Skoll Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW: The Skoll Foundation seeks to harnesses the power of business and innovation for the good of the planet. It’s one of the main practitioners of philanthrocapitalism, or using entrepreneurship to create positive change, with programs devoted to sustainable markets and stopping deforestation. The foundation also supports the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which includes climate change as one of five priorities.

IP TAKE: Skoll is one of the more innovative funders out there, but takes on only a small number of new grantees (or investments) each year. One big focus of his climate funding lately is improving climate advocacy through better sharing of information and learning. 

PROFILE: Jeff Skoll is an entrepreneur and nonprofit executive, having been the first president of eBay, founder of the Skoll Foundation, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and the independent film production company Participant Media, which produced films like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc. So one might not be surprised if the Skoll Foundation were to show some business sensibility in its philanthropic giving. Its mission: “Investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems.” (See IP's profile of Jeff Skoll.)

The Skoll Foundation is a model of philanthrocapitalism, i.e., harnessing business savvy to improve societal and environmental well-being, and not just to accrue capital. Skoll calls it social entrepreneurship: driving large-scale change by using innovation to disrupt the status quo. There are two main programs the Skoll Foundation runs that take on climate change.

The Sustainable Markets Program, in particular, sets out to advance sustainability, conservation, and alternative fuel use through effective investment in established and innovative groups and programs, and through support for social entrepreneurs who demonstrate a commitment to solving the climate crisis. 

Skoll believes today’s markets focus only on the short-term, overlooking environmental damage and resource depletion, and that government and charity can only do so much. Marketable innovations that change business by rendering production processes, business practices, supply chains, and the finished consumer products and services themselves more sustainable are the kinds of projects that this program looks to fund.

Skoll's main point person on climate change, Amy Luers, came to the Skoll Global Threats Fund from Google, where she developed IT projects related to environmental monitoring. Previously, she worked for the Union of Concerned Scientists to develop alternative federal and state energy policies. 

One thing that Luers has done at the fund is to step back and ask big questions about why the fight against climate change hasn't been more successful, and how philanthropy can be more effective in this area. She interviewed over 60 people, including climate advocates, foundation staffers, and academics, and summarized her conclusions this way:

The US climate movement has failed to create the political support needed to pass significant climate policy. It is time to reassess climate advocacy. . . . climate advocates have focused too narrowly on specific policy goals and insufficiently on influencing the larger political landscape. I suggest four ways to improve climate advocacy: 1) Increase focus on medium and longer-term goals; 2) Start with people and not carbon; 3) Focus more on values and less on science; and 4) Evaluate what works and share what we learn. To accomplish these strategies, social scientists and advocates must work together to build a culture of learning. Meanwhile, philanthropy must empower experimentation and incentivize knowledge sharing. 

Those findings help explain why Luers and the fund have been building up something called the Climate Learning Initiative, which involves grantmaking around U.S. climate engagement. Alas, no guidelines are available for such grants and the fund doesn't accept unsolicited proposals. 

One of the more prominent grantees of the Global Threats Fund has been the Climate Reality Project, which received $15 million over three years for public education on climate change. The Energy Foundation, a pass-through climate funder, also received $1.1 million for climate engagement. 

Other groups that have received serious Skoll money over time for work on climate change include the American Council on Renewable Energy, for its work in expanding clean energy globally, and Ceres, a coalition that uses financial leverage to get businesses to be more sustainable. The foundation also granted $5 million recently to Root Capital, a regular grantee, for its work in sustainable agriculture.

More market-based remedies to the global climate crisis get a hand through Skoll’s deforestation program, which strives to slow down the depletion of the world’s forest cover not only through new laws, but also through market and community mechanisms. The Amazon, Central America, and Southeast Asia are among the regions where this program goes to work. The California nonprofit Conservation Strategy Fund received $349,000 in grant funds for an Amazon corridors project through this Skoll program. Gaia Amazonas is another partner, which hands over large chunks of rainforest to indigenous people.

The foundation also gave two $10 million grants to the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit founded by Al Gore, for outreach campaigns to foster public awareness of the threat of global warming. Another $2.6 million went to Live Earth to produce environmental documentaries.

Bear in mind that awards from Skoll that exceed $500,000 are the exception and not the rule. Most grants fall within the $50,000 to $350,000 range. Skoll rarely awards grants over $500,000. The foundation generally tends to award multi-year grants with each grantee averaging about three years. This doesn't leave a lot of room for newcomers. 

The Skoll Global Threats Fund does not have its own endowment or anything. The Skoll Foundation is the primary supporter of the fund, giving $15 million annually in recent years. The fund initiates projects on its own and funds the participants, so opportunities are invite-only.

KEY PEOPLE:

Skoll Foundation

Skoll Global Threats Fund

  • Annie Maxwell, President
  • Amy Luers, Director, Climate Change

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