Expanding Our Commitment to Climate Philanthropy

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FEBRUARY 22, 2023

By: Savanna Ferguson, Executive Director of Climate Breakthrough

Last October, we announced the three recipients of our seventh annual Climate Breakthrough Award: a multi-million-dollar, multi-year, flexible grant for leaders to pursue their most ambitious and innovative climate endeavors. Currently at $3 million per recipient, the Climate Breakthrough Award is the largest climate action grant for individuals.

With the three new awards, we hit two milestones in our grantmaking journey: (1) we passed the US$51 million dollar mark across 17 recipients in 13 countries, and (2) we completed our transition to a fully independent 501(c)(3) organization and officially began using our new name—Climate Breakthrough—dropping “Project.”

We may have a new name, but our mission remains the same: to pursue a bolder grantmaking model, one that eschewed the common philanthropic practice of low risk tolerance that concentrates funding on established grantees and efforts with the potential for only incremental impacts.

While such practices have made progress in reducing emissions, we believed a more flexible model could stimulate grantees to develop new, large-scale ideas for change and create the breakthroughs needed to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis.

a new chapter

Our goal is to give grantees more freedom and stability to get out of a constrained mindset limited to incremental strategies into one that imagines transformative climate action. I would like to share a few of our plans (resolutions, if you will) for this decade on how we are expanding our commitment to climate philanthropy.

Since 2016, we’ve now given out grants totaling more than $51 million dollars across 17 grant recipients in 13 countries. With increased funding, we aim to double the number of our grantees annually (currently three per year) by 2030 and to offer them even larger awards (currently $3 million per recipient). There are plenty of highly-capable leaders who will benefit from getting a Climate Breakthrough Award: those with bold, innovative ideas that could materially change millions of lives and transform regions or industries; those who may not be known to major philanthropies. You can learn about our award recipients so far at this link on our website.

In the last year, we have also rolled out an additional funding tool for a few of our grantees. Called The Catalytic Fund, it’s a matching grant (currently $600,000) offered when a grantee nears the end of their tenure with us. We aim to provide this fund to even more grantees, but more importantly to increase the amount. We hope this will help catalyze follow-on funding from other funders for our grantees’ remarkable efforts.

While global philanthropic spending on climate issues has continued to grow, research shows it’s still less than 2% of all giving. There’s plenty of room for major philanthropy to have a bigger impact, especially in funding for big bets and bold strategies with immense breakthrough potential. Our grant model has been cited multiple times as an example of an exciting platform to support, such as here and also here. We are expanding our efforts to share lessons externally from our unique model in the hopes of influencing the expanding conversation about how climate philanthropy can best address the climate crisis. To win, philanthropy must change its norms.

We have also been accelerating steps to faithfully incorporate justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion values into our grantmaking operations. Our selection process ensures that our grantees are of varying geographies and demographics, working on a wide range of climate change areas. More than 70 percent of our grants have gone to recipients with global projects or projects in the Global South. Our human resources management process ensures that we build an inclusive environment for our staff.

We know this is a long, continuous process and there’s absolutely more work to do—such as improving the diversity of our Board of Directors and enabling mutual learning on this process together with our grantees. This is a pursuit we take earnestly, stemming from our strong belief that system-changing climate endeavors require addressing the gaps in these values at all levels.

A modern philanthropy

We are a progressive model of trust-based philanthropy and are uniquely focused on bold and new (or early-stage) efforts. We have the experience and expertise to closely support grantees in ways that major funders are not structured to do, thereby offering an opportunity for them to accelerate climate action in a fundamentally different way.

To win, philanthropy must change its norms.

savanna ferguson, executive director of climate breakthrough

Many initiatives of our grantees, catalyzed by our funding, have accelerated global climate action: moving insurance and reinsurance away from fossil fuels, putting into question the archaic oil and gas tax framework, rallying nations to call for a global treaty for a fossil-free transition, mainstreaming sustainability and renewables in everyday life, pushing for regulations to power smart and efficient buildings with 100% clean electricity. These efforts have gained recognition from their peers and the press, and have secured crucial follow-on funding.

We have a big mission to fulfill and this is only the beginning of our journey to demonstrate how funders can balance trust, risk, and learning in catalyzing innovation so that philanthropy makes an outsized impact on resolving the climate crisis.

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