Mobilizing Private Capital: What's Next For This Big Climate Funder?

 Don Mammoser/shutterstock

 Don Mammoser/shutterstock

Hewlett is hiring. 

One of the largest and most influential foundations working in the climate change space is looking for someone to fill a newly created program officer position in charge of climate finance grantmaking—heralding some changes in the works at the green philanthropy giant.

The position is part of a new strategy Hewlett is developing to take on the growing field of climate finance—supporting the shift of trillions of dollars needed in investments in efficiency and low-carbon technology in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. The new strategy and program officer are part of a larger reevaluation happening at the foundation under recently appointed Environment Program Director Jonathan Pershing.

Related: How Funders Are Using the Power of Their Investments to Impact Climate Change

Pershing is the former special envoy for climate change in the Obama State Department and lead U.S. negotiator to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and just joined the foundation in January. He took over for Tom Steinbach, who ran the program for nine years, in an era when Hewlett emerged as a huge leader in climate philanthropy.

Pershing outlines some of his views of the climate landscape in a recent Q&A on the Hewlett blog, where he also discusses the future of the program. 

While the climate diplomacy skills of someone like Pershing (who incidentally first got involved in government via a philanthropy-backed AAAS fellowship that you can read about here) are not much of a fit in the current administration, the hire was quite a score for Hewlett. It also gives a glimpse into the foundation’s commitment to climate change on a national and global level, even as the U.S. federal government turns its back on the issue. 

Related: Now Are Funders Ready to Bankroll More Movement Building Around Climate Change?

Pershing talks about some of those big picture climate change dynamics in the Q&A, including the difficulty the U.S. will have in hitting its emissions reduction goals without federal policy—and what progress can be made without leadership from Washington. But he also gets into the fact that Hewlett is currently reviewing its climate and energy funding, and potential changes that will boost its role in supporting efforts to drastically reduce GHGs by 2050. It’s the kind of reevaluation the foundation does periodically.

Another tidbit from the interview is that Hewlett "made some immediate changes to our grantmaking in response to the U.S. political landscape in order to preserve and defend as much of the gains of the past years as possible.” In other words, it moved some money after Trump won the election. Hewlett is one of a number of foundations who've urgently beefed up grantmaking in certain areas to respond to Trump without saying much about these shifts in public. (It's also among the foundations that seem to have agreed on the euphemism “the political landscape” to describe He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.)

And regarding climate finance: 

What’s needed in order for the world to achieve a two degree pathway is substantial: Tens of trillions of dollars—primarily private investments—must flow into low and zero-carbon infrastructure between now and 2030. Philanthropy should play a role in helping to mobilize private capital.

We’ve seen previous signs of this heightened focus on finance at Hewlett—namely, in its work in India, and participation in a government and philanthropic agreement to shift more investments into clean energy there. 

As the Hewlett Foundation prepares to ramp up this focus, its leadership suggests a bigger role to come for philanthropy in priming the pump for larger private climate investments.

In case you're wondering, though, this is not a foundation that plans to jump into such investing itself, even as a growing array of other funders embrace impact investing. In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Hewlett president Larry Kramer argued that foundations shouldn't risk their scarce capital in this way, and instead, should focus on grantmaking that builds the field of impact investing so the growing flow of capital seeking social returns is used wisely. Which, in part, is what Hewlett is looking to do with its new work on climate finance.