Key questions from the Environmental Funders Network retreat

ACF's Policy & Communications Manager Emma Hutchins attended the Environmental Funders Network retreat in March. Here, she summarises the key questions that arose for foundations.

There was a markedly different feel to this year’s Environmental Funders Network retreat. In no small part this was down to the hard working EFN team and their ever expanding guestlist. But recent manifestations of environmental activism – from the youth protests to the rising profile of groups like Extinction Rebellion – provided the backdrop for urgent, challenging and hopeful conversations.

Jeremy Oppenheim set the tone with a provocative keynote speech. Having spent his career working across the public, private and philanthropic sectors on issues of sustainability and economic transformation, he had some pointed questions for the foundations in the room. Are foundations part of the problem? Do foundations wrap themselves in virtue and avoid addressing their own role?

Subsequent break-out sessions demonstrated that far from avoiding these issues, some foundations are confronting them head on. In particular, the DivestInvest movement, which encourages investors to move away from investing fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, is gaining significant traction in its aim to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry and remove its social licence to operate. Nonetheless, engagement with this movement on the part of foundations is low.

At ACF we see the many ways in which foundations use their endowments in pursuit of their mission, from divesting and screening, to engaging as active shareholders to put pressure on companies they invest in. But the focus for many foundations – for a variety of reasons – remains on how to deploy their grant-making budget most effectively. Another of Jeremy’s critiques then becomes pertinent: what is the collective philanthropic aim for the environment?

The plurality of issues and approaches is one of the foundation sector’s key strengths. This plurality is healthy for democracy, allowing people to pursue charitable endeavour where they see a need and to address causes that may otherwise be ignored or unpopular. Indeed many in the audience pushed back on the need for a collective goal, emphasising the benefits of a diverse range of pursuits. But in the face of imminent environmental disaster, would foundation resources be better deployed in pursuit of a single objective?

This question lingered as Florence Miller, Director of EFN, presented their latest research on foundation giving to environmental causes. Of the £3.3bn that foundations give annually, EFN estimates that only £100m goes to the environment. As Florence commented, this is the equivalent of a recent single donation to Cambridge University from a foundation. Not only does this pose questions for how best to use that funding, but also how to increase that amount.

Even for those already funding environmental causes, it can be difficult to know how to select the most effective approach. Activism and public mobilisation have recently demonstrated their power; the youth protests led to the first debate on the environment in two years in the House of Commons, and have achieved a significant amount of press and public interest. But how might foundations support these movements? Is the legal and regulatory environment favourable to supporting activism? Are foundations able to respond to the rapid pace and informal nature of these groups and movements? Why does the majority of foundation funding go to organisations where it makes up just 1% of the recipient’s budget, when these low/no budget interventions have proven so effective and could benefit from small injections of funding?

The retreat was an opportunity to hear and begin to process these questions. There are no easy answers, but time for reflection is limited. Foundations are distinguished by their independence, flexibility, and ability to take risks. There is no better time to play to those strengths than in the face of the environmental challenge ahead.

Emma Hutchins
Policy & Communications Manager, ACF

The theme of ACF's Annual Conference 2019 is 'The Long View: Funding on a Finite Planet'. Find out more here.

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