Rising Seas, Bigger Pledges: Are We Entering a New Era of Climate Philanthropy?



As the Global Climate Action Summit came to a close, and extreme storms were about to hammer the East Coast, the Philippines and China, a group of 29 funders on Friday announced more than $3 billion in new pledges for climate action. It’s a statement from a sector that’s been criticized for underfunding the global crisis, but the participants say they hope it’s just the beginning of a much larger wave of philanthropic support. 

“This is not a culmination,” said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, a longtime player in rallying foundations behind the issue. “It’s really the launch—to begin to reach out to even wider communities of funders who haven’t even necessarily thought about making climate one of their top priorities.”

It’s a welcome move, what the donors are calling the biggest philanthropic pledge to climate change mitigation to date, surpassing $1 billion invested back in 2008 to create the ClimateWorks Foundation. The full pledge from the 29 funders is for $4 billion over the next five years, some of which had been previously committed, including $600 million from Hewlett announced back in December. 

One key feature of the commitment donors are stressing is that the sum is not pooled or lined up behind a particular strategy (Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks, in contrast, centrally direct dollars from multiple funders). The hope is to recruit a wide range of approaches to climate change, coming from a mix of funders with different strategies and priorities. 

There are some names that you’d hope would be on board with such a gesture, given their tremendous wealth and climate-adjacent interests, but alas are not—the Gates and the Walton Family foundations come to mind. The Moore Foundation’s not part of this pledge, but it is on board with the $459 million commitment to climate and land use made earlier in the week. 

The Need for Greater Giving, More Donors

The announcement follows an ongoing drumbeat coming from both outside and inside the sector, encouraging far more philanthropic support for climate action, one commonly cited estimate putting it at less than 2 percent of philanthropic giving.

Inside Philanthropy previously issued calls for billionaire donors committed to the Giving Pledge to up the pace of their giving to the cause, and for large foundations to tap into their endowments to unlock more funds in response to the urgent need. The 10 largest U.S. foundations alone hold more than $150 billion in assets, according to Foundation Center’s 2015 data.


Larry Kramer at Hewlett said higher spending for climate change is not totally out of the question for the organization, but at this point, they see more impact in rallying new donors than paying out more of their endowment. “It’s not just about the money,” he said. “It is also about the legwork, the creativity, what you get from having different people involved. It’s a better movement if it’s more diverse, and has more funders engaged and involved.”

The large majority of the 29 foundations involved in the pledge have past involvement in giving related to climate change, but they have different approaches, and some are substantially increasing giving.

  • The U.K.-based Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and its co-founder are committing $500 million over five years, a significant increase to its climate program.

  • Regional foundations have a strong showing. The Massachusetts-focused Barr Foundation, for example, pledged at least $100 million as part of its growing commitment to the issue. Midwestern funders like the George Gund, Joyce, and McKnight foundations are also part of the pledge.

  • The usual suspects of existing major climate funders include Bloomberg, Packard, Hewlett, Oak, and Sea Change.

  • Other niches covered include Bullitt’s work on city sustainability and green buildings, Kresge’s focus on equity and resilience, and the IKEA Foundation’s work to encourage business leadership.

For years now, Kramer and leaders at ClimateWorks, Oak, Packard, and Sea Change foundations—and more—have been nudging foundation peers to raise their commitments, certainly with some success. Leaders at Hewlett have pointed out the large role foundations have been playing in growing the renewables market and contributing to climate diplomacy. Kramer says he’s seeing more foundations coming around. “Different organizations sort of move in their own way and at their own pace, but I think there’s a sense of increased awareness and urgency.”

Kate Hampton, CEO of CIFF, said she hopes others in philanthropy with a range of programmatic interests will respond to the urgent need. CIFF, after all, focuses on children living in poverty, but recognizes that climate change threatens to undermine all of their other progress. “For us, there’s a really strong moral imperative here, but it’s also a very pragmatic defense of the investments that we make.” 

‘We Remain Extremely Skeptical’

Criticism of climate change philanthropy goes beyond just the level of giving, so some in the field responded to the news with wariness, at least.

Throughout the Global Climate Action Summit last week, official events were countered with protests and parallel programming, organized by climate justice, indigenous, and community-based activist groups. They called for centering frontline communities in climate action, and railed against certain market-based solutions, prominence of corporate involvement, and California’s continued issuance of drilling permits, among other concerns. 

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

Angela Adrar, executive director of Climate Justice Alliance, said it’s difficult to determine what this commitment will mean for the cause, for a couple of reasons. For one, while it sounds large, it’s still just a small step forward, and she points out that it’s still unknown if the funding will translate into the larger sums required. 

She also expressed concern that the kinds of work being supported won’t be tracked, and will end up favoring climate solutions that negatively impact justice issues and don’t address root causes of the climate crisis. “We remain extremely skeptical that it will be the right kind of work,” she said. Such work means handing financial resources back to communities that have been historically harmed by extractive industry.

“Our hope for commitments like these is that the majority of the resources pledged… go to community-led, just transition solutions. It’s important that the decision-making be local, it’s important that the economic benefits be local, and it’s important that these solutions work for all of our issues,” Adrar said.

While he’s particularly concerned with the shortage of funding for new energy technology, Northeastern Professor Matthew Nisbet had similar concerns about how the money will be distributed. Nisbet, who’s researched past imbalances in climate philanthropy, pointed out in an email that the announcement is great news, but that foundations will have to break with “decades-old institutionalized patterns that have limited progress.” He hopes foundations will do better at “hedging their bets,” pointing out that just 20 organizations received more than half of climate giving he tracked between 2011 and 2015.

Another guarded response came from 350.org, the network that’s taken a strong “keep it in the ground” stance, driving campaigns for divestment in fossil fuel holdings and an end to fossil fuel extraction.

"This commitment affirms that all of us have a role in fighting for real climate solutions,” said May Boeve, 350.org’s executive director. “While it's powerful to see philanthropic groups investing in solutions, they must also address the root of the problem by divesting from the fossil fuel companies intent on keeping us on the path of climate destruction."

Kramer says Hewlett takes many of these criticisms to heart, especially concerns about the need for greater representation from low-income communities and communities of color, which strike him as “absolutely right.”

Hewlett is not currently planning to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, he says. It is among many other large foundations that have not joined this growing movement. He sees divestment as just one of many tactics on the table, and doesn’t think it should be a litmus test for climate funders. Hewlett did add a policy in 2015 to “refrain from future investments in private partnerships primarily involved in oil and gas drilling.”

Kramer’s also in full agreement that past strategies have been too narrow, which was in part because of insufficient amounts of money going to the cause. But these are all “healthy debates,” and he’s optimistic about where we’re headed. 

“We are not losing. There is a huge risk that we’re not going to win in time, but… there is steady progress being made on almost every front, even with the headwinds, and even with the setbacks.”