Inside Philanthropy: Climate Justice Pledge is Growing, but Many Top Funders Are Slow to Get on Board
Inside Philanthropy – April 5, 2022
By Michael Kavate
In February 2021, the Donors of Color Network unveiled a philanthropic pledge aimed at correcting a longstanding disparity in the environmental field: Organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color have long received pennies on the dollar in funding compared to white-led groups.
The Climate Funders Justice Pledge asked the nation’s top 40 climate funders at the time to commit to transparency about what percentage of their domestic grants go to BIPOC-led climate justice organizations — meaning more than half of their boards and senior staffs are people of color — and to directing 30% of their U.S. climate grant dollars to such groups within two years.
A couple of months past the pledge’s one-year anniversary, the effort is celebrating some notable new commitments to the transparency component: the Heising-Simons Foundation, which gave nearly $24 million to climate and energy causes in 2021, and two of the field’s largest U.S.-based intermediaries, the Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks Foundation.
Out of the original top 40 funders, there are now four that have committed to the full pledge: Kresge, Pisces and Schmidt Family foundations, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Another seven have signed on to the transparency portion only: Hewlett, MacArthur, Barr and JPB foundations, as well as the three newcomers mentioned above.
More may be on the way. Organizers say another top 40 funder is anticipated to join, possibly within the next few weeks, while a second told me that they plan to join the transparency portion once an analysis of their grantmaking is complete later this year. The “top 40” pool has also shifted, with new entrants and shifts in funding, so that not all of the original list are still in the top 40, though all still are ranked among the largest 60 climate funders by Candid, according to organizers.
The impact is adding up. The organizers calculate that all the pledges, if fulfilled, will add up to $100 million annually for climate justice groups. Eighteen funders outside the top 40 have also signed on to the pledge, most to both components, continuing a trend of smaller funders often taking bolder, more justice-focused approaches to climate change.
On one hand, those are impressive numbers, considering both philanthropy and the environmental movement have been overwhelmingly white for so long. Yet 14 months after launch, only 11 of the 40 funders initially approached about the pledge have signed on, and the response from more than a third is basically, “we’re still thinking about it.” At least 16 foundations are either “in conversation” about the pledge or have not responded to CFJP’s outreach, based on the team’s tallies. Six top funders have publicly said no.
“I understand culture work takes time, but we really don’t have any more time. This is a crisis that we’re in, and we’ve had decades to work on this,” said Isabelle Leighton, acting executive director of the Donors of Color Network.
The imbalance the pledge hopes to shift is dramatic. A few years ago, just 1.3% of dollars — or $18 million — from 12 major environmental funders went to BIPOC-led, environmental-justice-focused groups, according to a study by Building Equity and Alignment for Impact and the New School.
To try to understand what has led foundations to join, to decline or to take no action, I reached out to a wide range of funders, including several who are just beginning their journeys in climate philanthropy.
What led one major intermediary to join?
Last December, ClimateWorks published a thoughtful blog post, “Our Road to Accountability,” revealing the latest steps on its equity and justice journey, including a $1 million climate justice fund, increasing its board diversity and holding DEI training—as well as reflecting on how much work lay ahead.
It also revealed that it had joined the transparency portion of the Climate Funders Justice Pledge. Chris DeCardy, the foundation’s acting CEO at the time, wrote in the post that it did not join the full pledge, as most of the funding it receives is restricted and thus the intermediary has limited control over where it goes. (A spokesperson declined to share what percentage is restricted.)
“We all measure what matters,” said Jessica Brown, director of special projects at ClimateWorks. We “feel that our commitment to transparency very well aligns with our recent and our broader commitment to climate justice.”
The new commitment covers the intermediary’s domestic grantmaking, but roughly three-quarters of its grants were actually made outside of the U.S. last year. That presents a different set of challenges, which it aims to work through with partners.
“We do hope to eventually track our climate justice and equity spending, not just in the U.S., but internationally, too,” Brown told me. “We want to be thoughtful about how the definitions and terms are applied in that international context, given cultural differences, cultural sensitivities.”
Recommendations from a signatory
For the Schmidt Family Foundation, signing the pledge was simply the latest step in its own journey. The foundation had long maintained an internal fund to support leaders of color, along with going through its own institutional learning process on justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Executive Director Joseph Sciortino has three tips for any climate funder considering the pledge. First, speak with the Donors of Color Network team. Regardless of a foundation’s pain point, whether it’s a board issue or a logistical one, they are “really open, helpful and supportive,” he said. Second, remember it’s a long-term journey. “We didn’t just flip the switch,” he said of Schmidt.
Third, remember that the reason other funders have signed on is out of a commitment to the goals all climate funders share: to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and avert further climate catastrophe. “And in our experience — our very real, empirical experience — the best way to do that is to fund a multi-ethnic, multiracial coalition, at least in the U.S.,” Sciortino told me. He cited the Los Angeles community groups that helped push California Gov. Gavin Newsom to propose banning oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes and schools.
One bonus piece of advice: It’s up to leaders to actually push for the commitment. “Take your political capital that you’ve built with the board and the staff, and cash in on it,” he said.
What is holding back foundations still on the fence?
More than a year after launch, about a third of the top 40 are still “in discussion” about the pledge, according to the Donors of Color Network. To try to get a sense of what their process and timeline was, I contacted several of them. Mostly, it was fruitless. Attempts to contact Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Wallace Global Fund were unsuccessful, while Sequoia Climate Fund has a blanket no-comment policy. Bloomberg Philanthropies only confirmed that status was accurate.
A few indicated a decision was either unlikely or far off. Rockefeller Foundation indicated in a statement that most of their climate justice work is in Africa, India and Myanmar. (The pledge focuses only on U.S. grantmaking.) Skoll Foundation replied that they are “in very early stages” regarding the pledge.
Bezos Earth Fund offers a more interesting example. The $10 billion philanthropic vehicle of the Amazon founder has some serious climate justice expertise. The fund hired Danielle Deane-Ryan, formerly a consultant to the pledge, as its director of equitable climate solutions last November, and recently added environmental justice leader Cecilia Martinez as an advisor. It has also sent nearly $300 million to U.S. environmental justice groups. Yet it is also still getting its footing as an organization, with positions still open. It said in a statement it had not yet made a decision on the pledge.
How about those who never responded?
Donors of Color Network’s team says three foundations have made no response to their attempts at contact: Benificus Foundation, Grantham Foundation and NoVo Foundation.
I tried to get in touch with each to find out why. I heard back from two. Reached by email, Ramsay Ravenel, executive director at Grantham, wrote that joining the pledge is “certainly under consideration,” though he did not provide a timeline.
NoVo Foundation wrote in an email that they “do not define ourselves as a climate funder, and we do not support work that is explicitly centered on climate change,” and thus would “not be inclined” to sign the pledge. Candid placed NoVo among the top 40 climate funders when the pledge began and it now ranks 60th, according to CFJP.
Why have some refused the pledge?
At least six foundations have chosen not to commit to the pledge, for reasons that vary. At least half are for strictly logistical reasons. Two, Ford Foundation and Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, declined because most of their climate grantmaking is outside of the United States. Another, the Kendeda Fund, is sunsetting at the end of 2023.
I reached out to the other three to hear why. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also chose not to join, praised Donors of Color Network for the “valuable leadership of this timely initiative,” but said in a statement it was “unable to sign the pledge as it does not align with the way we track and report on our grantmaking.” Like others, its climate funding mostly goes abroad. The grantmaker has also awarded nearly $600,000 in grants to the network over the past three years.
Similar to NoVo, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation does not “consider ourselves a climate funder” and instead focuses on preserving the function of ecosystems of global importance, according to a spokesperson. “For that reason, we have not been part of this campaign directly, though we certainly believe transparency is appropriate.” The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation confirmed it had declined the pledge, but otherwise provided no comment.
Are the newest climate donors climbing aboard?
With more billionaire donors and families entering the climate space, the pledge’s long-term influence may hinge in part on what these newcomers do. I contacted three foundations who have begun funding on climate in the last year-plus and may eventually land among the top 40, given their ample resources.
Arthur M. Blank Foundation, which recently refocused on the environment as one of three core interests, told me it is still developing its strategy and is not yet considering such decisions. Builders Initiative, Lukas Walton’s philanthropy, which recently unveiled a $10 million climate justice portfolio, did not respond. Only Sobrato Philanthropies, which recently launched a climate program, suggested joining is a possibility.
“We’re still just beginning our climate work, but we’re aligned with the pledge in principle and we are eager to connect with the organizers,” said Prithi Trivedi, director of family initiatives and new opportunities, via email.
“We’re not going to get to where we need to be in time”
Mark Magaña, founding president and CEO of GreenLatinos, has seen the impact of the pervasive funding gap facing people-of-color-led organizations in the environmental movement through the experiences of his group’s national network of members.
“You have organizations with one paid person being paid a third of what a big green legacy group staffer is being paid, working 18 hours a day and pulling together volunteers. No comms support, no development support,” he told me. “It’s just astonishing that we think, ‘this is the strategic way of doing things.’ It’s not. We’re not going to get to where we need to be in time.”
Several analyses of unsuccessful past pushes on climate legislation have concluded a broader, more powerful environmental movement is essential to future success, while multi-ethnic coalitions have powered local wins from California to New York.
With this pledge adding new members, and major new donors like Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott making unprecedentedly large grants to climate justice groups in the U.S. and abroad, there are signs some climate funders are following those experiences. But it’s striking that so many funders are slow even to embrace transparency. Like so many other areas of philanthropy, it seems essential to at least know where the dollars are going.