How One Local Funder Is Taking Climate Change Seriously

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One of the heartening signs of the philanthropic world taking climate change more seriously is seeing local or regional funders get involved in a big way. Such work has become all the more important in the past year, as the Trump administration has pulled the plug on federal leadership on climate change. 

Among the top local climate funders is the Barr Foundation, with its extensive grantmaking to reduce greenhouse gases in its home region of Boston and the Northeast. The McKnight Foundation, which is based in Minneapolis and funds efforts to make the Midwest a leader in tackling climate change, is also a leader here. 

Another standout from the Midwest is the George Gund Foundation, a Cleveland-based family foundation derived from the wealth of the prominent banker, and governed mostly by his descendants. Gund has been quite the powerhouse in Ohio for decades, with a focus on Greater Cleveland and the northeast part of the state. 

Like most community-focused foundations, Gund backs the arts, economic development, human services and education. It’s also got an environment program that gives generously to the area’s parks, trails, and open spaces. 


But for several years now, Gund has also backed work related to climate change, sustainability and energy at a level that you don’t see all that often from family foundations with local interests. 

“Global climate change is an urgent issue that cuts across all of the foundation’s programs. Every organization and individual can help to address this problem. The foundation takes seriously our own responsibility and we want to hear from grant applicants what they are doing or considering to reduce or to eliminate their organizational impact on climate change,” program guidelines state

Its environment program has been making grants from a subprogram called Sustainability, Energy, and Climate Change for about 10 years now, with $3.2 million awarded in 2017 alone. From 2008 to 2012 it was typically giving north of a million a year, then hit a peak in 2013 with $4.2 million, thanks to a two-year grant to the Trust for Public Land for a campaign called Connecting Cleveland. Gund also had a separate Smart Growth initiative for a while working on a lot of farms and food work, and the foundation has made grants in some form related to energy and sustainability dating back to the 1990s.

A lot of the funding in this arena is broadly related to climate, with grants frequently going toward things like trails or bicycling in Cleveland. But it also funds some meat and potatoes clean energy programming, including sending millions to the Energy Foundation, a passthrough funder fueled by some of the largest foundations in the country. Other recent interesting grants went to Wind on the Wires for renewable energy siting, nonprofit Neighborhood Progress for its work on the City of Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan, and some funding to Midwestern universities. 

The motivation for Gund’s interest in climate change is certainly related to the unique vulnerabilities the Midwest is bracing for—dangerous heat waves, extreme precipitation that can flood cities and contaminate water supplies, threats to agriculture, and more. 

But really, every local or regional funder has a stake in climate change, as urban and rural areas alike will suffer their own sets of impacts, economically, environmentally, or in human suffering.

I suspect a lot of local funders are hesitant to jump into the issue, thinking it’s a cause for the Hewletts and Bloombergs of the world. But Gund demonstrates that a funder with a focus on place (even those giving much less than Gund’s $25 million annual giving, for that matter) can find entry points to impact this issue on the local and national stage.