At a Clutch Moment for Climate Action, a Top Funder Leads by Example (Mostly)

 flooding in bangladesh. PHoto: Sk Hasan Ali/shutterstock

flooding in bangladesh. PHoto: Sk Hasan Ali/shutterstock

The Hewlett Foundation, one of the most influential U.S. funders backing work in climate and energy, will increase its rate of giving to the issue over the next five years, with plans to bring other foundations along during what it considers a crucial window to act. 

A result of a strategic review, and under the new leadership of Environment Program Director Jonathan Pershing, the foundation committed $600 million through 2023, about a 20 percent increase over past giving. According to Pershing, the decision had to do with a recognition that climate is an existential issue impacting all of the foundation’s focus areas, and that we’re in a clutch moment for climate action. 

“There’s a window now, where we think if we get it right, we can really avoid some pretty significant damages going forward. And that’s a five-year, 10-year period, here—it’s short,” Pershing said from Paris, where foundation leaders were taking part in French President Emmanuel Macron’s climate summit. “If we get it wrong, it’s very, very hard to see how the world recovers without enormous long-term consequences.”

While Hewlett plans to continue a core approach of channeling money through large regranting organizations like the Energy Foundation, Pershing said the program is rolling out some key changes—a pot of funds for high-dollar and timely opportunities, a longer-term lens guiding decisions, and tighter geographic focus, for example. 

The increase is impressive, but make no mistake: Hewlett has no plans to dip into its endowment, which now stands at around $9 billion. As we've noted before, the existential threat posed by climate change is evidently not profound enough to trump the greater imperative at legacy foundations of capital preservation. When the day comes that a top institutional grantmaker breaks the glass to get their hands on the real money at their disposal, we'll be able to talk about true leadership. 

Nevertheless, Hewlett is sending an important message with the announcement, and the foundation plans to recruit other funders to engage more with the cause. 

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“We’re prepared to put some money out there in the field to help do some fundraising, which we think is going to be important to get new donors to the table… We think that as one of the large players in this field, that’s part of our mandate, as well, to hold hands with others and elevate the entire field,” says Pershing, a former U.S. diplomat who has played lead roles in global climate agreements. 

Hewlett President Larry Kramer has been a vocal advocate for philanthropy doing more to address climate change, a growing but relatively small issue among foundations. It’s a crucial time to increase the sector’s involvement—aside from the ticking clock of rising temperature, the federal government under the Trump administration is retreating from the global agreement to reduce emissions and leaving a void in leadership. 

Pershing noted that we’ve seen some progress in philanthropy, and he’s encouraged in particular by local outfits like the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation in Texas and the Barr Foundation in Massachusetts playing larger roles. But more need to get involved. 

“Every single [philanthropic agenda] is affected by climate, and it’s given relatively modest resources. And this is a pretty important and broad-ranging moment in time, where if you can get it right, you could radically improve our future, and if you get it wrong, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Staying the Course, While Seeking "Big, New Ideas" 

A significant portion of the money Hewlett is moving will continue to go through some of the large organizations that have been dominating climate funding. Hewlett has been a core funder of regranting organizations like the Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks, which channel funds coming from philanthropic partners. Both entities were created by foundations, and Hewlett was a key founding partner of the latter.

Outside of the U.S., Hewlett will continue to send funding through similar organizations like the European Climate Foundation, Energy Foundation China, and Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation in India.

One change related to types of grantees is that Pershing said Hewlett will send less funding to large environmental nonprofits, which have seen donations from individuals surge in response to the Trump administration. Instead, they’ll be looking to fund organizations without membership support, including those in the academic or think tank space that can provide policy analysis. 

Another important difference is that Hewlett will be on the lookout for “big, new ideas,” Pershing said, that require funding on a larger scale than their usual six- and seven-figure grants. 

“It’s not meant to be the 'same old, just a little bit more.' It’s meant to be—let’s look at ideas that come along, which, we ourselves will be out seeking, big ideas that can generate real change,” Pershing says. 

An example he cited was Hewlett’s role in a recent global agreement to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a compound used in cooling systems that has outsized global warming effects. A coalition of several foundations pooled tens of millions to help developing countries make the switch and therefore make the larger agreement viable. 

Hewlett plans to look out for similar opportunities where a larger chunk of cash might unlock some greater impact. 

Longer Term, Fewer Locations 

Two of the other shifts Hewlett is making in the next five years have to do with the scope of its climate program. For one, the timeframe of impacts that grantmakers consider when making decisions will be much longer than in past years. 

Hewlett had previously been giving with relatively short-term returns in mind, looking for maximum reductions in emissions as soon as possible, Pershing said. They’re now going to be looking toward 2050, thinking of how we might reduce carbon emissions down to virtually zero. 

“This shift from the short term to a longer term, I think, will open up different possibilities. One of the things you do when you’re only looking at how I can get the maximum reduction tomorrow, is you exclude a whole lot of opportunities, because they’re good the day after tomorrow, or next week.”

In addition, the program is narrowing its focus almost entirely to four regions—the United States, China, India and Europe. They had previously funded more broadly, but will phase down most international giving outside of these areas, places where the team believes they can have the biggest global impact.  

Hewlett’s Future Role

One recurring theme in Pershing’s description of Hewlett’s future climate funding is that of leverage, a common one in philanthropy. 

That’s clear in its intention to bring along more funders to the cause. It’s also evident in a strategy that Hewlett has been expanding and intends to scale further—moving more finance toward climate solutions. While the foundation has not been big on using its own assets for impact investing, it’s using its philanthropy to leverage government and private-sector finance to reduce emissions. We saw an example of this strategy in Hewlett’s work alongside other foundations to spur clean energy investments in India. 

Another area where the foundation hopes to leverage greater impact is in building public support that could lead to government action. 

“Part of what we intend to do is to continue to work, and to bolster our communications efforts—how do we explain to people the intersections between the climate change problem and things that are very immediately of concern?” 

Pershing sees particular opportunity to prompt action at the city and state levels, where people are drawing a clear connection between climate change and how governments must handle increasing threats like flooding and wildfires. However, the foundation will not likely fund many grassroots and community groups, or work in individual communities, instead sticking more to the policy level, Pershing said.

Whether trying to catalyze other funders, government action, or private-sector investment, Pershing sees Hewlett’s role in the next five years to spur action where it can, and faster. “In many ways, it’s about urgency and pace. We have to step up the speed here, or we’re going to really be hurting.”

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