Tomkat Charitable Trust: Grants for Climate & Energy

OVERVIEW: The Tomkat Charitable Trust is the foundation of Tom Steyer and Kathryn Taylor, the philanthropic power couple who have jumped into the deep end of the climate change fight. The couple’s foundation is an extension of this fight, although less political and more about policy, sustainability research, and public engagement.

IP TAKE: Steyer and Taylor give the occasional massive gift for clean energy, but even discounting those, the couple’s foundation has been giving in the ballpark of $5 million a year to clean energy issues in recent years.

PROFILE: Tom Steyer is a San Francisco-based hedge fund billionaire who is strongly and vocally in support of clean energy development and sustainable living. Aside from energy, Steyer and wife Taylor (get it, Tomkat), are also invested in healthy foods and sustainable food systems, going so far as to start their own ranch. They also back some education stuff and more run-of-the-mill environmentalism, but their biggest giving to date has gone to energy and climate. 

Steyer is very politically active and has come out strongly against the Keystone Pipeline and climate deniers, announcing his intention to devote $100 million to making both upcoming campaign issues. He’s also a political donor, but not the dyed-in-the-wool liberal or Democrat you might suspect. He's one of those die-hard capitalists with a conscience, having founded with Taylor the OneCalifornia Bank, a financial institution that serves the community and engages in charitable activity. 

All this is to say that the couple have a lot going on with their wealth. The Tomkat Charitable Trust is one of the channels of their philanthropy. Founded in 2008, the foundation has given between $5 million and $10 million a year, although that number jumped up in 2012, mostly due to one big grant. According to its website, its main priorities with respect to climate change are the development of sustainable agriculture and clean energy.

The Tomkat Trust donated $25 million that year to Yale University to establish the Energy Science Institute. While not channeled through the foundation, it’s important to note that the couple also gave $40 million to Stanford to create the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, plus another $7 million to create the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy. 

As you can see, their energy giving is very fixed on making clean, sustainable sources of power work, both financially and technologically. One unique example of this is nearly a quarter million in grants to Sacramento Area Electrical Workers for sustainable energy sales training, although the program appears to have shut down. 

The rest of the Tomkat Charitable Trust’s energy and climate giving so far has gone toward a mix of movement building, policy work, and public education. 

For example, The Energy Foundation is a regular recipient of funding, winning more than $3 million in grants since the trust started. The Energy Foundation is a pass-through funder for climate and energy issues, working on policies that promote clean energy, and innovative solutions for increasing efficiency and renewables.

Another big past grantee has been the Clean Economy Network Education Fund, a green jobs organization that started in 2009 but appears to not be operating any longer. And a more political group that has seen regular support from Tomkat is the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that has received nearly $2 million, at least in part for energy work.

The funder has also given quite a lot to encourage public engagement and broaden constituencies. The Center for Ecoliteracy has received regular grants for its work in support of education on sustainable living. And Tomkat has supported two religious groups for their work in environmental engagement. While not strictly energy-related, they’ve also backed a local museum and science center for environmental education.

As for what impresses Steyer and Taylor, they have a couple of rules when making decisions, according to an interview with GiveSmart:

“If you’re going to give money to an organization, you should be happier to give the money than they should be to get it,” and “It’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be productive.”

To put this another way, Steyer has said that he doesn’t think of it as philanthropy, or as doing someone a “kindness.” It’s about solving a problem related to something that he’s passionate about. 

While it's hard to imagine the couple is not highly involved in the foundation's grantmaking, they do have a couple of staff, including Erin Wirpsa Eisenberg, director of research and investment. And the sole trustee is Kathryn Hall, a close friend and former colleague of Steyer's who founded Hall Capital Partners. Tomkat does not accept proposals, but they can be reached by email.


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