How Philanthropy Can Balance Risk and Learning

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NOVEMBER 19, 2022

“Consistent success might look good in a grant report, but it’s a sure sign that we are not dreaming big enough,” writes Climate Breakthrough Executive Director Savanna Ferguson in the prominent philanthropy publication Alliance magazine. In the compelling piece, Savanna shares how Climate Breakthrough is focusing on leadership and flexible grantmaking to balance trust, risk, and learning in climate philanthropy.

Below are excerpts from the commentary.

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.’ 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. 

But what does a leadership-focused and flexible grantmaking process look like?

Grantees will create more innovative and ambitious strategies if they develop them when they’re assured of funding.

savanna ferguson, executive director

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 endeavor. 

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.

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