Futureproofing philanthropy against climate change: A dynamic conversation on context-specific philanthropic initiatives

By Louise Driver, Executive Director, IPASA

'Why? Driving Home Risk and Urgency – An introduction to climate change, local and global trends in philanthropy and what it means to adopt a climate lens' was the title of the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa’s (IPASA) 3-part series, 'Futureproofing Philanthropy Against Climate Change: How the Climate Crisis Intersects with Your Giving'. 

With this webinar series, IPASA is aiming to facilitate a common understanding amongst South African philanthropic organisations regarding climate change and the climate crisis globally, regionally, and nationally, and why the involvement of philanthropic organisations in tackling this issue is imperative for a sustainable, green, and resilient future.  

The first webinar unpacked the social, political, economic, and environmental impacts of climate change on all sectors in the development space. In their opening remarks, IPASA Chairperson, Sarah Rennie and African Climate Foundation (ACF) Executive Director, Saliem Fakir, emphasised the urgency of integrating a climate lens across all philanthropic initiatives in South Africa. Sarah Rennie’s message was that “the philanthropy sector has to act with urgency and intelligence to respond to climate change and to create a future of hope”. Saliem Fakir underlined the importance of being solution-oriented and integrating climate issues in an innovative manner in philanthropy portfolios: “Philanthropies can move flexibly, can experiment and be a laboratory for new ideas.”

 The rich and thoughtful deliberations were sparked by three short but punchy presentations which framed interactive discussions:  

  • The need for urgent and decisive responses was brought home by Prof. Coleen Vogel’s fact-based presentation 'A Climate of Change: Implications for Action!'. A key message in this presentation was that the choices philanthropists make now will determine the future. Africa already has more droughts and floods, and if the right choices are not made now, the continent may well warm-up at about twice the rate of the rest of the world.  Practical advice from Colleen Vogel is as follows: “Climate change work has to be informed by the policy environment on the one hand, and engagement with real current practical issues on the ground. It has to be interfaced with organisations' key performance indicators, and with the focus areas of philanthropic foundations. To make climate change action a reality requires change on a practical, political and personal level. Paradigm shifts are required, and we need to understand and reflect upon prevailing belief systems.”

  • The impact of climate change on all aspects of life was further illustrated in a presentation by Sonia Medina, from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).  According to CIFF, climate change is the single biggest threat to children, and it impacts every aspect of their lives – food, water, air, communities’ lives and livelihoods, and the natural world and resources. This means that climate change needs to be tackled if philanthropies want to improve the lives of children living in poverty. Climate change is the single biggest threat to children now and in the future. It threatens everything we care about. Sonia Media’s reflections on the CIFF’s climate change journey indicated that a comprehensive approach is required: “We cannot secure children's prosperity if we do not work deliberately on climate change. The cost of inaction is simply too great. Everyone needs to become an environmentalist, and climate awareness also requires a critical review of what philanthropic funds invest in.”

  • A presentation by Thokozile Madonko, from the Heinrich Boll Foundation (HBF) proposed that the lessons learned from HBF’s in-depth engagement with their partners during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic could provide a framework for applying a climate lens in philanthropy. This presentation, titled 'Lessons from the Pandemic: Rights and Survival', puts forward nine lessons, which are framed as provocations and recommendations or calls to action. According to Thokozile Madonko, it is also necessary for funders to re-think how they approach their work: “Social innovation requires consideration of long- and short-term issues. It may require that funders work with grantees who are not their traditional grantees. Inter-sectional, multi-dimensional, integrated solutions are key. Funders should consider sharing power and prioritising meaningful engagement with partners on the ground. Family foundations could have the flexibility required to change traditional ways of working.” The lessons learned by the HBF show that, regardless of their mandates, philanthropists can bring a climate lens to their work, through meaningful, flexible, and visionary approaches, which include engagement with partners and meaningful co-creation of change.

There were common themes that emerged regarding what can be done to start on the journey to respond to climate change: 

  • Being intentional about responding to climate change is important. Find somewhere to start, even if it is small. The starting point does not have to be something new – it can take the form of adapting what is already done in a portfolio.

  • Build relationships with other role-players, including climate experts, work with them, learn from them, and work together creatively.

  • Think strategically, think systems, consider all aspects of systems, and find leverage points for change. 

The main insights emanating from this webinar were that while climate change is urgent, it is also complex, and there is no quick fix or ‘one-size-fits-all’ climate lens. In their discussions, webinar participants concluded that climate change work requires communication and collaboration that requires a long-term perspective and ongoing, often incremental effort - adopting a climate lens is a shared journey. Another important insight was that it is imperative for climate change to be people-centred. 

Philanthropists should reflect on their role and they should be attuned and responsive to the very real social and economic risks associated with climate change, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. Another important insight was that support is needed for civic mobilisation and movement building around strategies to address climate change at the community level. At the same time, participants recognised the need for advocacy, public demand, and political will as key drivers for impactful action. Another identified key lever for change is supporting the empowerment of local communities to take ownership of climate change responses. 

It was also evident that the climate crisis in the context of philanthropy is understood to surpass the traditional narratives of, for example, environmental concerns, renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases while not negating the importance of these areas of work. The need for the philanthropy sector to support climate change initiatives through leadership assistance and capacity development in all sectors and amongst communities already supported was a key theme. In this regard, the need to guide grantees and partners to think differently about what they are already doing was identified as essential. Another potential entry point identified for effecting catalytic change was to explore the potential of working with intermediary grantmakers with a footprint in communities. Such strategies have the potential to draw in relevant climate change expertise, whilst at the same time ensuring that due diligence, compliance, capacity building, and monitoring and evaluation are not compromised. 

The need for the philanthropy sector to step up to the challenge of climate change is captured in these concluding remarks: “Philanthropy has a key role to play, and a vibrant ecosystem of actors is required. Philanthropy has to fund smartly, create spaces to think about how to respond with impact. We need to be smarter than ever and collaborate better than ever to address climate change effectively.” 


The second webinar in this series is titled “HOW? From Principles to Practice: The practicalities of operationalising a climate lens and will take place on 3 August 2021. The final webinar in the series will take place in September 2021 and will focus on what philanthropists can do to urgently address climate change in their work. Through this series, IPASA will develop a toolkit for philanthropists to help them redefine their foundations’ strategies to include climate change. 

The Webinar series is supported by the ACF and funded by the Lewis Foundation and the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust

Louise Driver, Executive Director, IPASA

Louise Driver is IPASA's Executive Director. Before taking on this role, she held the position of CEO of the Children’s Hospital Trust for 9 years. Louise has a Business Science Honours degree in Social Marketing from UCT and over 25 years of development and corporate experience. 

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