Sea Change Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW: The Sea Change Foundation is funded by Nathaniel Simons, the son of hedge fund wizard James Simons and a major Democratic donor. Sea Change gives away tens of millions of dollars every year to promote clean energy and reduce carbon emissions, mainly in the United States. But it also spends heavily on policy advocacy work.

IP TAKE: This is one of the more openly progressive and political funders in the energy and climate space. It mostly, quietly funds the giants of climate change work. Donor Nat Simons believes the role of philanthropy in climate change is to bring together disparate stakeholders and facilitate progress. Very little public presence.

PROFILE: The Sea Change Foundation funds a wide array of energy and environmental groups, giving out between $40 million and $55 million in recent years. But you won't find the kind of large professional foundation staff here that is usually in charge of this kind of giving, and there are only two trustees, the founding couple. The funder does not accept proposals and offers very little online.

In contrast to the size of its giving, Sea Change is a very small operation. This is very much the philanthropic shop of Nathaniel Simons or Nat, as he is known and his wife, Laura Baxter-Simons, both in their 40s. Nat is president of Sea Change; Laura is secretary. All the funds from the foundation come from their personal fortune, or wealth associated with Renaissance Technology, the wildly successful hedge fund that Nat's father, James Simons, created and where Nat spent years as a portfolio manager. There's also income from a vaguely named company based in Bermuda, which has drawn accusations from various conspiracy-prone bloggers. 

Nat and Laura are something of a Bay Area power couple. While Nat is an heir to one of the largest hedge fortunes around and has two degrees from UC Berkeley (in economics and math), Laura is a Stanford-educated lawyer whose father, Marvin Baxter, is a justice on the California Supreme Court. Sea Change is not the only avenue through which Nat is trying to move the needle on energy issues. He's also CEO of Elan Management, which invests in early-stage renewable energy and cleantech companies.

The day-to-day operations of the foundation are led by Executive Director Stephen Colwell. Before coming to Sea Change, Colwell was executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance and Ocean Foundation. He also advised various foundations, such as Packard and Moore, on their environmental strategy. So this is a guy who definitely knows his way around the world that he is now showering with Nat Simons's money. Sea Change has a few other experienced senior staff members in addition to Colwell.

The Sea Change Foundation is impressive for its laser focus on clean energy as the key to slowing climate change, along with its willingness to back more political outfits like the Center for American Progress (CAP), the progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. Despite this keen focus, though, Sea Change spreads its money pretty widely. Beyond giving millions every year to its main grantee, the Energy Foundation, and well over $1 million a year to major organizations such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and CAP, it also gives mid-six-figure grants to a wide array of other groups involved in energy or climate issues.

In short, this is a good funder to know. It has very deep pockets and is open to a variety of strategies aimed at promoting clean energy and reducing high carbon energy use. But don't think you can walk in the door with any climate project — very few grants stray far from the energy issue. This is not a funder to approach about deforestation. On the other hand, the Sea Change Foundation is very much interested in moving public opinion on climate issues.

We can also gain some insight into how Nat Simons views the role of philanthropy in climate change, based on comments he made at a CAP event, alongside speakers like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

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.

So if you're with a well-established organization doing work to educate the public and build support for a clean economy, or to build broad partnerships for clean energy, it's definitely worth an attempt to get a foot in the door with Sea Change.

The foundation doesn't make it easy, however. The website has no information, not even an address. The main point of the site seems to be to warn people that the Sea Change Foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals. Exactly how one gets solicited for a proposal is always a murky matter. But one obvious first step is to get in touch with Stephen Colwell via email and tell him what you're doing. (See IP's profile of Colwell, with contact information.)

KEY PEOPLE:

  • Stephen Colwell, Executive Director
  • Sandra Doyle, Program Strategist
  • Satkartar Khalsa, Program Strategist
  • Clifford Chen, Program Strategist

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