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Getting from “no” to “yes” for climate justice

By Janet Camarena (she/her)
June 16, 2022

Climate justice guide for funders, with a man holding a flag with the earth on it

A philanthropy insider once shared during a presentation that foundations develop guidelines so they know to whom to say “no.” Though it sounded cynical and harsh, it also rang true. My years in the field have only served to reinforce the assertion, as I have witnessed the growing trend of foundations undergoing a strategic planning process, then narrowing their guidelines, followed by shifting to an “invitation only” process so they can handpick grantee partners that align with ever-narrowing portfolio priorities, all in hopes of being able to quantify their foundation’s impact. Meanwhile, the planet burns and many already vulnerable communities are displaced. There is much hand-wringing, but little in the way of actual financial support because most foundations do not see themselves as climate or justice funders.   

I am reminded of that tendency now as we release Candid and Ariadne’s new funder’s guide about the why and how of climate justice, Centering equity and justice in climate philanthropy. Despite its urgency, most foundation funders do not incorporate climate or climate justice strategies into their work, largely relegating it to a few environmental funders. As a result, not enough funding is flowing to climate change efforts and even less of it for reducing harm to communities most impacted by the climate crisis.  

The guide cites ClimateWorks’ data that less than 2% of giving flows to climate mitigation efforts.  Of that, in 2019 only a fraction (about $60 million) went to support equity or justice related efforts. In essence it’s a tiny slice of a tiny slice. The reality that vulnerable communities who are often most impacted by the effects of climate change are also the communities least responsible for causing it makes the unfairness of this lack of support particularly glaring. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many ways, the last two years have restored my faith in philanthropy to be a force for good and not just a force for asserting the good (narrow as it may be) it is doing in the world. 

The pandemic, and then the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, has illustrated all too well the connective tissue between inequality and negative outcomes for the most vulnerable. Prior to the pandemic, few foundations were infectious disease funders. But, as a result of the global crisis, every responsible funder had to adapt and respond to new needs facing communities due to COVID, and many did so in creative ways.  Workforce development funders created strategies to support small businesses; arts funders gave emergency unrestricted support to overcome shortfalls due to lost ticket sales; education funders offered support for technology to enable remote learning; and funders of all kinds moved money more quickly and flexibly to address the sudden growth in social safety net needs. There was also a growing understanding that centering equity in these grants was essential to mitigating the inequities of COVID’s impact.  The experience has also shown us that, when pressed, philanthropy can flex its guidelines and meet the moment to address urgent need. 

The climate crisis is analogous to the pandemic. It’s not a binary question of whether your guidelines state you are or are not a climate or justice funder. Much like the pandemic, it is likely that most grantee communities will in some way be impacted by increasing climate disasters. Grantmakers should be thinking now about how to use a climate justice lens within their existing programs to plan ahead to address this reality. Our new guide provides helpful and instructive case studies to illustrate how other funders have taken such steps.  

For example, the guide shares how savvy education funders are considering the impact of learning loss on students who every year miss more and more days of instruction due to the climate crisis. The guide also includes case studies about the Kresge Foundation’s journey to connect its health equity portfolio to climate justice by providing support for community hospitals to prepare for climate-related disruptions. It also explains how the McKnight Foundation is connecting its participatory democracy work with climate justice efforts in historically marginalized communities. 

In addition to how foundations are integrating climate justice into existing portfolios, the guide also walks funders through several other important recommendations to address the evolving nature of this crisis, including: 

  • Directing more resources to Global South (i.e., organizations outside Europe and the United States) and to frontline organizations in the Global North. 
  • Supporting peer organizing and collective funder action. 
  • Not reinventing the wheel. Invest in, support, and learn from intermediary organizations, many of which can help you adopt participatory approaches to grantmaking. 
  • Making long-term investments, placing an emphasis on unrestricted support. 
  • Supporting organizing and movement-building efforts. 
  • Centering learning and engaging grantee partners in defining what “impact” looks like in their communities. 

Takeaways and discussion questions conclude each section, providing a useful tool for facilitating dialogues for reflection and learning. A separate Facilitator’s toolkit is available to support this activity at your foundation. 

We’ve learned important lessons from the pandemic for how philanthropy can address the most pressing issues of our time. These lessons apply especially to climate. This guide provides a playbook so you don’t have to reinvent strategies that already exist or make the assumption that they’re not relevant to your agenda. We know the crisis is coming. We know it will grow worse over time. So, take time to plan ahead and think about the ways in which your guidelines call you to say “yes” to climate justice. 

Tags: climate justice; Philanthropy