Want to be a true climate catalyst funder? Practice brave, speedy and flexible grant-making


Jenny Ekelund


Not every foundation boasts climate expert staff and trustees. Does that matter? Arguably not. If funders want to support high-impact climate collaborations, a healthy risk appetite, and a willingness to act with bravery, speed, and flexibility are far more important than deep knowledge.

Philanthropy of all stripes has undoubtedly woken up to the challenge of the climate crisis over the past two years. Many organisations have begun thinking deeply about their role during this crucial decade, even if, and perhaps especially if, they had not previously funded climate action or considered it relevant to their portfolios.

Thrillingly (for a gnarly old climate and nature partnership veteran like me!), sector pledges such as the WINGs International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change have broken with issue agnosticism, moved by the urgency and cross-cutting nature of the climate crisis to galvanise the sector to take action.  The Commitment is a public statement of intent, providing an accessible jumping-off point for all funders, even those at the beginning of the climate response journey. Covering all areas of philanthropy’s footprint and potential positive impact, from endowments to advocacy, by its inclusive nature it is not ambitious, but it certainly paves the way for ambition.

Democratic Republic of Congo Afrormosia growing scheme at the Compagnie Forestiere et de Transformation (CFT) in Kisangani, DRC. Photo credit: Credit: Axel Fassio / CIFORPhotographer name: Axel Fassio


The Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) in the UK, the originator of the sector commitment concept, is already two annual progress reports into its journey, and the frank self-assessment is welcome. Perhaps understandably, one of the most challenging areas for members to navigate is the commitment to integrate climate across existing programmes, where many foundations are ‘just getting started’[1]. The temptation is to tinker rather than make big changes to portfolios, and therein lies the problem. We cannot tackle the greatest challenge of our time through incremental steps.

Both the WINGS and ACF commitments include a focus on education and learning, for boards, investment committees, staff, volunteers and stakeholders. Which begs the question: how climate literate do foundation staff and boards really need to be in order to make a meaningful contribution to tackling the climate crisis? Of course, they need an appreciation of the urgent and systemic nature of the climate challenge, as well as a general understanding of mitigation and adaptation needs. There are also opportunities for funders to learn from peers with more specialist knowledge. From my experience, however, the most impactful change foundations can make is to cultivate a strong risk appetite. This shows up in three grant-giving behaviours; Bravery, Speed and Flexibility.


Funders must sharpen their appetite for funding high-risk, high-reward climate projects. This will necessarily come with a higher-than-average rate of failure. This brave approach is particularly needed to support ambitious, high-impact climate collaborations and multi-stakeholder initiatives- essential to tackling the systemic nature of climate mitigation and adaptation challenges.

The University of Oxford’s Decisive Decade report is unequivocal in stating the catalytic role philanthropy can play in collaborative climate action, supporting ‘uncertain but potentially high-impact solutions to foster experimentation, innovation and continuous learning.’[2] The World Resources Institute (WRI)-hosted pioneering green partnership (P4G) Fund plays this risk-tolerant role well, aiming to bridge the gap between the development and investment agendas by turning ideas and commitments into concrete, inclusive…solutions on the ground that mobilize investments from the private sector to deliver impact.’ It is well worth taking a look at P4G partnerships funded under the energy transition and associated themes for inspiration.

Speed & flexibility

Sophie Marple of Gower Street made a powerful point when she stated ‘What you spend now is worth so much more than what you spend in 10 years’ time…right now we can make a difference’[3]. Philanthropy must apply some of the slick response techniques used during the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate crisis because it could take many years of iterative progress under current funder commitments before pledged resources come close to matching what is needed.

By far the most commonly cited enabler for collaboration among climate practitioners I work with is access to fast, flexible funding to allow partnerships to build trust and ‘just get going’ on climate solutions, failing fast, learning and course-correcting. This is something which is rarely available for partnerships. As one practitioner observed: ‘There is a surfeit of convening /coordination in this space, lots of well-established philanthropic tracks, and some big new money coming in. Small/medium scale money that can move quickly is really needed.”

Flexibility is especially important for those working in climate partnerships because many are iterating as they develop. To have the best chance of achieving impact, they need funding partners that understand this need to adapt and are willing to support at every turn.

It is hugely heartening to see the sector move as one to commit publicly to tackling the climate crisis. To this commitment, I challenge funders to add a pledge to be as bold, as fast and as flexible as possible in their work.

Set some climate funding actions this month to make your board’s eyes water.

Because in 10 years’ time it will be too late.

Jenny Ekelund is the Director of Green Transition at The Partnering Initiative (TPI).

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