Guest blog: Funder Commitment on Climate Change - the first six months
The Funder Commitment on Climate Change launched at the ACF conference in November 2019, as an informal initiative of a small group of foundations. Since then, the list of signatories has grown to over 40 UK foundations, and ACF has recently taken on the hosting of the project. This seems a good moment for a little personal reflection. What have I learnt about foundations and climate change?
Even though public polling shows the great majority of people are concerned about climate change and wish to see action, there can be a degree of awkwardness talking about it in a professional setting. I’ve met many trustees and staff who are personally very keen for their foundation to do more, but also aware that their foundations were not set up to tackle climate change. The Funder Commitment has proved a valuable mechanism for a number of boards to have a meaningful conversation about where the organisation stands in relation to this defining issue of our time. I know privately that not all of these conversations have been easy, but – partly because of that - a number of them have been very productive, opening up new ideas and space for change. Let’s keep talking!
Maintaining organisational focus on climate change is greatly helped by making an explicit link to organisational mission. At a general level, no charitable cause can be effectively pursued in the face of catastrophic climate breakdown. Realistically, though, in the face of other important issues and organisational dynamics, the threat to humanity feels too big and too general to prioritise. Helpfully, there are also many specific examples where tackling climate change, or adapting to its effects, directly links into other charitable goals. To give just three examples: tackling air pollution (particularly from vehicles) furthers the aims of public health as well as reducing emissions; no funder investing in physical heritage can afford to ignore changing climate threats; and any youth funder will know that climate change is an issue that counts, practically and politically, for younger people. There are meaningful, substantive actions that any funder can take, strongly aligned to mission.
The Funder Commitment began with learning, when a gathering of foundation leaders heard presentations from Kené Umeasiegbu, Head of Environment (now Campaigns Director) at Tesco, and Stephanie Pfiel of Client Earth. For many in the room, the presentations were a real eye-opener about the enormous economic and social implications of climate change and the measures that are needed to tackle it and adapt to it. We put learning at the top of the list of pledges for foundations under the Funder Commitment, and with hindsight I’m very glad we did. I become more and more convinced that greater climate literacy and confidence is crucial to creating action. More than 50 foundation staff and trustees have shown the demand for learning on climate change by attending ACF workshops. (Let ACF know if you'd be interested in future training).
Resourcing the ‘how’
There are a lot of foundations, and individuals within foundations, who are firmly convinced of the need for action. However, putting this intention into practice does take work. We need to think through what climate change means for our specific organisation, its people, its grant programmes, investments and operations. There’s a real appetite for good guidance and tailored advice, for case studies, and learning from others. On great example of working together was the recent ESG olympics, organised by Friends Provident Foundation (a Funder Commitment signatory) in partnership with the Blagrave Trust (another signatory) and Joffe Charitable Trust. By pooling knowledge and purchasing power the process is helping to raise the bar on responsible investment. Across all aspects of the Funder Commitment, the organisations that are going fastest and furthest are the ones that are committing resources – time as well as money – to implementation.
Building back better
In the last three months, foundations, and all of us, have been dominated by concerns arising from the pandemic, its social and economic impacts, and its human toll, particularly on many black and minority ethnic people and families. There are many connections between Covid-19 and climate, of which the most important are the questions about what kind of future we are now facing together. In recent weeks, many philanthropic funders – heeding the science and listening to their grantees - have acted quickly to provide emergency relief. Foundations have learnt to be bolder, to collaborate more, to act faster, to learn new skills and ways of working. As we consider how we build back better, putting climate change, equity and public health at the centre of our thinking and planning will serve us all well.
Nick Perks is a philanthropy and charity consultant. He led on the development of the Funder Commitment on Climate Change.