Philanthropy Finds a Major Role at the Global Climate Action Summit—Inside and Outside

PHoto: Alexandros Michailidis/shutterstock

PHoto: Alexandros Michailidis/shutterstock

The Global Climate Action Summit was, in one sense, all about the flashy, high-dollar commitments coming from local governments and corporations. The philanthropic sector certainly got in on the action, too, with a record $3 billion pledge of new giving announced on the summit’s final day, and its sustainable land use pledge earlier in the week.

At the same time, much of the summit’s impact will stem from the massive gathering and exchange of ideas from a diverse cross-section of the climate action community—whether dressed in the pricey suits of corporate and city leaders inside, or slogan-emblazoned T-shirts of protestors outside. 

Foundations and donors had a major presence throughout the lively assembly, whether as official sponsors, speakers, or supporters of some of the hundreds of events both inside and outside of the summit. That includes a large number of funders that attended an educational event organized by the alliance of activist groups that hosted demonstrations and competing events pushing for more just, community-driven climate solutions.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that philanthropy had such a big footprint at the Global Climate Action Summit, which California Gov. Jerry Brown conceived and developed as a kind of celebratory counterpoint to lagging national climate action. For one, it went down right in San Francisco, big environmental funders’ backyard. And a major theme at the summit was monetary commitments to climate mitigation. 

Also, while it remains true that these kinds of individual commitments are not nearly enough to make up for insufficient national climate action, the spirit of the event holds that they do still make an impact, and can build momentum toward the collective action we really need. And that’s climate philanthropy’s theme song. 


So the philanthropic sector was highly supportive of the event itself, apparently picking up a lot of the tab (summit organizers said they could not yet provide numbers on how sponsorship amounts break down). Major sponsors included Bloomberg Philanthropies, Hewlett, ClimateWorks, and Sea Change (one of Nat and Laura Simons’ first big commitments since stepping forward as major climate donors earlier this year). Other foundation sponsors include Pisces, Heising-Simons, Skoll, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Philanthropic leaders were also all over the agenda. Speakers included Tom Steyer, Mike Bloomberg (he’s one of six co-chairs and had a continuous presence at the event), Ellen Dorsey of Wallace Global Fund, Jonathan Pershing of Hewlett, Nat Simons of Sea Change, and others. There were also nearly 400 affiliated events, many of which included foundation participation. Over a dozen were organized in part by ClimateWorks, a philanthropic intermediary that’s been highly involved in the summit. Rockefeller Foundation ran one on finance and resilience; Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation contributed to a two-day event on the role of water in climate goals and resilience. The Pisces Foundation put on Super Pollutant Day showcasing its niche of reducing intense pollutants like methane and black carbon to make fast climate impacts.  

Of course, there was also a big presence of corporate philanthropy and CSR at the summit, including sponsors like Salesforce, Bank of America, Amazon, and Wells Fargo, and panels featuring representatives from Starbucks, McDonalds, and BlackRock.  

That corporate involvement at GCAS, in fact, was one of the reasons protestors rallied outside of the sanctioned events throughout the week. A mix of environmental justice, indigenous and community activists held demonstrations and events in parallel with the summit, opposing market-based climate solutions and California’s continued issuing of oil permits, and calling for greater representation from frontline communities, among other causes.

Tensions escalated on Thursday as protestors blocked entrances to the summit and disrupted one of Mike Bloomberg’s speeches, and earlier in the day, Bloomberg made a bizarre and outrageous comment comparing protestors to those in favor of building a wall along the Mexican border. 

His response illustrates a frustrating obliviousness to the perspectives of climate justice, grassroots, and indigenous groups protesting and demanding more, even while important and meaningful steps were also being announced within the summit (like NYC’s pension investment announcement, for one). Danielle Deane-Ryan, program director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, wrote about this tension at the summit in a Grist op-ed

“It is an enormous opportunity for catalyzing sustained action in the face of a lack of leadership at the federal level. But at this massive table of stakeholders, equity-focused movement leaders are largely still fighting for more meaningful seats at the forum—and are instead holding satellite events.”

Those very leaders are doing the kind of ground-up movement building that’s needed to advance transformative climate action, but they’re also historically underfunded by donors. 

Still, there are segments of philanthropy that have thrown support behind organizations that demonstrated and held satellite events known as Solidarity to Solutions Week. Earlier in the week, the alliance of justice- and community-oriented groups behind these events engaged a large group of funders in what they called a “People’s Orientation to the Global Climate Action Summit.” Influenced in part by word of the upcoming $3 billion foundation announcement, the coalition pulled together the donor event, inviting over 150 from philanthropy and drawing a standing-room audience of 75, said Angela Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance. 

The orientation received planning and other help from Chorus, Libra, Surdna, Surdna foundations, and even the Hewlett Foundation, among others, Adrar said. It involved a series of discussions and workshops led by leaders of social movements, and focused on the idea of helping funders make decisions with a “people’s solutions lens.” That means asking the questions: Who is making decisions, who benefits from this strategy, and how does this action impact other issues?

The Solidarity to Solutions events and the People’s Orientation also received funding support from foundations like Surdna, Kendeda Fund, Chorus, Libra, the 11th Hour Project, and nonprofits like Sierra Club, EarthJustice, and, Adrar said.

One of the fascinating things about this climate summit, and evolving climate action overall, is the emergence of unexpected partners and opponents, not to mention the blurring of the lines in between. For example, I imagine there’s lots of overlap in support for those that held satellite events and protests, and those who presented inside the summit. 

That’s a sign of messy and chaotic social change—hopefully, funders aren’t shying away from it, and won’t in the future. One thing this conference drives home: Just about anyone with money or time to give can find an entry point to this issue.