How philanthropy can balance trust, risk, and learning to catalyze innovation


Savanna Ferguson


Why one organization is taking a leadership-focused and flexible-grantmaking to climate mitigation work – and what others can learn from it.

Philanthropy is sometimes an odd pursuit. Borne most often from the fortunes of individuals who took enormous risks in business, professional philanthropy is notoriously risk averse. We often call it ‘strategic philanthropy,’ meaning not only that the funder has a strategic plan that undergirds their grantmaking but also cautiously analyzes potential grantee efforts before any money goes out the door. As funders, this typically leads us to solicit detailed proposals from grantees that specify measurable metrics of success that are sometimes projected years into an unpredictable future.

At our organization, Climate Breakthrough, we take a different approach, because we believe that the single greatest predictor of whether a strategy will succeed or fail is who’s leading it. We further believe grantees will create more innovative and ambitious strategies if they develop them when they’re assured of funding and that giving grantees the flexibility to pivot and adapt their strategies in response to changing conditions and feedback will vastly increase their likelihood of success. This aligns well with the growing trend of trust-based philanthropy, which represents welcome progress towards more equitable relationships between funders and grantees. But what does a leadership-focused and flexible grantmaking process look like?

The way we select grantees (or as we call them, awardees) has been influenced by the work of DARPA, ARPA-E, and incubators that have been successful in driving social innovation. With help from a network of scouts and partners, we look for individuals, rather than organizations, who are at a point in their careers where they are ready to take on a transformative climate endeavour. We look for leaders with a demonstrated ability to effect change, who think about problem-solving at an immense scale, who are creative and nimble, and whose work is characterized by uncommon boldness and ambition paired with humility and compassion. In addition to multiple interviews, we assess candidates through, on average, a dozen intensive conversations with the people who know the candidates and their work best. The people we choose are not only respected, they are also widely recognized as exceptional. But we look for more than the sum of those parts.

Focusing on grantee’s leadership means we don’t require a fleshed-out proposal prior to selection. We only ask top candidates for a brief and broad write-up of the transformative climate action idea they may want to pursue. We also give them room to switch strategies after selection as long as the effort they pursue is aimed at game-changing impact.

Focusing on grantee’s leadership also means we free our grantees to employ progress indicators that are meaningful to them, and to adjust them as needed in support of their learning and ultimately their impact. We acknowledge that many of their efforts – because they are new and exceptionally ambitious – will fail or fall short of their intended goals. We know they are pursuing not what’s reasonable, but what is necessary. If we want to nourish brave and forward-thinking endeavours, we must allow room for mistakes and shortfalls. Consistent success might look good in a grant report, but it’s a sure sign that we are not dreaming big enough.

Our grantees, the recipients of the Climate Breakthrough Award, have reflected to us how they appreciate the flexibility and opportunity to ideate large-scale action without the typical restrictions and obligations even before their selection. Take Tessa Khan, who pivoted her work to supporting a fossil fuel-free UK after her previous work in climate litigation had become well-established. John Hepburn, our first grantee in 2016, launched his effort at a time when it was considered a radical idea but has since used his funding to make remarkable, swift progress in driving the powerful global insurance industry out of fossil fuels. Arief Rabik, meanwhile, used his 2019 grant to create a bamboo-centred restoration economy in Indonesia, which has one of the world’s fastest deforestation rates.

When it comes to resolving the climate crisis, or any other complex social challenge, there are no silver bullets. A leadership-focused, flexible grantmaking process dedicated to innovative and highly ambitious strategies is not a be-all and end-all solution, but more funders using such an approach could take us further faster in addressing our most pressing problems. Funders are not the heroes: we’re here only to provide a helpful framework of support for those doing the work. Why not use the resources we have to free those most capable to do their best? We’re not the heroes, but with the urgency and enormity of the issues facing our world, we must be braver than we have been.

Savanna Ferguson is Executive Director of Climate Breakthrough. The organization manages the distinguished Climate Breakthrough Award, the largest climate action grant for individuals.

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