Winning on Climate Change Is Entirely Possible With a Little More Help from Philanthropy


Henry Platt, Brian Burwell and Sonali Patel


Entertaining the thought of winning on climate change requires us to keep two apparently opposed ideas in mind: first, that we are living in a time of escalating peril and crisis, and second, that major progress against climate change is entirely possible over the next 10 years. After all, with fires burning, storms raging, and communities suffering through ‘once-in-a-century’ heat waves across the globe, it’s not at all obvious that the world has made any headway against the worsening climate crisis.

But in fact, there has been significant progress. Over the past decade, the world has also seen some important advances—beginning to bend the curve of the planet’s future away from the worst-case scenarios imagined just a few years earlier. And as a virtuous cycle of wins generates momentum, we can turn the fight around.

In interviews, a Bridgespan Group team asked funders, former and current government officials, leaders of climate collaboratives, and frontline leaders around the world to name the most significant climate change wins or signs of progress over the past two decades. Those most frequently cited include the Beyond Coal campaign in the United States, which has helped retire two-thirds of coal plants in the nation; the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the 2016 global agreement to eliminate climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); the movement for Indigenous peoples and local communities’ land tenure, which has the potential to protect a vast amount of carbon-storing forest and grassland; and the landmark US Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022. Importantly, philanthropy played a significant role in all four.

There was also great diversity among the responses. Policy wins, technology, market dynamics, and grassroots action all had a role to play in addressing climate change to date—and will continue to do so into the future. This diversity of perspectives about past wins suggests there’s no current consensus about the most promising pathway for progress against climate change. It also highlights an important opportunity for funders—there are many potential pathways to progress, and all of them will be needed.

That said, three climate philanthropy practices emerged as likely to be especially important in the decade ahead:

Investing in early efforts connected to a big goal

Consider the Kigali Amendment to dramatically curb the use and production of HFCs, the ‘super-pollutants’ widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating up the earth. The 2016 agreement is part of what the Clean Cooling Collaborative has called ‘the largest single philanthropic commitment that has ever been made to advance energy efficiency in the developing world.’

Collaboratives and other kinds of intermediaries can provide value to climate donors and climate change efforts in a variety of ways, including coordinating strategy and communications, allowing funds from multiple donors to be pooled or coordinated for greater impact, and providing an easy on-ramp to giving for newer donors.

‘No government was going to take that on. This is where philanthropy could make a difference, seeing the possibility of a future where HFCs were globally regulated,’ explains Sonia Medina, who oversees the climate change portfolio for the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and has been deeply involved in the work to regulate HFCs. The effort started with pieces of the puzzle, like research that established that moving away from HFCs could also help catalyze improvements in energy efficiency, then expanded to a wider range of policy and advocacy initiatives. Over eight or nine years, CIFF spent approximately $15 million, working alongside partners to leverage more resources, which is an amount of funding that seems modest in comparison to the powerful impact it ended up having years down the road.

In addition to backing big bets, donors can sow the seeds of future progress toward big goals by backing early efforts, many of them small-scale. These efforts should come with flexible funding since the path forward is not always clear.

Joining other climate actors through existing structures

Newer donors to climate philanthropy sometimes tell us that they find the space challenging: it’s very complicated, it’s hard to know what will work, and the problem is so big it’s not clear how any single donor can make a difference. But donors in the climate sector don’t have to figure everything out from scratch. There are multiple pathways for fast and potentially high-impact giving. And there are well-established—if often still underfunded and newer—structures for action. Collaboratives and other kinds of intermediaries can provide value to climate donors and climate change efforts in a variety of ways, including coordinating strategy and communications, allowing funds from multiple donors to be pooled or coordinated for greater impact, and providing an easy on-ramp to giving for newer donors.

Larry Kramer, former president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (a funder of our research), emphasizes that even for donors who plan on doing most of their giving alone, there are ‘different types of collaboratives you can join—places to learn, develop trust, and connect with people, without giving up your own autonomy.’ One example is the Global Methane Hub, a two-year-old collaborative of philanthropies focused on funding methane-reduction solutions in the energy, agricultural, and waste sectors worldwide.

Supporting the equitable implementation of laws, treaties, and policy changes

A key goal of climate action is to enact laws, policies, and treaties that reduce emissions and help people adapt to climate change. But for climate donors, one of the biggest opportunities for progress is supporting the equitable implementation of what has already been enacted. This includes recent major climate-focused legislation in the US like the infrastructure bill or the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA),  Uganda’s National Climate Change Act, India’s Long-Term Low Carbon Development Strategy, and a range of multilateral agreements.

‘After you pass a bill or enact a policy,’ says Erin Rogers, Co-Director of the Hive Fund for Gender and Justice, ‘there’s still a lot of work to make sure it gets enforced and to avoid the shift back to the status quo. Too often, funders want to move on once a policy is in place.’ For example, to support equitable implementation of the IRA, the Hive Fund is supporting up to 10 IRA Climate Justice Zones across the southern US, providing both multiyear grants and coordination support to help groups collaborate, build partnerships, and access technical assistance, funding and other resources to implement community-led climate solutions at scale

The complexity and size of the climate issue is no reason for philanthropic money to stay on the sidelines. And while there has been a substantial increase in donor support for climate action, hardly any of the experts we interviewed felt there is currently anything like sufficient private funding to meet the urgency of the moment. There is a daunting investment gap. The only way to bridge it is to start funding today.

Henry Platt, Brian Burwell, and Sonali Patel are partners at The Bridgespan Group.

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