Starr Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

OVERVIEW:  Founded by insurance magnate Cornelius Vander Starr, who founded several insurance companies that eventually merged into what became the American International Group, Inc. (AIG), The Starr Foundation is a philanthropic behemoth, with assets of nearly $1.25 billion.

IP TAKE: The Starr Foundation is a large grantor, but it likes to keep a very low profile.

PROFILE: Philanthropy News Digest has called it “one of the biggest foundations you’ve never heard of.” The Starr Foundation admittedly doesn’t put much effort into publicity. Its media appearances stay few and far between, and even its website will strike many viewers as surprisingly bare-bones. But if you’re working in environmental action, Starr is worth hearing more about all the same.

The foundation sits atop more than $1.2 billion in assets and channels it to fund more than $50 million a year in grants for a wide spectrum of causes and issues. Human-interest issue areas such as health, housing, and food security have been its larger areas of concern in recent years. But its environmental grant-making, including grant-making for climate-change action, has been consistently large, too. In some years, Starr’s environmental focus has put it among the top foundations in the country for grants in the field of climate change—largesse specifically for climate-related work has topped $11 million in some years.  

Recently, the foundation awarded $1.1 million to the Center for National Interest for general operating support of its energy security and climate change programs. It also gave $250,000 to Securing America’s Future Energy Foundation for general operating support.

The Starr Foundation makes its climate change grants on both a national and international basis. However, it puts a lot of focus specifically on New York City, as evidenced by the $400,000 that it has given to the Central Park Conservancy to help keep the Big Apple green; plus the $150,000 in general support funding that it gave to Scenic Hudson and $35,000 in operating support that it gave to the New York-based nonprofit Riverkeeper. Asia is another locale that grabs much Starr interest; hence the $25,000 that the foundation gave to the Center for Strategic and International Studies to organize a roundtable discussion in Beijing on climate change and governance.

Starr’s support for the Environmental Defense Fund is also noteworthy. The Environmental Defense Fund is based in New York, and received $6 million from Starr for formulating pollution-reducing market reforms that might work in China and across the globe.

Other beneficiaries are dispersed across the United States and are often leading education and public-awareness projects. For example, Starr has awarded $600,000 to the Mid-Atlantic-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation; partly for outreach to farmers on ecologically low-impact farming practices, and partly for an educational campaign to teach the general public about issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay, including climate change. Starr also gave $50,000 to Tufts University in Massachusetts to fund a new library dedicated to research on global development and the environment.

No matter what type of work an organization is undertaking on the environment’s behalf, though, one rule holds true: The foundation funds “selected organizations” working on the environment—i.e., organizations that didn’t submit unsolicited applications. Its grants team will personally contact organizations that it thinks might be contenders for a grant and invite them to send over a preliminary proposal or inquiry. A review committee will look over this preliminary paperwork, and if the committee members like what they see, then they will arrange for the grant-seeker to come in for an in-person meeting.

This invite-only policy exists for two reasons, as told by Courtney O’Malley, Starr’s former vice-president, in a Philanthropy News Digest interview: too many unsolicited applications whose project proposals don’t fit Starr’s stated missions, and a small staff that has very little time to review big stacks of applications of any kind.

“Mostly it’s a capacity issue with managing the paper flow. … It seemed like it made sense to save everybody time and change our policy,” she told her interviewer.  

But she went on to say that Starr might start making exceptions at some future point. No policy at Starr, she said, is necessarily “set in stone.”

So if you’re a grant seeker working in climate change, Starr may be a foundation to watch. You never know if one day it may start accepting unsolicited proposals. And in the meantime, it may be worth your while to look for an introduction and see if someone at Starr might at least take an interest in hearing your idea. But certainly, read up all that you can on Starr and its prerogatives first. Don’t let your application be yet another poor fit.

KEY PEOPLE:

  • Florence Davis, President
  • Abigail Opoku-Agyemang, Director, Program and Grants Administration

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