ACF report: Covid-19 has set back foundations’ work on climate change


Elika Roohi


An interim report on the progress of the UK climate philanthropy commitment has highlighted the need for foundations to accelerate efforts to fulfil their climate commitments, with many noting that the pandemic has slowed their work in this area.

Signatories of the Association of Charitable Foundations’ Funder Commitment on Climate Change – launched in November 2019 – still have work to do, especially with integrating climate into other work and decarbonising operations.

The results are from 44 ACF members who signed a six-part commitment, which asks funders to tackle climate change by: educating and learning about climate change impacts and solutions; committing resources to tackling and adapting to climate change impacts; integrating climate considerations within existing programmes; stewarding investments for a post carbon future; decarbonising operations; and reporting on their progress with all of the above.

In the progress report, funders shared the most advances with committing resources and educating and learning about climate change. While there was progress in the other focus areas for some – others found it difficult to take up the work of stewarding investments, integrating climate into other work, and decarbonising operations in addition to their work responding to the health crisis.

The global lockdowns in response to the pandemic have so far left new travel policies largely unchallenged.

The Friends Provident Foundation, one of the commitment’s signatories, reported that in order to steward its investments for a post-carbon future, it changed its policy to include divestment from fossil fuels and similarly high carbon fuels, as well as companies engaged in unsustainable harvest of natural resources like deforestation or intensive farming methods.

‘Throughout 2020, we have also been using our influence to engage energy utility companies operating in the UK to develop just and net-zero transition strategies,’ wrote the Friends Provident Foundation in the report. ‘We have particularly favoured investments in companies whose business model focus is on net-zero carbon transition’.

For decarbonising operations, many noted in their responses that they had made arrangements to lessen the environmental footprint of their travel – however, the global lockdowns in response to the pandemic have so far left these new policies largely unchallenged. The foundations whose commitment to more sustainable travel featured in the report include Arcadia, Comic Relief, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and the Solberga Foundation led by young philanthropist, Kristina Johannson.

Funders make climate commitments beyond the UK

Report co-author Joanna Pienkowska

ACF’s report noted that while foundations are privileged to have endowments and financial resources to draw on, some of which have substantially increased, some foundations have seen asset values or income fall, particularly those that depend on public fundraising or a corporate parent. These factors have meant that a number of foundations have not committed the level of resources or made as much progress on the Funder Commitment as they had hoped during the year – something acknowledged in the responses to the survey, which was open in February 2021 to the 55 total signatories of the commitment (there are now a total of 60 signatories).

Report co-author Nick Perks

According to ACF, the UK Funder Commitment is now inspiring action in other countries with foundation networks in France and Spain developing parallel commitments. Ahead of the UN’s COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, there are also plans for national commitments in other states, as well as a global version – the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change, which is being developed by WINGS and will be open to foundations around the world.

‘It is fantastic to see this many signatories publicly reporting back on their work on climate, and we’re pleased to see that despite the difficulties of this past year, there’s been great progress across all areas of the Commitment. ACF continues to engage and support signatories in implementing the Commitment by creating a space for learning and exchange,’ said Joanna Pienkowska, ACF lead on the Funder Commitment and co-author of the report together with former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust CEO, Nick Perks.

ACF’s report comes as European philanthropy increases ambition on environmental and climate issues. According to an EFC report mapping environmental funding by European foundations that was published this week, €745.6 million was spent on over 5,000 environmental grants across 146 countries in 2018. This is an increase over the last mapping report, which measured that €583 million were spent on some 4,000 environmental grants in 2016. This week also saw a major announcement from the IKEA Foundation committing an additional €1 billion to address climate change over the next five years.

Alliance magazine will be publishing an issue on philanthropy’s response to climate change ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in June 2021. Make sure not to miss it and subscribe today.

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.

Editor’s note 22 April 2021: An earlier version of this article stated that the survey collecting data for the progress report was open to the 60 signatories of the commitment – at the time the survey was open there were only 55 foundations who had joined.

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