Climate of change for leading foundations


Nick Perks


In June, at a gathering of the Woburn Place group of foundation leaders, we heard very persuasive evidence from Stephanie Pfiel of Client Earth and Kené Umeasiegbu, Head of Environment at Tesco, about the urgency of the threat from rapid climate change, and of the opportunities and costs that will arise from the necessary transition to a low carbon economy.

The main sense in the room at the end of the meeting was ‘OK, I want to do something significant about this, but where do I start?’. That might also be the question in the mind of many of the delegates at this year’s ACF conference, which has climate change as its central theme.

It is that question that got me scribbling down ideas, and with the support of foundations, NGOs and others, has led to the development of the Funder Commitment on Climate Change, which will be launched publicly at the conference.

The Funder Commitment has six elements, which together provide a holistic, high-level framework for foundations, whatever their size, mission or area of benefit, to play their part in tackling the causes and impacts of climate change.

Many of us in and around foundations are concerned about climate change, but may feel confused by the volume of information, lack confidence to discuss the issues, or simply be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. We need to build up the climate literacy of our organisations if we are to take effective action. The first element of the Funder Commitment is therefore to make opportunities for trustees, staff and stakeholders to learn more about the key causes and solutions of climate change.

Addressing climate change needs large scale, urgent action – primarily to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and to change land use. Historically, addressing climate change attracted little foundation support, perhaps because many older foundations pre-date widespread awareness of the issue. However, there is some evidence that this is beginning to change. Just last week Alliance magazine reported on a multi-million dollar donation by four European foundations to an ambitious initiative to protect the ‘global commons’. Elsewhere, money is needed for activism, for advocacy, for education, for business development, for practical action, and to support local communities through transition. Some foundations can provide grants, while others may be able to give staff time or other in-kind support. Internal resources will also be needed for a foundation to follow through on all the other elements of the framework. So, the second element of the Funder Commitment is to commit resources.

The causes and solutions of climate change interact with many other fields of civil society activity, ranging from housing to the arts, and from scientific research to social change. Foundations have an opportunity to build on their existing expertise and networks, to make productive links across different fields, and to foster positive action on climate in their own priority areas. The third part of the Funder Commitment is about this integration.

Fourthly, we come to foundation investments. Climate change is recognised as a risk to investments by the Bank of England and the World Bank, amongst others. It is basic good stewardship to recognise and address this risk, and this is what the Funder Commitment requires. There are also many opportunities for foundations to take a more active leadership stance in this area.

While for most foundations, their direct carbon footprint will be small relative to the impact they can have through their grants and investment choices, it is still important and empowering to get our own house in order – to show leadership, to engage stakeholders, and to manage reputational risks. So the fifth part of the Funder Commitment is about reducing the climate change impact of our own operations.

The final part of the Funder Commitment is to report on progress. Public reporting gives us a strong incentive to deliver on our commitments and sharing learning will help foundations to support each other as we progress.

Whether a foundation is a dedicated climate change funder or coming fresh to the issue for the very first time, is it likely that one or more of these elements will be uncomfortable to tackle. There are entry level actions that can be taken in every section, and no limit to the ambition to which we can aspire. Signing is not a claim to have everything right, but an intention to play a full part.

Please join us.

The Funder Commitment on Climate Change was launched on 6 November 2019. For the full text of the Funder Commitment, current list of signatories, and details of how to sign, visit

Nick Perks is a freelance consultant, offering support to charities, social change organisations, and foundations in the UK and formerly Trust Secretary (CEO) at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

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