Collaborative philanthropy as a way to scale

Jessica Brown

The environmental challenges that foundations seek to address are increasingly complex and systemic in nature. Foundations struggle to achieve impact in the best of times. It can be challenging for a small team to build the knowledge and expertise required to address problems at their root causes. One way forward may lie in a range of new initiatives to encourage foundations to collaborate.

Climate Works, for example, is an international collaborative focused on tackling climate change through energy efficiency standards, low-carbon energy supply and forest conservation. This network of regional climate foundations creates the space for common strategies and for sharing the technical expertise and financial resources of multiple donors. More recently formed are the Environmental Funders Network and Forest Philanthropy Action Network.

Channelling funds through existing foundations is another interesting strategy. Donations by the Tides Foundation and Warren Buffett to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are two salient examples from the US.  Donor advised funds can also bring philanthropic funds together for specific strategic objectives. Well developed in the US, this practice has recently been explored by Coutts private bank in the UK, which launched a pilot environment fund.

But even the largest foundations cannot hope to solve major problems without bringing the far greater resources (and market roles) of business and government into play. Watch the space for ‘public-private-philanthropic partnerships’, where foundations create partnerships with business and government bodies to accelerate the impact of particular markets. A good example is the combined effort of the Rockefeller Foundation, the reinsurance firm Swiss Re, Oxfam America and Columbia University to shape market responses that can help communities most vulnerable to climate variability and change.

The partnership approach may be the way forward to reach the scale necessary to achieve change. For smaller foundations like the Tellus Mater Foundation, this is an essential part of establishing a scale-oriented strategy. The speed at which foundations are creating combined vehicles or pooling resources to address similar goals, as well as new interactions with business, investment funds and governments, suggests an exciting new agenda.

Jessica Brown is director of the Tellus Mater Foundation. Email

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