Reshaping Climate Philanthropy for the Better in the Age of COVID-19

By the Growald Familiy Fund

As the initial shock of COVID-19 turns to acceptance of a changed world, philanthropies face critical decisions about how their funding will work going forward. For climate philanthropy, this new phase requires us to reevaluate and strengthen our approach to tackling the climate crisis while recognizing we are in the midst of a humanitarian and economic crisis.

COVID-19 has created an extraordinary moment of global disruption. For our foundation and our community of climate philanthropists, it has required reflection, both deeply and quickly, on what this means for our work.

We have needed to, and will need to, respond in three phases.

The first phase is the crisis phase, which in many places we are still in. For the Growald Family Fund and our philanthropic colleagues, this has required an immediate focus on the well-being of our team, our grantees, and the communities that we and they work and live in. During this phase, we have reached out to our partners and the NGOs we support to see if there were ways we could support their technical needs to facilitate telecommuting, reassured them that we are flexible with reporting requirements, and encouraged creativity in their approach. We wanted to listen first to the field, and the message was clear:

  1. Our grantees were concerned about their teams and communities – their mental and physical health, the shift to working from home, and the need to care for children and loved ones.  For those working in vulnerable communities, work shifted to care and support for the affected people.
  2. They were worried about financial stability. While the economy has been dealt a major blow, they worried about losing grant support. We heard that community groups would face increased and unexpected costs from COVID community support, from moving to home offices, from event cancellations. Grantees were concerned that funding would be cut because they were unable to meet their agreed upon deliverables and also that foundations would cut back on spending for endowment protection, as they experienced in the 2008 financial crisis. These concerns were even more present for grantees from the global South who have less financial resilience.
  3. They were immediately rethinking and retooling their strategies.

Our response was equally clear. We immediately reassured grantees that their funding was not threatened, that they can apply for support for additional costs, and that we encouraged them to care for themselves and their communities first.  At the same time we also encouraged them to think creatively.

The second phase is the one which we find ourselves entering, which is the stimulus phase where philanthropy has a key role to play in addition to the stimulus being provided by governments. This is where we lay the groundwork for an eventual recovery from this crisis. While for many communities and families it is impossible to think about this next phase as they are still in the middle of crisis, governments and companies are taking action now. As philanthropy and civil society, we have also a responsibility to think of our role in stimulus. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her account of responses to recent disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, “we cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”

While climate may be far from the minds of many, it is important for climate funders to continue to act, particularly in ways which create intersectional solutions. For example, a recent Harvard study highlighted that air pollution exacerbates the health impacts of COVID-19. At the same time, cities around the world are seeing clear air. In Northern India, for example, many residents are seeing the Himalayas the first time in their lives as a result of improved air quality, reigniting a discussion in the country about air pollution. Could this result in the desire for a permanent solution? Philanthropy can play a role here in supporting analysts and civil society organizations supporting clean air solutions.

At the same time we are seeing how the financial crisis is wreaking havoc on fossil fuel companies. As Carbon Tracker writes in their recent analysis, “COVID-19 has the potential to be the midwife of the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.” The fossil fuel industry was suffering financially before the crisis, with over 40% of the global coal fleet already cash-flow negative. As governments invest in economic recovery, they face a choice about investing in the energy choices of the past, or investing in the future: a clean energy economy that supports local job creation, clean air, and cheaper, more resilient energy choices.

As philanthropists, we have an important role to play in this phase. Most importantly, we must support our grantees as they develop new strategies and responses to the conditions in their communities. Providing flexible support to groups, particularly those based in vulnerable communities, will enable solutions that meet the specific political, economic and cultural realities. Their voices are best placed to shape and reorient their government fiscal policies, economic recovery responses, and shifting overseas investments. We can also support visionaries who are shaping the narrative of the change that is possible, and the science and analysis underpinning this vision.

This phase of philanthropic stimulus is one where we must heed the call to action. For those foundations that can increase their giving, this is a time when it can provide outsized impact to address these multiple crises. Through stable or even increased giving, we can:

  • Ensure the stability of the organizational partners we count on. Nonprofits are job creators themselves, and we can help ensure a resilient nonprofit sector is a vital part of the recovery. This means not only keeping funding stable, but also potentially using this opportunity to invest in increased capability and capacity of grantees through training where possible. These investments will help organizations navigate both the health and climate crises we face.
  • Improve our philanthropic practices. By increasing the flexibility of our grants, being creative with due diligence and reporting, and signalling an appetite for creativity we can end up being better partners in the long run.
  • Support intersectional approaches. While we are climate funders, it has been clear for some time that issues of human rights, social justice and structural economics are critically linked. These connections are more important than ever, so we will be opening up our grantmaking to consider unusual partners from different sectors.
  • Support innovation. At Growald Family Fund, we use a venture philanthropy approach, so we are accustomed to supporting start-up organizations and seeding new ideas or approaches. We are doubling down on this, as we see this moment as the critical moment for innovative ideas for change. The status quo has been disrupted. It is time for bold ideas about how to emerge from this crisis with vision.

Acting boldly is a risk, and there is much we don’t know at this point so our approach may change over time. But we are acting now in the hope that we can care for those suffering right now while laying the groundwork for a more resilient society. We can care for our own communities while caring and connecting with communities around the world. We can hold the complexity of the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis and the connection with social justice issues. We can do this by acting together, by listening and collaborating and daring to be hopeful.

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