But is the climate crisis relevant for me?

I have been in a few conversations with funders over the past couple of months which have gone something like this:

“I totally get that the climate crisis is an urgent concern …  but I’m not entirely sure how it fits with the work we support “

In many ways, this is totally understandable. Foundations have their own unique charitable missions to pursue, the sheer variety of which underpin one of the sector’s most important roles; namely to help decentralise the production of social good and ultimately encourage a diverse and pluralistic civil society.

It’s also worth pointing out the ways in which the climate ‘issue’ in particular functions as a sort of ‘hyperobject’ – something so widely and complexly distributed across space and time that its implications become impossible to meaningfully fix and comprehend.

Instead, we rely on piecing together a contingent and unstable picture of the climate crisis by observing the way that secondary objects, systems or institutions are impacted. We can’t see the climate, but we can see the weather, or the oceans, for example.

I wonder then, if it is the interaction between these two pressures ( the seeming specificity of a given charitable mission and the seeming ungraspability of the climate as a phenomenon ) that might lie behind the question: “ how is this relevant to my organisation?”

By focusing this year’s ACF conference on themes such as climate, finitude and intergenerational justice, we hope to support foundations in thinking through the relevance of these issues for the work they do irrespective of what their particular funding focus might be.

We hope that a mental health funder, for example, might look at the prevalence of PTSD in the aftermath of natural disasters, or the links between rising temperatures and suicide and conclude that climate change may well be a useful lens for their work.

Funders working in the areas of refugees and migration will already be aware of the role that the climate plays in forced displacement and civil unrest, but are enough educational funders thinking through what support young people and teachers need to understand and communicate the crisis, as well as what can be done to support agentive and empowering responses?

And similarly, while those working in heritage, preservation or animal rights might observe a clear link to their work, could community or place-based funders begin to think about how the reforming demands placed on us by climate change could be used to drive local conversations about sustainable infrastructure, transport, food-supply and economic priorities?

And that list goes on … those funding the alleviation of poverty will be concerned about the radically uneven impact of climate change along lines of income, race and geography … those working in the sciences will be concerned about the drivers impacting disease, pollution and environmentally-focused innovation … those working in the arts will be considering how various disciplines grapple with something of such existential import…  

That is before we even begin to consider the implications that speak more directly to the foundation model per se. For example, we might think about the much-discussed ability of foundations to ‘act fast on slow problems’, and whether that places us in a unique position when it comes to a crisis that has in many ways been both defined and exacerbated by accretion, attrition and deferral but has long since taken on the character of emergency. Does the foundation model provide freedoms, incentives and flexibilities that other actors might lack?

There are also the 70 billion elephants in the room, in the form of foundation endowments. Despite more and more foundations becoming intentional about how, where and in what they invest, there are still challenges posed by the degree to which the foundation model is tied up in a financial system predicated on perpetual growth, extraction and consumption. The perpetuity model in particular raises some interesting questions; while it is in some ways designed as a mechanism for intergenerational equity, it nonetheless begins to take on a different valence in the face of a cancelled future.

But perhaps most importantly of all, these issues are relevant to foundations throughout the sector because of the manner in which they compel us to act decisively in the service of a better world. Actors from across society are being commanded by circumstance to act in a manner that is hugely ambitious; undoing the structures that are guiding us toward disaster and building instead our collective capacity to endure, to care, and to flourish.

This will require transformation at several scales and at several levels of resolution; the personal, the communal, the national, the trans-national, the structural, at the level of the affective and the felt, and perhaps most crucially of all, at the level of the imagination and the will.

ACF believes that foundations can play a leading role at this vital time, and we are committed to supporting the sector in both its thinking and its action.

Keiran Goddard- Director of External Affairs

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities