Blog: Amplify

How Place-Based Funders Are Taking Aim at Climate Change

When I noticed late last year that the Council on Foundations’ annual conference would focus on climate change, I was delighted. For The Fund for New Jersey and other place-based funders, climate change has been a daunting challenge. We are a small foundation in a state with no coal-fired plants and we anticipated from the beginning that there would be a limit to what we could accomplish on this global problem. But the destruction wreaked by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 reminded us that New Jersey will continue to face rising seas and extreme weather – the dramatic effects of climate change. It provided just the impetus we needed to begin making grants for climate work in our home state. And so participating in the Council’s conference would give me the opportunity to share The Fund’s experiences and learn from grantmakers across the country and around the world.

I decided to propose a panel that would highlight how foundations of all types and sizes could make a difference in meeting the challenge of climate change. I invited some national leaders to join the discussion: Nicola Hedge, Environmental Initiatives Director at The San Diego Foundation; Mary Skelton Roberts, Senior Program Officer, Climate, at the Barr Foundation based in Boston; and Scott Cooper, CEO of RE-AMP Network, a Midwest collaborative of foundations and nonprofits. Our goal was to encourage other place-based foundations to join us in supporting climate change work.

The examples are inspiring. At The San Diego Foundation, one of the largest community foundations, they’ve been working on climate change since 2003. After devastating wildfires ravaged the region, SDF launched a climate initiative in 2007 to catalyze regional action to reduce emissions and build more resilient communities. Over the last 10 years, they have invested about $3 million to bring about change. The coalition connects scientists with technical experts in local government, brings together public safety and disaster professionals, and funds a San Diego Bay sea level rise adaptation strategy. Today, 18 cities have emissions inventories and two-thirds of them have adopted or are developing climate action plans. SDF’s leadership helped philanthropy make sustainable improvements.

A $1.6 billion family foundation in Boston, the Barr Foundation has made a significant commitment to climate issues over the past 16 years. They aimed to help 20% of the commercial and industrial building owners in Boston reduce their emissions by 80%, an effort led by a green-ribbon commission of private sector leaders who implemented best practices in their buildings. Others quickly followed their example. Barralso focused on transportation,working to ensure that communities are built with the climate-resistant resources people need close to their homes, such as access to public transit. Bostonians experienced a vivid wake-up call in 2015 when a massive snow storm dumped 109 inches on their city and the transportation system stood still. Barr continues to work with the city and key stakeholders to develop smart policies that encourage walking, bike-sharing, and other forms of mobility that can ease travel in the most challenging circumstances.

The RE-AMP Network offers yet another approach. Spanning eight states in the upper Midwest, its members include more than 15 funders and more than 150 nonprofit partners. They’re aiming for 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across eight states by 2030 in the energy sector and by 2050 in the entire system. The network pursues action on many fronts, including encouraging funders to support closing coal plants, the largest polluters in the Midwest. RE-AMP sees its value as providing a learning community across the Midwest by supporting local work that can lead to scalable solutions.

As for The Fund for New Jersey, we started by doing what philanthropy does best: We convened our environmental grantees and other experts for advice. Unanimously, they concluded that climate change was the most important environmental issue we could work on. And after conducting extensive research to learn what other foundations were doing, we knew we needed to encourage new policy approaches centered on carbon mitigation and greenhouse gas reduction. You can read about what we learned in a white paper on The Fund’s website.

With particular greenhouse gas problems created by New Jersey’s on-road transportation systems and the threats of building new gas pipelines across the state, we focused our attention on the places in which The Fund’s grantmaking could have the biggest impact. These include:

  • Climate action planning;
  • Transitions to clean energy, more energy efficiency, and decoupling (so utility companies can be rewarded for reducing their energy usage);
  • Expanding public transportation and electric vehicles;
  • Making homes and businesses greener; and
  • Building public support.

Because we were starting fresh, we chose to take a broad approach, providing grants in multiple areas to see what work we could catalyze. We’ve been encouraging our grantees to take risks, find new partners, and develop pilot initiatives. The good news: New Jersey leaders are developing innovative ways to make our state cleaner and greener, as they are also working to improve public health, create jobs in a green economy, and build stronger and more equitable communities.

Much work remains to be done, but The Fund and our partners continue to move forward, knowing that it takes time and patience to make change. We are learning that even small foundations can contribute for the good of the planet and all of us who live here.

Kiki Jamieson is the President of The Fund for New Jersey, a private, independent foundation that works to improve the quality of public policy decision-making on the most significant issues affecting the people of New Jersey and our region. The Fund is a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey.

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