The Case of the Missing Philanthropy

In light of Trump’s actions, foundations and donors need to step up.

If we learned nothing else from Trump’s disavowal of the Paris Agreement, it’s that we can’t count solely on the federal government to deal with the problem of climate change. It’s not a matter of whether we need state government or municipalities or corporations or non-profits – we need all of the above. But private philanthropy has fallen short.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of foundations with climate change programs – there’s a list of 40 of them here. There are also foundations that don’t have dedicated programs but do fund climate change work under other rubrics (and we’re very happy to have received support from some of them for our own program). The total amount of money foundations are devoting to climate change isn’t trivial – by 2009, it was over $900 million.

The problem is that the amount hasn’t really gone up since 2009, and it’s really a drop in the bucket compared with needs. Larry Kramer, who heads the Hewlett Foundation, pointed out in a recent speech that climate change accounts for less than 2% of foundation spending. He made an eloquent plea for greater funding in light of Trump’s election, which boded badly for the U.S. government’s leadership in this area. Even though at that time, it wasn’t yet clear just how bad Trump would be, Kramer said it was a certainty that the U.S. would surrender its role as global leader, “making this a moment for anyone who cares about our children’s and grandchildren’s futures to step forward.” He called on philanthropists to help fill the gap, and pointed to a range of critical issues where private giving could make a big difference. Among other ideas, he called for foundations to support “networks of subnational governments that are committed to taking action without regard for their country’s national policy.”  Intriguingly, he also called for efforts to help businesses learn how to assess climate risks and how to develop mechanisms to secure funding for clean energy. But there are many other possibilities, including support for local efforts to adapt to climate change, for advocacy work, for public education, and for climate research.

Governments like California’s could help encourage foundations to move into this area by leveraging their own funding. There were valuable experiments with partnerships between non-profits and government during the Obama Administration and also at the state and local levels. These experiences show how these programs can work successfully as well as some potential pitfalls. (The report at this link contains more background on these efforts.) There are several possible mechanisms. For instance, states could issue grants to non-profits, which would in turn use them for funding worthy projects. Or states could provide matching money to grant applicants who are able to get foundation funding. Properly used, this kind of effort could not only multiply the amount of funding that the state can provide but also provide incentives for foundations to increase their own funding.

There are a lot of really rich people in America. According to Forbes, as of last year there were 540 billionaires in the U.S., with a combined net worth of $2.4 trillion. That’s not counting all the people who “merely” have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal. More of them need to get active in dealing with climate change.

As Kramer put it, “[f]unders must recognize that global warming threatens everything they care about, and that’s true no matter what they care about. Climate change is the biggest, most important problem of our time, and as such, it’s a problem we all need to help solve.” So it’s time for people to roll up their sleeves – and open their checkbooks – and get to work.


, ,