10 lessons from a decade in climate philanthropy


Elsa Özmen


I started working in climate philanthropy over a decade ago. At the time, less than two per cent of all philanthropic contributions went towards climate change. For the climate community, the disappointing summit of Copenhagen in 2009 was a huge blow, its effect lasting many years. ‘Climate’ and ‘green’ became taboo terms, as calls by environmental NGOs to curb greenhouse gas emissions were dismissed as unrealistic. World leaders were dealing then with the financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment.

The picture could not be more different today: climate change is top of mind for a majority of people. European citizens now view climate change as the single most serious problem facing the world, even in times of a global pandemic. A daunting 75 per cent of young people think the future is ‘terrifying’. One statistic remains the same though: the proportion of philanthropic resources directed to climate action. Still a mere two per cent…

Yet, climate philanthropy has made a difference in a decade. We have contributed to eliminating half of all existing coal-fired power plants in Europe, given average citizens a say, helped uncover the automotive sector’s dirty business tricks, and got the EU to commit to climate neutrality by 2050… Imagine what we could do with more!

I want to be hopeful that the funding pledges made at COP26 open the door to many more philanthropists stepping up to the challenge. Let me welcome them by sharing my 10 lessons learned from more than a decade in climate philanthropy.

1. It’s really not all about the money

No one person or organisation has all the answers to solve the greatest crisis of our time. Our best hope is to co-create solutions between donor and grantee partners, by listening to one another, practising humility, and building trust. We are all in this together.

2. Crisis is the new normal

Many funders will agree in principle that flexible, multi-year grants are the best way to strengthen civil society and help them anticipate shocks and respond to crises. Even more so since the pandemics affected deeply the operations of NGOs. However, in practice, this type of funding is all too rare. Instead, it should become the standard. 

3. Filling forms is not the best use of our partners’ time

It is legitimate that donors want to ensure the adequate use of their funds, but we should not lose sight of the fact that our collective mission is to tackle the climate crisis, not to write or read reports. So let’s think together of a more creative way to create accountability and demonstrate impact!

4. Wanted: European donors

European philanthropies wonder whether investing in climate can have any impact at all next to the multi-billion pledges announced by Jeff Bezos and the likes. The answer is: absolutely yes! Especially if you are willing to support newer, riskier and less appealing areas short of funding.

5. There is no killer karate move

I am afraid that there is no silver bullet to kill the climate crisis. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they have THE answer, especially if they tell you that salvation is to be found in a single technological solution. We will only ever be able to reach climate neutrality by taking a systemic approach. We will need to change our economic paradigm as well as our behaviour as a society, in the way we eat, consume, heat our homes, etc.

6. We have already invented the wheel

How to make the greatest impact? This is the ultimate question. With less than 10 years to make a difference, we have no time to waste reinventing the wheel. Why not look at what’s out there and reinforce existing capacity?

7. It’s not planet vs people

For a long time, climate was seen as a scientific issue, or at best a policy one. It was all about numbers as 2C°, 1.5 and confusing acronyms like ETS, GHG… But climate is really a people issue: we need to protect the most vulnerable people from the effects of climate change in the fairest way possible and ensure citizens are part of the transition.

8. Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror

We have to be honest with ourselves though: we won’t be able to involve the better part of society in the transition if we don’t change ourselves. The climate movement generally – and climate philanthropy maybe even more so – is mostly white, urban, privileged. We badly need to become more diverse and representative of our societies.

9. It may keep you awake at night

Working on climate is not a 9 to 5 job. If you are anything like me, you won’t simply be able to close your laptop and stop thinking about it. You may have to face daily personal ethical challenges, like whether it’s ok to fly to visit your family for Christmas or eat meat at a barbecue. Sometimes you may even wonder whether you should not have chosen an easier career path.

10. It’s not over

You may be feeling like we are losing the war. But don’t let despair or discouragement win you over after the weak outcomes of COP26. I’ve been there. There are fights left to win. And we need you for those ones.

Elsa Özmen is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the European Climate Foundation.

Tagged in: COP26

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