5 ways that funders approach climate philanthropy

By Lindley Mease,  Coordinator of the Climate Leaders in Movement Action (CLIMA) Fund

The problems associated with climate change are of catastrophic proportion and require diverse, systemic solutions. If these solutions are to ensure this planet is still habitable in 80 years, they will transform how we live and work across the globe.

Philanthropy has the opportunity to play an important role in supporting the protagonists building new transportation systems, spreading regenerative agriculture, and fighting for the rights of those suffering the greatest impacts yet have contributed least to the problem.

Yet, in this pressure-cooker of a moment, with multiple crises bearing down on our psyches and sensibilities, funder narratives about climate are becoming more polarized and calcified. A wider scope of seeing and listening may quite possibly result in new understandings, and new and effective solutions.

It’s time for a re-examination of assumptions. Smart and powerful people have failed to stop the worsening ills associated with climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, as is social inequality and the unequal burden on vulnerable communities caused by climate impacts. We must attempt to understand our wayward journey thus far and take a wide-angle lens on what assumptions, and thus solutions, have been preferenced.

First, let’s face the fact that most large funders wield enormous power to influence the allocation of resources for addressing the problem on a global scale. How do we begin to break out of our siloed spaces and honor the perspectives of practitioners from impacted communities (who represent the global majority)? Who is trusted? What assumptions inform how we listen? What barriers—cultural or political—prevent us from listening?

Through my work over the last decade working in climate science, policy, activism, and philanthropy, I have identified five narrative frames that influence how funders give to climate-related work. If narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about the world, narrative frames are what set those stories in a certain context. By choosing a specific narrative frame, funders are implicitly choosing the assumptions that underpin their grant-making practices. Here’s how they go, along with what might be missing from each of them:

1. Innovation: Our species has never faced such an existential threat. Novel and creative ideas are needed to re-imagine our relationship with our species’ life support systems. Some say innovation is technological invention. Others say innovation includes traditional ecological knowledge applied to new problems. Clearly there is significant disagreement about who are seen as innovators, what constitutes innovation, and where that innovation is coming from.

2. Scale & Speed: “Our planet is changing fast.” “Species are becoming extinct at least 1,000 times faster than before.” “Climate now affects all life on Earth.” No wonder many funders are preoccupied with how quickly we can fast-track solutions that can reach ‘scale’ globally. Focusing on scale can achieve a specific goal (e.g., reducing carbon emissions), but it can also miss solutions that aren’t easily universalized (e.g., protecting Indigenous land rights in shifting political terrain). Moreover, the quick fix can result in unintended negative consequences or cause unrepairable damage. For example, should we uniformly scale solar installations when the majority of large-scale developments impinge on human rights? At the heart of this inquiry lies the question: We must dramatically curtail emissions to reduce the future suffering of Earth’s species, but at what cost and for whom?

3. Metrics & Measurability: As Einstein said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Collecting and assessing metrics as to what works is absolutely critical. Yet the practice can be challenging at best, damaging at worst. In some cases, funders are challenging the premise that metrics are useful at all. In other communities like Effective Altruism, funders only support what can be evaluated. What is important to measure? Over what time frame? Who has access to those data? Tracking a grant’s impact on disaster preparedness vs. methane drawdown vs. movement-building are different ball games and require different approaches.

4. Capacity: Prove yourself to one funder and you’ve proven yourself to most. We have a funnel problem, which is why the largest environmental organizations (with budgets over $5 million) received over 50% of philanthropic funding. Looked at another way, the 400 largest nonprofits in the U.S. collect more than $1 of every $4 raised. Yet, some of the largest funders can only give a minimum of millions at a time. How do we build bridges between those with financial resources and those with less structural capacity to absorb those funds? And what does ‘capacity’ even mean when we are talking about cultural, intellectual, and spiritual knowledge?

5. Geographic Reach: For a global crisis, where funding goes is an admittedly thorny issue. Funders often give to what they know where they live—they default to the familiar, which is rarely where the most acute impacts of or even drivers of climate are located (e.g., 4.2% of U.S. charitable giving was towards international causes in 2015). So there’s a spread issue. And there is also a focus issue. Place-based funding may enable deeper local change, but may stymy cross-pollination and beget siloed thinking. Global funders may be able to spur widespread changes, but that may be at the cost of local communities. Luckily, this isn’t a dichotomy, particularly when addressing climate’s drivers and impacts that are inherently global and local. The U.S., with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes more than 20% of the world’s resources. Our lifestyle choices impact communities in different parts of the world. How might we think expansively about the interwoven nature and interdependence of our ecological and social systems in our funding strategies?

These five narrative frames and their embedded assumptions determine how billions of dollars in climate philanthropy and finance are spent. Without mapping and exposing these frames we cannot engage in honest conversation about the role of philanthropists in supporting transformative change.

The CLIMA Fund will be hosting a series of online dialogues entitled “The Underpinning Stories” focused on each of these narrative frames among institutional and individual funders. Participants will walk away with a new understanding of the hypotheses funders have about addressing the climate crisis and new ideas about how we are supporting climate solution practitioners as a community. Please join us! We don’t have time or money to waste.

For more information about these conversations and to follow our learnings, check out our website: https://thousandcurrents.org/clima-grassroots-climate-solutions-fund/

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