Funding on a finite planet: Carol Mack’s speech at ACF conference

It will not have escaped your notice that as we meet today, our country is preparing for an election like no other. This is a significant moment, and one that poses considerable uncertainty about the future.

As leaders within civil society, we have been grappling with political uncertainties for a long time now. Yet despite this, our latest Foundation Giving Trends research shows that funding levels have been robust, and many of you are offering thoughtful responses to the challenges of our time. We could have dedicated this whole conference to Brexit or the political outlook. But, as important as these events are for our country, they are not taking place in a vacuum…

They coincide with a moment of even greater global significance. A climate crisis is brewing that will affect all nations and all people, unless urgent concerted action is taken. It threatens many people’s lives directly and the quality of all our lives, within only a few decades. And it is expected to have the greatest impact on those who are marginalised in our society. We had enormous interest from ACF members in attending this conference, with dozens of colleagues on a waiting list. For me, this confirms that this is the right time for us to take a broader, global view. It is time for us to consider why the changing climate is going to be one of the lenses through which we all have to view our work – and I’d like to help us start to think about this today.

So, to begin, what do we mean by climate change, and why it has now taken on the mantle of a full-blown climate “crisis”?

Many of us in this room started our careers before climate change was widely recognised as the pressing concern that it is today. I feel a little embarrassed to say that I started my own career in the oil and gas sector. I wanted to share this with you, because I want to surface that many of us feel enmeshed in this issue. To some extent, all of us living in industrialised nations are implicated in climate change.

I think it is better to recognise this upfront, rather than avoid it. It is ok to acknowledge that our awareness has grown over time. If we haven’t taken action in the past, this doesn’t mean we can’t act now.

One reason we are all better informed today is the overwhelming global scientific consensus that has been established.

The work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been critical in this. This group of scientists from around the world has spent the last 30 years reviewing and narrating the evidence on climate change. And, if we pause just for a moment to consider their key findings, it may be helpful to focus all of our minds on the enormity of the issue at hand. Put very simply, global warming is caused by greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. This graph shows the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere over the past 800,000 years. We often say foundations have a long time horizon – but nothing like this! What you can see is that over the past 100 years or so we have broken a long-established pattern and begun moving dramatically off the scale. 

The scientists’ best estimate is that the planet’s average temperature has already risen by more than 1*c since pre-industrial times, as a result. The correlation with that graph is astounding. On current forecasts, the scientists expect the temperature to rise half as much again – to 1.5*c – by some point between the 2030s & 2050s. That’s the near future; that’s when a child born today can expect to start secondary school.

And though these temperature rises sound like small numbers, the consequences are not small. We are already seeing the start of this on the news: heatwaves, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, increased flooding, wildfires, crop failures, water scarcity, the list goes on. These impacts have long been predicted, but we can increasingly see for ourselves what they mean and what the implications are for us our human species living on this unique planet.

Not only are the consequences not small, they are not evenly distributed. By and large, the people that have been the biggest contributors to climate change are not the ones who are most adversely affected by it. Those who are most impacted tend to be the most vulnerable in our society.

In 2015 world leaders stated their ambition to limit global warming to 2*c by the end of the century. But at this 2*c level, the consequences of climate change are dire, with hundreds of millions more people directly affected. It is a sign of how far down this path we have already travelled that this is considered an acceptable goal. The least worst outcome that is plausible now.

But, even this is beginning to look extremely challenging. The scientists say that without swift action, we are more likely on a path to a rise of 3*c or more by the end of the century, when a baby born today will be 81 years old. These changes are expected to take effect within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren…So it is perhaps no wonder so many of them are going on strike or lying down in our streets… It is deeply disturbing.

I want to turn to why this climate crisis is relevant for individual foundations.

For some of you, this may seem clear-cut: we cannot go on assuming business as usual. Yet, I know that some of you are asking whether the climate crisis is a legitimate consideration for your foundation in the here and now, given its specific charitable objectives and time horizons. I want to spend some time exploring this.

The first and most important thing to consider is charity law. The law says that charity trustees can use their discretion in determining how best to achieve their charitable objectives. The foundations you represent here in this room have an incredibly diverse range of charitable purposes. Most of them were set down many years ago. Some pre-date the industrial revolution! They were not formed with the climate crisis in mind. But now that we are aware of the scale and scope of climate change, it is surely possible for trustees to consider its impact upon their charitable objectives, whatever those may be.

Because the climate crisis raises important questions for all foundations, whatever their area of interest. For example, as I’ve already mentioned, there are clear links between poverty, inequality, human rights and climate change. But let’s take some other examples:

For foundations that fund in a particular place, some of your questions might be: Who will be most vulnerable to extremes of weather in my patch? What are the specific risks in my area; coastal erosion, deforestation, flooding? What are the opportunities in terms of the built environment, conservation, developing renewable energy projects? How can I help my community to have its voice on climate change heard? How can I build a coalition for positive environmental and social action?

Foundations are already asking themselves these questions. And some are already taking action – like the Cumbria Community Foundation action in response to unprecedented flooding in that county.

Foundations who are concerned about health are asking about the overlaps between climate change and tackling health inequalities - if we think about severe weather events affecting older and more vulnerable people, for example, or impacting on mental health. And given that these are increasing in frequency: What more could we do to boost the resilience of people and the health systems that support them?

For funders of the arts, museums and heritage, there is a growing awareness of the challenge that climate change poses to physical artefacts, the natural environment and intangible cultural heritage. How can we preserve what we hold dear in the light of unprecedented change? What role can the arts play in moving the discourse away from individual resignation and toward one of collective resolve?

In short, it is possible for any foundation to make a legitimate connection to their charitable objectives.

What does that mean in practice?

Well, at a minimum, maybe it means doing no harm. It might mean thinking about making your own operations greener – and supporting your grantees to reduce their carbon footprint.

Many foundations are going much further. They are asking how they can shift more of their funding, their investments, and use all of their assets to help tackle the climate crisis.

Wherever you lie on that spectrum, I think it is possible for all foundations to use climate as one of the lenses they bring to thinking about their work. In fact, I’d go further and say, given the scientific forecasts, it is highly advisable for all to consider what it will mean for their beneficiaries now and in the future.

Because to be fair to the future, we need to change now.

Beyond our individual foundations, I believe the climate crisis has implications for the foundation sector as a whole.

Probably the biggest story in global philanthropy in the last year was the debate waged after the Notre Dame fire. Wealthy donors stepped forward pledging to rebuild the cathedral. At first, their gifts attracted praise, but this soon turned to criticism. In Paris homeless people are sleeping under its famous bridges, where is the urgency from philanthropy? When fires rage in the Amazon, where is the urgency? As Greta Tunberg said, where is the 'Cathedral Thinking' when it comes to the climate crisis?

The best available data suggests that only a small fraction of philanthropic funding in the UK is currently focused on climate change.

Given the twin trends of: growing climate awareness and falling trust in many institutions, it seems inevitable that institutional philanthropy will face more scrutiny over its choices in the coming years.

If the world faces an imminent climate crisis, do foundations have their heads in the sand? Are we ignoring the 68 billion elephants in the room – our £68billion pounds worth of endowments? A significant portion of which are invested in a financial system that is harming our environment and exacerbating inequality. Have we really thought about what it means to fund on a finite planet?

These are really challenging questions for the foundation sector. Yet I believe that we are already equipped with some of the answers.

One of the most celebrated hallmarks of foundations is that they are able to take a long-term view. Many of us are here because our predecessors did this. They acted to ensure these organisations existed to meet the needs of future generations, as well as present ones.

Yet the facts about climate change may urge us to reconsider how we do this. What does it mean to exist “in perpetuity”, if we know that inaction now could render the future unbearable? If we know that harm is being done now that cannot be undone in the future…?

Another way of looking at the gift of longevity, is that we also have the freedom to change our horizons. To consider taking more action in the here and now to preserve the future. In the light of what we now know, I think this is something that all boards could at least be considering.

We have the opportunity to change our horizons.

We can think again about what the long term means

Foundations are also well-known for supporting pluralism – they fund many different causes, different interventions and approaches.

They can take risks. They can support minority viewpoints and multiple strands of innovation.

But with a more imminent climate crisis in mind, will a thousand flowers always be able to bloom?

A less well-celebrated feature of foundations is our freedom to collaborate and to coordinate, where we choose to. Taken together, our limited resources may have greater impact. Pluralism has its merits, but in the face of the climate crisis, so does collective action.

So we have the opportunity to pull together, not just play our own part.

Finally, what I think many of us would say is the greatest strength of foundations is their independence. Foundations have always had the freedom to make their own choices and to complement their actions with their voices where appropriate.

Yet as we look through a climate lens, I can’t help but wonder if our independence can also be an easy way out. Our lack of direct accountability to those we serve – especially the generations to come - has sometimes enabled us to stay below the parapet, when we ought to have taken the lead and been first over it.

As foundations, we have the opportunity to look again at how we use all of our resources in the light of this climate challenge. To think about the privilege of our independence and what we are doing with it. To think about how we can use our voices, and lift up others’ voices, at this critical time.

Does our independence and ability to take both short and long term risks, actually give us unique advantages in addressing these concerns?

It is always the case that, as Chief Executive of ACF, I want to champion foundations. I want foundations to be the best enablers we can be of social good and civic life. I want foundations to be seen in their best light, and I want us to be in a position to welcome public scrutiny. And I have spent the first three years of my tenure in this role focussing on how we can equip and support our members to do this through our Stronger Foundations initiative – which many of you are involved in and which is examining what it means to be an ambitious and effective foundation.

Increasingly, being effective in the pursuit of social good will mean taking a climate lens to our work. At ACF we believe that the climate crisis is real, it is serious, and all foundations should be intentional about their response; whether this is in setting your strategies, discussing your investments, or future funding plans. Because if we prevaricate, or fail to listen to the urgent concerns of young people here and across the world, I fear we could find ourselves on the wrong side of history when it comes to the climate crisis.

I know that as funders you are already having these conversations and I sincerely hope that today’s conference can add positively to that discussion. As your membership association, both I and my team are committed to holding and protecting the space to enable you to come together and share with your peers. Because regardless of the challenges we face I strongly believe we meet them best when we meet them together. So I would like to end my comments today with an opportunity for those that are inspired to take action.

I am very pleased that today sees the launch of a new Funder Commitment on Climate Change, which has been developed by ACF members. It provides a clear statement for all foundations that are ready to sign up and take action, and a guide for those who are willing to make a start and looking for some direction.

At ACF, we fully support this Commitment. Over the next few months we will work with those who have spearheaded this effort, to inform members about it, and to build the community of practice around it.

Like all change, it starts with people and with leadership. Leadership doesn’t always have to come from the top. I hope it will come from all of you who are here today.

Carol Mack
Chief Executive, ACF



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