If scientific predictions about climate change are right, it's fair to say that this is the most important issue confronting humanity. And, thankfully, a growing number of funders are seeing things this way. Funding to address climate change is relatively plentiful, and no matter what your angle is on this urgent issue, chances are there is a funder putting resources in that area.
What's more, new deep-pocketed funders regularly arrive on the scene as more foundations and super-wealthy individuals wake up to the overriding primacy of climate change. For instance, billionaire Jeff Skoll developed a new and intense focus on climate change after realizing that it affected all the other issues he was targeting with his philanthropy. "It's the great exacerbator of so many other things," Skoll said in 2011. "It will ultimately drive so many terrible dynamics in the world that we need to get a handle on this one today."
Since the mid-2000s, there's been a surge in philanthropic giving to address climate change. According to Foundation Center, giving from U.S. foundations for climate change was more or less steady from 2000 to 2005 — hovering around $100 million a year — and then saw notable growth in 2006 and 2007 and a massive spike in 2008. A large part of that spike came from an initiative launched by three of the country's biggest foundations to spend more than $1 billion on climate change, but even without that investment from the heavyweights, there's been growth.
This growth is not too surprising, given the rise in awareness and consensus about how greenhouse gas emissions are threatening the planet's ecosystems. It's also very likely tied to the election of President Barack Obama, signaling to big philanthropists that perhaps the time had come for comprehensive federal action on climate. Alas, that day has yet to arrive, but climate change work remains a large priority for environmental funders.
Funding for the environment hovers at about 6% to 7% of overall foundation grants, and for the funders making those grants, it has become painfully clear that it will be difficult to continue protecting biology and ecosystems with the all-encompassing threat of climate change looming in the distance. For example, conservation stalwart MacArthur Foundation widened its environment program in 2011 to include addressing the effects of climate change. Jeff Skoll's new interest in climate change resulted in this becoming a focus of his giving through the Skoll Global Threats Fund.
Types of Work Supported
What's striking about climate change funding is the diversity among approaches to the problem. While there's still a strong emphasis on the basic goal of boosting clean energy sources, certain foundations have locked onto building efficiency, others to preventing deforestation, and others to adapting the world to the inevitable effects of climate change. Some funders are focused on how climate change is affected by, and is affecting, the Earth's marine ecosystem. Others are looking at deserts and desertification. Still others are investing heavily in public policy advocacy and public education, with a big focus on prompting action at every level of government: city, state, national, and international. And a few foundations are supporting work that explores the all-important question of just how compatible today's form of capitalism really is with the ecological imperatives humans now face. So, as we said earlier, no matter what approach your organization takes to climate change, there's a good chance that a funder is supporting work in that area.
In addition to the wide range of approaches taken by funders, giving in this area also tracks somewhat along geographic lines. A number of foundations focus their climate efforts heavily on the Amazon, believing the preservation of the vast rain forests in this region holds the key to stabilizing the world's climate. Other funders have zeroed in on deforestation elsewhere, such as in Indonesia, or are supporting efforts to cope with the effect of climate change in the American West or the Himalayas. Funders with a narrow geographic focus often support climate change work in a specific region or city. For example, the Barr Foundation is spending millions to help Massachusetts and Boston meet or exceed targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Yes, there is a lot of money out there for climate work. But the foundations also have a lot of mouths to feed in this space, and competition is intense. Any program officer who's been funding climate work for a while will already have long-time grantees, and so it's always a challenge for a new organization to be added to the portfolio. Also, funders in this space are keenly aware that there is considerable duplication of work by competing NGOs. They have their antennae up for projects that might add to this problem.
No grantseeker should underestimate how important it is for a proposed project to truly add value. And that means having a strong command of what other NGOs are already getting funded to do. Studying the existing grantees of a foundation will let you figure out whether another organization is already getting money to do what you're proposing.
Still, don't be discouraged by the competition. The climate change field is changing all the time, with fresh strategies and areas of focus emerging to draw substantial funding resources. For example, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions produced in the U.S. agricultural and food supply system has been hot lately, but this issue was barely on the radar of funders five or six years ago. Encouraging re-urbanization and more use of bicycles and mass transit is another hot area right now.
In short, the key to success is to be on the cutting edge. Funders may have lots of existing commitments, but they're also always on the lookout for the next big thing. And if you're part of that next thing, your prospects will be strong.
Another key is to think geographically. More and more locally focused funders are waking up to the implications of climate change for the city or region in which they fund. And more funders are realizing that this is not a problem that can be left to Washington to solve. As a result, there are new opportunities for the local funding of climate change work that didn't exist just a few years ago.
Finally, keep an eye out for new money. More wealthy individuals are ramping up their philanthropy every year, and some slice of these are gravely concerned about climate change — or can be moved to act on this issue with the right pitch.
Otherwise, the usual advice applies. Because a great many funders have specific restrictions on what or where they fund, funders that appear to be a perfect fit may in fact be totally inaccessible. IP's descriptions of the key funders in this space will give you a sense of those that may actually be a match.
Still, as always, it's crucial to read grantmaking guidelines carefully to ascertain whether your organization or project has any real shot at funding. And by studying the existing grantees of a foundation, you'll get a sense of whether your organization is the kind that could also be funded.