Robertson Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW: The Robertson Foundation was founded by a retired hedge-fund manager, and it brings an investment-like approach to environmental action. It looks for grant seekers with the resources and capacity to achieve the greatest possible results with funding they receive. The organizations that meet its high bar for admission are few, and tend to be heavy hitters. 

IP TAKE: The Robertson Foundation is invite-only, and tends to give large, ongoing funding to some of the bigger fish in the nonprofit world.

PROFILE: After a lifetime of amassing fortunes as a New York City hedge-fund manager and investor, Julian Robertson decided to start investing in social causes. With his late wife, Josie Robertson, he established the Robertson Foundation in 1996 to be a means for directing “high-impact grants” to four areas of interest, one of which was the environment (education, medical research, and religion and spirituality were the others). The foundation has been directing tens of millions of dollars each year—as much as $104 million—toward nonprofit organizations, including those focused on environmental issues, ever since.

Organizations involved in many types of environmental issues have enjoyed a fiscal boost from Robertson, marine conservation is on the short list of priorities. The website singles out protecting and rehabilitating the oceans as one of two issues—climate change is the other—to which it sends most of its environmental awards.

Specifically, its goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally, but by initiating action within the United States. The foundation professes keen interest at the moment in advancing climate solutions such as a nationwide cap on carbon emissions, and market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade systems.

Very large, recurring, general support grants are this foundation’s usual modus operandi. Many of its grants run several million dollars each. And grantees that win one can usually look forward to more, as Robertson is a foundation that likes to form ongoing partnerships.

Clearly, receiving a grant from Robertson is an enviable achievement. It’s also a very tricky one. Visit Robertson’s website, and the first page will tell you that this foundation makes “high-impact” grants and operates with a “targeted, businesslike, results-oriented approach.” Robertson and his colleagues are investors, and they think like investors when they are deciding what to fund. Foundation staffers are known to conduct data-intensive studies on applicants to quantify how much social and environmental good a grant to that applicant will achieve.

And once the money goes out, the team monitors the grantee’s project to see if it is delivering the expected results. So if you pursue a Robertson grant, expect a lot of scrutiny before, during, and after the decision.

So what kinds of grant seekers tend to meet Robertson’s criteria? Large, well-established ones, for the most part. Robertson doles out big awards to grantees that can carry out big endeavors with them. They include groups such as EarthJustice, which landed $3.75 million from Robertson in just the last few years, and the World Resources Institute, which received $1.4 million in grants over a two-year time frame. Robertson has also given generously to the Energy Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

But the Environmental Defense Fund is the biggest winner among this foundation’s climate change-related grant seekers by far, with more than $31 million in recent Robertson support. The foundation calls the Environmental Defense Fund its lead partner on climate change and has made a multi-year commitment to financially backing this nonprofit’s climate activism, especially its advocacy for cap-and-trade mechanisms and outreach to the public on the causes and hazards of climate change.

Right now, the foundation is not taking unsolicited applications or even unsolicited inquiries. According to the website, the foundation “proactively seeks out organizations with which to partner.” So not to be too discouraging, but the groups with a shot at breaking in with this funder will very likely need to be large, national or international, and with a strong track record and connections in the field. 

Your best bet will be to network your way into Robertson’s circle. The foundation’s tendency to form ongoing partnerships suggests staff have built a network of people they like and trust in climate work. And keep in mind the person you’re ultimately trying to get a seat at the table with is going to be program officer and climate and energy policy analyst Sarah Brennan, who is point on environmental giving.