Environmental Giving in 2015: Boldest Moves and Top Trends

We’ve been steadily beating the drum lately that funders need to up their game when it comes to the environment, but that doesn’t mean 2015 was short on action—it was a big year. Here’s a look at some of the most exciting developments in green giving. 

Who says environmentalism is boring? Okay, I guess I might have once. And yet, whether it was due to the historic Paris climate talks or the ongoing surge in philanthropy overall, we saw some big stuff happening in the past year's environmental giving.


We don’t always agree with the approaches the top funders are taking, and most of these nods come with caveats. But a number of players have either challenged the status quo, stepped out of their comfort zones, or in some cases sent out shockwaves throughout the environmental community. In no particular order:

MacArthur Gets Serious About Climate Change

We saw this one coming, as Mac was increasingly putting out feelers in the climate and energy fields. Its environmental work was historically rooted in geographically focused conservation, with climate and energy popping up here and there. But as part of new President Julia Stasch’s substantial overhaul of MacArthur’s cumbersome programs, climate change is now a top priority. 

“Regardless of where we work and what we work on, climate change will somehow have an impact on that, and it is time for us to step up and make our contribution,” Program Director Jorgen Thomsen told us in August. 

Related: MacArthur is the Next Big Climate Funder. Here's What to Expect

The foundation kicked off the new program with $50 million in commitments, and while we’d like to see giving branch out more from the big greens, the program holds a ton of potential and sends a signal to the philanthropic community that this is the issue of our time. Now, if only the Walton Family Foundation would get with it.

Bill Gates Puts His Money (and Many Others') on Energy Innovation

We're conflicted about this one. After all, not too long before Bill Gates announced his initiative to rally private backers and governments to invest several billion dollars into energy tech innovation, we made our case for wealthy donors to step up on the issue. 

While R&D is undeniably an important component of the work to be done, the idea of placing a lopsided focus on invention—overshadowing movement building or support for local transitions—is concerning. We already have technology ready to go that can make substantial headway toward 100 percent clean renewable, but popular momentum and deployment efforts are lacking. Right now, for example, there's not enough consensus in the U.S. on climate change to uphold our Paris climate deal obligations. Even one of Gates’s “energy miracles” won’t save us without massive movement on the ground, and public demand can play a big part in spurring innovation.

Related: Sorry, Bill Gates, But Billions for Energy Research Is Not How to Win the Climate Battle 

It’s amazing to see so much money flowing on the issue, and this was one of a few seismic events in 2015 signaling that the world is coming to its senses on climate. But Gates has a knack for skewing an issue, and it would be a shame if we bet the house on new inventions to save us.

Longtime Donors Step Up Their Philanthropy

In 2015, we saw a handful of influential environmental philanthropists expand their giving, but also become more sophisticated, strategic and transparent. A lot of philanthropy that used to be self-directed, sporadic, or benefitting a predictable couple of beneficiaries took a notable shift. Here are the highlights: 

  • Hansjörg Wyss continued to enter the big league of green funders, delving into new territory like the Amazon, oceans, environmental leadership, and green journalism. This marks broader and more public philanthropy than his longtime work protecting land in the American West. 
  • Leonardo DiCaprio’s philanthropy has been on the rise since 2013, but this year, his portfolio got way more interesting, with a larger and more diverse array of grants. LDF still needs to offer more transparency on finances, but we’re seeing an encouraging divergence from the past routine of dropping a few million here and there to groups like WWF or NRDC.
  • The Kendeda Fund emerged from the shadows in 2015, with donor Diana Blank shedding her anonymity and even launching a website detailing strategy and grantees. The move was part of a major green building initiative launching in Georgia, which will put them in the league of the Bullitt Foundation when it comes to sustainable design.
  • The Pisces Foundation is beginning its national environmental grantmaking in earnest, with donors Bob and Randi Fisher elevating their philanthropy from mostly self-directed support, as board members of groups like NRDC. Led by longtime NRDC water advocate David Beckman, this California-based foundation is taking on some unique niches in fresh water and climate change.

Green 2.0’s Heightened Push to Diversify the Movement 

For many years, it’s been a well-known problem that environmentalism is a field with a troubling lack of people of color in its leadership and base. To achieve meaningful progress on green issues, and because it’s just the right thing to do, a segment of the community has been pushing to get leaders to own up to the problem and take steps to fix it.

Since 2014, an initiative led by Green 2.0 has been working to get nonprofit and philanthropic leaders to make concrete efforts to diversify the movement. A first step is disclosure of diversity data, and Green 2.0 has been asking top groups to pony up, just as they would financial information. Many have, but some of the largest players responded with crickets. 

Related: A Call for Diversity Data Is Met With Silence by Many Green Funders. What's That About?

There are still major foundations staying silent (Walton, Rockefeller, Bloomberg), but Green 2.0 has been persistent, getting some big wins like signing on Packard, Moore and MacArthur, after some delay. Those who don’t embrace this effort could be left behind, along with an outdated paradigm of what it means to be an environmentalist.

Divestment Is Becoming a Runaway Train

When the divestment movement began to pick up speed on college campuses, it resulted in a lot of condescension and patting idealistic students on the heads. But efforts to get universities, municipalities, churches and foundations to stop investing in fossil fuel companies couldn't be ignored in 2015. The effort now has around 500 institutions on board, 25 percent of which are foundations. 


While divestment is often chalked up as a symbolic act, when combined with other factors—like tanking energy stocks, the message sent by the Paris agreement, Exxon Mobil’s coverup of climate science—fossil fuels are looking like an increasingly bad investment. Even foundations like Gates, which has publicly dismissed the movement, appear to be shedding oil and gas investments. 

Bloomberg’s War on Coal, Rallying of Cities

Mike Bloomberg is maybe the most pragmatic, level-headed big philanthropist out there, such that we’ve started calling him the “Spock of philanthropy.” But give him credit—when he sees an opening where he can make a dent in a problem, he drops the hammer. Bloomberg gave another $30 million to Sierra Club’s campaign to shut down coal plants, rounding up an additional $30 million from other donors. His request from the club in return: more data on progress, please. 

Bloomberg has also been instrumental in the Risky Business initiative, a research-based effort to elevate climate change as a priority for business leaders. The program is a bipartisan collaboration between Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Hank Paulson, and is growing into a full-fledged advocacy group of sorts.

He’s also emerged as a leader promoting the concept that cities need to take over to solve the world’s toughest problems. This came in the form of a $42 million program asking cities to use data to become more effective, and his leadership role in the Paris Climate talks. 

Related: The High Hopes Behind Bloomberg’s Bet on City Data

Those are my big takeaways from the year in green philanthropy, but I'm sure there are plenty of others I missed. If there are any other highlights from 2015, or funders or grantees you want to celebrate, jump in below.