional program structure, and it is much more problem-oriented, where we are bringing the talent from different parts of the foundation together to think about what are the best things we can do,” said Thomsen, who himself has directed the foundation’s conservation program since 2009. “We are also opening this up for much more external input than perhaps some of our programs have in the past.”

The other thing that sets it apart: It’s an open-ended commitment. They’re not working with a fixed budget or timeframe.  

Stasch indicated that the foundation would be moving away from programs with indefinite lifespans. But in this case, the deadline is set by the goal of curbing global warming in the near term, using the global target of limiting it to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Making the U.S. a global leader, starting at the dinner table

The initial theme behind MacArthur’s climate program is making the United States into a global leader when it comes to climate change. First, that means holding the country to GHG emissions reductions and increasing renewable energy. The foundation hopes to use that clout to guide global negotiations and partnerships with countries like China and India. 

“We are looking at this as a global issue, as a global problem that needs to be dealt with, with global solutions. But it’s inconceivable that we can find those solutions without the U.S. being a constructive player.”

This is pretty new territory for the funder, which works mostly abroad in its conservation work (which will continue, by the way). As for how to get there, one strategy is making climate less politically toxic than the way it plays out in national politics. That means taking the discussion to states, cities, businesses and communities.  

“We are certainly looking for partners that can help bring the climate issue into the living room and the kitchen throughout this country,” Thomsen said. “We need to have a very different way of discussing this. We need to bring this… into the mainstream of U.S. politics, and organizations that can do that are organizations that we will look at with some interest.” 

He cited the Nature Conservancy as an example, pointing out its chapter-based system, with local boards that reflect each community. 

Thumbs down for coal; thumbs up (maybe) for natural gas

So far, we’re seeing some parallels to Mike Bloomberg’s climate funding, with talk of municipal and industry leadership, and efforts to de-politicize the issue. One direct similarity is the foundation’s support for shutting down coal plants. 

Of the initial round of grants, the largest program-related investment is that gift to the Beyond Coal campaign for $15 million. The grant follows Bloomberg’s $30 million commitment made in the spring. This makes Beyond Coal one of the best-heeled environmental campaigns on the scene, and a factor in the industry’s steady demise. 

Related: Bloomberg, the Spock of Philanthropy, Doubles Down Against Coal

Of course, the flip side of coal’s demise is gas drilling's meteoric rise. So Thomsen said the foundation has an interest in working with industry to reduce methane emissions that threaten to cancel out any benefit of burning gas instead of coal.

The fracking fight has been a divisive issue for funders. Some oppose the practice, citing environmental harm and diversion from renewables, while others are tolerant, citing lower emissions than alternatives like coal. MacArthur is concerned about methane emissions, but sees natural gas as an opportunity.


“When you look at the energy mix and the transformation that is happening right now towards renewables over the next coming decades, it’s very clear that natural gas is a very important part of the energy mix in this country,” Thomsen said.

“There’s no reason why we should not be able to work with the industry to clean up the methane problem.”

Another emissions strategy the program is pursuing is putting a price on carbon. Thomsen said the EDF’s analytical capacity will help the foundation find a role in using markets to control emissions. The foundation is also backing the Carbon Disclosure Project with $340,000 for its efforts to accelerate implementation of carbon pricing.

So there you have it—an early sketch of what's ahead from the newest big funder of climate change work. It's a promising mix of approaches, so far. Yes, TNC and EDF landed a big chunk, but you've also got the Energy Foundation's work on renewables, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center on the regulatory side. But things are definitely still taking shape.

Regardless of the strategies it settles into, we're seeing a lot of fast, sweeping changes at Julia Stasch's MacArthur, and this is a strong statement out of the gate. If MacArthur isn't bluffing on this bet, it could be the biggest news for climate change philanthropy in years.