The Philanthropy Gap

Spending relating to climate change is far too low given the urgency of the situation.

Larry Kramer, who heads the Hewlett Foundation, pointed out in a speech five years ago that climate change accounted for less than 2% of foundation spending. He called upon “anyone who cares about our children’s and grandchildren’s futures to step forward.”

The situation has gotten only a bit better since 2017. In 2020, according to a McKinsey report, “climate and climate adjacent fields” accounted for 2.2% of philanthropic spending. Less than half that amount went to energy or climate specifically.

In the past two years, there have been some very large pledges, such as $500 million from Michael Bloomberg, $750 million from Stewart and Lynda Resnick, 3.5 billion from Laurene Powell Jobs, and $10 billion from Jeff Bezos. Over time, as the pledges are converted to a funding flow, they should push the percentage upward. The $1.1 billion gift from John Doerr to fund Stanford’s climate school also boosts the numbers.

Still, there’s a long way to go.  As of 2020, ten times as much philanthropic funding went to public safety as to climate, environment, and energy.

Kramer 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 climate actions by cities and states.  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.

In the domain I know best, there’s a pressing need for additional funding for work on policy-relevant research and education.  The federal government has poured money into science and engineering research relating to climate and energy. But much less has gone to the social sciences, or to law and policy.

Funding for climate work in law school research centers and clinics, in public policy schools, and by environmental economists would be especially valuable. We also need funding for mechanisms to ensure that this research becomes part of the policy process.

I would also argue for funding directed at the U.S. South, particularly Texas and Florida given their sizes. The South is an inhospitable place for environmental work, which has caused national environmental groups to shy away from making major investments there. But for the very reason that the South is  inhospitable, it is especially important to make inroads there.

The resources surely exist to do more. There are a lot of really rich people in America. As of 2020, there  were 614 billionaires in America. The 400 richest Americans had a combined net worth of $3.2 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. Surely at least some of those people care about their children and grandchildren.

The rich may or may not have a greater moral obligation than the rest of us, but they have more capacity to help. 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.”  Time to ante up!

P.S. No crypto please.

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Reader Comments

9 Replies to “The Philanthropy Gap”

  1. When a colleague sent me this article once again the headline momentarily raised my hopes. Short-lived though because— as always—the most important area that needs funding is completely overlooked!

    It’s mind-bending to me that 25 years into funding my own independent green media programs there is no support for a key missing piece; for educating and engaging, informing and inspiring the greater public! What could possibly go wrong??

    With a quick 6 1/2 years to go before scientists say we must cut our emissions in half —and still not going in the right direction, there is NO WAY we will achieve this goal without bringing millions more Americans into the fight of our lives and for our childrens’ lives. I’d bet my life on it because I already have. It shouldn’t be necessary in order to cover eco solutions for 2+ decades—interviewing the best and brightest Solutionaries—to pay for it personally, literally and figuratively.

    As host, producer (and funder) of the nation’s first daily green radio show (EcoTalk on Air America) I have reported on the billions that have been invested in clean tech and millions of philanthropic dollars going into addressing climate injustice, etc. but nobody is supporting independent environmental media that is working to address the information gap resulting from mainstream media’s slow and anemic coverage of the climate crisis. Sure things have improved a bit in the last few years but it’s still the tip of a melting iceberg, especially the television news networks.

    With only about 2% of philanthropic dollars supporting environmental issues and only a fraction of that (if any) going to support media/outreach/education of adults —who did not learn about ecology in school—is it any wonder we have a low national Eco IQ and that half the country is voting for politicians that don’t acknowledge the science of climate change, extinction, etc.?

    This comment is not about me but as someone who has been in the forefront of creating environmental news and views programming, and having to leave network news to cover the green beat, this glaring gap is unacceptable.

    As co-founder of, a streaming media platform
    dedicated to telling the truth, connecting dots and a relentless focus on solutions, we opted to be a public benefit corporation rather than a non-profit because so few/no dollars are going to organizations like ours. So now, as a scrappy startup, we’re forced to pitch investors who traditionally do not invest in independent or much media at all. Stuck between a rock and a hard place as the planet burns. Our plans include expanding to a 24/7 model because there’s SO much to talk about and SO little time, but it’s hard to grow without funding.

    It shouldn’t be this hard to do good, especially a quarter century’s worth!

    Thanks for listening,

    Betsy Rosenberg (aka) “Woman on Emission!”

  2. Very Well Said Dan and Betsy, you are the right leaders to make the right things happen, BUT We must also recognize that We have problems that are destroying our social. political and economic systems and peoples lives on a daily basis that we aren’t coming close to solving AND far too many problems are combining to destroy the future for our newest generations in this century.

    What UC and other educational institutions must immediately produce is the expertise, if we still have enough time left, tp teach and motivate Us to Communicate, Get Along With and Motivate We The Peoples Around the World with the Greatest Sense of Urgency or we shall most certainly become another extinct species without the right solutions to save ourselves in time.

    Please Hurry.

    1. Anthony, I share your sense of urgency which is one of the biggest reasons it’s so mind-boggling to be ignoring the need to educate, engage, inform and inspire the greater public! Why are so many funders, climate leaders, and other highly intelligent people not seeing this oversight? Its a huge blind spot, one that may cost us the future. At the very least media that conveys urgency and offers solutions will buy us much-needed time to make up two decades of climate silence, and a very critical 20 years at that.

      1. Betsy, Thank You for your thoughts, and most impressive/just what we need Bio on Green TV. By coincidence, Nicolle Wallace is a Cal 1994 graduate in Mass Communications and is the Best of the Best on MSNBC. It seems obvious that the two of you would make a Great Team to educate, engage, inform and inspire the greater public, to convey urgency and offer solutions that will buy us much-needed time on her show. We MUST produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations as our Highest Priority!

  3. Our extinction has begun, if we can’t fix the gun violence, then there is no way politicians will allow us to fix global warming because of the Power of Money that controls our politics:

    It’s bigger than guns: Why the right does little to stop violence

    Do you have any solutions for this!?

    1. Yes, vote only for candidates with brains smart enough to understand–and believe–environmental science, and who have hearts that are capable of feeling–and acting upon those feelings–of empathy. Oh yes, and courage to speak—and vote–truth to power!

  4. Honestly, I keep hoping and praying that academics, since you all keep saying you are the “Our Best and Brightest,” will prove me wrong and implement solutions that will save us in time to produce and guarantee an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations.

    Instead, you all keep proving that survival has become an Impossible Dream for the human race today, which is why you keep referring to folks who talk to you like I do as “Impure,” interestingly, the same kind of thing Trump says when anyone challenges him.


  5. CAL HAS AN OUTRAGEOUSLY BAD COMMUNICATIONS PROBLEM, like Hofstadter discovered, ACADEMICS CONSIDER THE PUBLIC TO BE “IMPURE” and not worth communicating with.


    Have you ever wondered what grades your students would give you for your failures to protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for all future generations!?


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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more