The following is a conversation between Sonali Patel, Partner at The Bridgespan Group, and co-author of the paper: Winning on Climate Change: How Philanthropy Can Spur Major Progress over the Next Decade, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: My next guest expertly balances the urgency of escalating climate crisis with a hopeful perspective on achievable progress. Drawing from expert interviews and prior collaborative work, she identifies key philanthropic practices for impactful climate action.
She is Sonali Patel, a partner at The Bridgespan Group and co-author of a recent paper titled, Winning on Climate Change: How Philanthropy Can Spur Major Progress over the Next Decade.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sonali.
Sonali: Thank you so much for having me, Denver.
Denver: So, what makes this Bridgespan report, I don’t know, unique and different from others, and what has happened previously?
Sonali: I think this report is unique, one, in the timing. I think there’s urgency right now around taking action on climate, and it’s a moment where philanthropy has a critical role to play, and something that I see is one of the biggest existential crises that we all will face when we look forward over the next decade, but even beyond that.
And so, I think the timing of this report is really important to start to motivate more philanthropists to get engaged, and also motivate those that are already engaged to do more, give more, think about different vehicles for their giving. So, that would be the first thing I would say.
The second thing that I think this article does, which is really important, is talk about how we have had successes around climate. There are a lot of people who are painting the brush stroke of doom and gloom, which could happen, and it’s why it’s an urgent problem, but I think we have had some wins.
So, back in 2014, the planet was supposed to heat by four degrees Celsius. We’ve actually tamped down that curve to three degrees Celsius in 2023, and continuing to make progress against climate can help us continue to tamp down that curve. So, really taking the look at: we have had some wins, and there’s still some more to do.
And the third thing I would say is there are some actionable ways in which donors can get involved that are highlighted in this report. And we give examples of wins across those three ways that we talk about getting involved, starting by giving small, but linked to a larger and bigger goal; second, starting by giving in conjunction with others. Collaboratives are a great way to learn and a great way to start giving.
And third, really thinking about how you can support implementation of new policies and laws. So, those are some of the reasons why I think this article is really important at this moment; and what it does: it’s really different within the climate space.
Denver: Give us a couple more examples of some of those positive wins. I know you cite 10 in the report, and all we hear is doom and gloom. And the wins seem to be, if you will, footnotes, because we’re still losing the prevailing battle. But I think it’s important that we cite them; and give us maybe one or two others that you cited in the report.
Sonali: I would love to. So, there were four that really came up over and over again as we were doing our interviews for this report. The first one was the US Beyond Coal campaign, which helped retire approximately two-thirds of coal plants in the US, and is working to retire all of them.
I thought this was a really important win because it started with grassroots efforts, which then grew to encompass the whole US and grew to be able to do work across the states to actually shutter coal plants.
The second win takes a more global lens, but we heard over and over again, and that was the Kigali Amendment, a global agreement to dramatically curb the use and production of HFCs, the climate-warming super pollutants, and they’re widely used in air-conditioning and refrigeration.
I thought this was really important because it was a global agreement. And when the agreement was made in Montreal, a lot of LMICs or low-and middle-income countries weren’t sure they could finance actually creating the change. And a group of philanthropists came together quickly and contributed $50 million towards the effort to help them realize more energy efficiency and move away from these HFCs.
And that actually mobilized other wealthy nations to also support low- and middle-income countries to make this agreement really work and make sure that we globally could get rid of HFCs.
And the third one that I’ll highlight is we learned a lot from the indigenous people and local communities’ land tenure movement, and that has the potential to protect a vast amount of carbon-storing forest and grassland.
And that I thought is really important because it leverages the actions of local communities and indigenous peoples who really live on these lands and had been the stewards of protecting these forests and protecting our biodiversity for all these years. And it enables them to come up with the solutions that actually make sense by giving them land tenure rights and making sure they actually own the land that they protect.
And the fourth one, I won’t go into a lot of depth on, because I think a lot of people have heard of and talked of, the Landmark 2022 US Inflation Reduction Act, which was a policy win that took 10 years of mobilization at kind of small levels to actually get over the line, and could have dramatic impact on how the US moves forward around climate change.
“…it doesn’t matter what you do related to climate change because everything is necessary for us to win. So, find the path that is most compelling to you as an individual philanthropist and pursue that path. And that’s actually how we’ll get to bending the curve even further. There is no one silver bullet. It’s the combination of all the efforts that everyone is undertaking that actually will lead us to getting a win on climate.”
Denver: You know, Sonali, you spoke to so many people. This is an incredibly comprehensive report. Was there a current consensus about the most promising pathway for progress against climate change?
Sonali: That actually is one of the most interesting parts of our report. As we spoke to people, there wasn’t consensus. People actually were interested in different pathways for how we get to solutions around climate change. Some people took a technology lens.
Some people took a natural sinks lens. Some people were thinking about adaptation, and everyone was making progress, was having wins. All of these things were really important, and it led us to really think about how it doesn’t matter what you do related to climate change because everything is necessary for us to win.
So, find the path that is most compelling to you as an individual philanthropist, and pursue that path. And that’s actually how we’ll get to bending the curve even further. There is no one silver bullet. It’s the combination of all the efforts that everyone is undertaking that actually will lead us to getting a win on climate.
“Climate change doesn’t have to be solely focused on climate. It intersects with gender equity. It intersects with economic mobility. It intersects with building cities and creating clean spaces for people to live in. So, look at your portfolio and where it intersects with climate, and where you could actually make change.“
Denver: That’s great. Okay. Let’s pretend I’m the CEO of a foundation and I got tons of requests that are pouring in. One might be on reparations. I spoke to your colleagues about that just the other day. Another might be on economic mobility. The other might be systemic changes in education. You’re coming to me now and say: climate.
And I’m like, “Climate? Man, that’s huge!” You know what I mean? I can do a drop in the ocean. I mean, we got the Paris Accords; we have India and China and the US and everything else. What would be the case to me, a mid-size foundation, as to why I should consider part of my portfolio being climate change?
Sonali: So, the first thing I would say to someone with a mid-size portfolio is to think about intersectionality. Climate change doesn’t have to be solely focused on climate. It intersects with gender equity. It intersects with economic mobility. It intersects with building cities and creating clean spaces for people to live in.
So, look at your portfolio and where it intersects with climate, and where you could actually make change. And I think that is a really important point that a lot of people don’t think about because climate now is really embedded in almost all the other lanes of work that people do within their philanthropy.
So, it doesn’t have to be something that stands alone. It could be something that is part of the portfolios that already exist within your mid-size foundation. The second thing I would think about is “Is there an angle on climate change that your organization is really deeply passionate about?” And that doesn’t have to be something global.
That could be something you’re doing in your local city. So, for example, heat is going to be one of the biggest issues we face going forward. And it’s all a result of climate change, and adaptation is required. Think about the local environment in the city in which your foundation is. Is there work that you can do in the local communities?
Doing climate doesn’t have to be something huge. You can take small steps towards making progress. And so, my advice would be to take those two things to heart. Think about the intersectionality of your work; where could you find layers of climate that can be built into your current portfolios?
And second, think about what your organization is really passionate about, and is there a linkage to climate change. And if you want to stand up an independent climate portfolio, make sure it’s relevant and really interesting to your organization.
Denver: Good advice. Just change your lens. Change your frame a little bit, and you might find it right underneath your nose. You know, I want to circle back a little bit to what you said at the very beginning about the three strategies and have you dig into each of those a little bit more in depth.
The first one you mentioned was: invest in early efforts connected to a big goal. Unravel that for us.
Sonali: Yeah. So, I think it’s really important to think about investing in smaller, incremental wins that connect to larger goals. Across the examples, we saw how a national or global scale impact often began at a community level, supported by local donors with very modest amounts of money.
So, that could be in the Kigali Amendment, the $300,000 that CIFF gave for that first research report. Or it could be, if you look at Beyond Coal, the initial investments in Illinois by a group of local donors, which actually started a movement that went across the country.
We think that this pattern highlights the value of funding local leaders and organizations who are the closest to the issues and driving the solutions. Investing in early wins also calls on donors to provide flexible funding, and that money can lead to experimentation, learning, and iteration.
Denver: No matter what the field, early and flexible money is manna from heaven. It really is. You know, the second thing you talked about, I guess, really around collaboration, and that is to join other climate actors through existing structures. Break that down for us.
Sonali: Yeah. So, I think it’s really important to think about where you can work together. There are a lot of efforts that come across where people have worked alone, and they’ve made huge progress. But oftentimes, working together, you’re able to learn from others.
You’re able to find more joy because you get to collaborate; you get to be with other people. And oftentimes, you can get more connected to the local communities that you hope to work with. So, when we talk about collaborations, we think of it in two ways.
One, are donor collaboratives, which I think that really brings out the joy in giving. So, a group of donors come together; they work together on an issue. They’re all like-minded about what they hope the impact will be. And they’re able to pool resources to be able to give more at higher levels, more quickly, and learn together as a group.
The second type of collaboratives we think about are intermediaries. And in the intermediaries, the thing that I think is really important is these are organizations that fund local communities to do the work they do.
So, if I’m a donor sitting in the US, and I believe strongly in indigenous rights and land tenure movement, it’ll be very difficult for me to do the research and the diligence to go find a bunch of communities to fund.
But if you give through someone like Global Greengrants, CliMA, these intermediaries are actually deeply connected in a multitude of regions and enable you to actually give at that level.
Denver: That’s great. Get the money to the front lines, because that’s where so much of the valuable work is being done. And the final, and so importantly, third one was equitable implementation.
Sonali: I think that one is really important, particularly at this moment. So, three big laws just passed in the US: the CHIPS Act, the Infrastructure Act, and the IRA. All of those now have to be implemented. And oftentimes, what we see is philanthropy comes in to really support actors to get the big policies passed, but then isn’t there to help implement them.
And without implementation and equitable implementation, these laws won’t reach the full fruition of what they could be. I think the Kigali example that we just talked about is a great example of the donors coming in after the law was passed and saying: We’re giving $50 million towards implementing this law in LMICs.
What I think could happen with the IRA is there are a lot of communities that could use the funding but aren’t really aware of what funding exists as part of the IRA, or how to write a grant to actually access it.
So, there are roles for donors to play to make sure that local communities can actually access this funding; make changes within their own districts, and help them and support them to be able to work with federal groups, with local groups, with state groups to be able to make change in their local communities.
Denver: Fantastic. You know, finally, Sonali, beyond the report’s current findings, what does Bridgespan envision as the next steps or future directions for climate philanthropy to evolve and adapt in the coming years?
Sonali: That’s a great question. I think the way Bridgespan approaches our work is we try to support donors to achieve what they want to achieve and their vision of the world.
So, when I think about the future of climate philanthropy, I think about a broad, diverse range of donors that I work with today, some focused on the intersection of health and climate, like environmental toxics.
Some focused on research in new, innovative ways of doing mitigation like Carbon to Sea, which is an initiative started by Mike Schroepfer, who brought together a big group of donors– six or seven donors– to start an initiative to see what ocean alkalinity enhancement could look like.
I then think about people who are really focused on adaptation and thinking about adaptation in their local communities. And I think all of those things are equally important, but they’re also equally meaningful to those individual donors as they’re pursuing it.
So, when I think about Bridgespan’s role going forward, I think of our role as being in the background to help supercharge whatever a donor is interested in in climate philanthropy, and helping them realize those goals.
And I also think the other role that Bridgespan increasingly is playing is helping to think about intersectionality. Because we work with donors, we’re thinking about a broad range of issues. Someone could be interested in gender equity, and we help them see the climate lens.
Or someone could be interested in economic mobility, and we help them see how the shuttering of coal plants requires investments in new green jobs to enable people to have their livelihoods. So, really thinking about the intersectionality, depending on who we’re working with.
Denver: Yeah. And it’s right there in front of them very often. Or maybe they need to change it three degrees, and they’ll see exactly, “Oh, we can do that too with really no additional expenditure or whatever.”
So, the report is Winning on Climate Change: How Philanthropy Can Spur Major Progress over the Next Decade. Can people get their hands on this report? And if so, where do they go?
Sonali: They can. It is on Bridgespan’s website. So, that is probably the easiest place to go, and we would love if people could take a read through it. And I hope it will spur people to either get engaged in philanthropy around climate… or those who are giving, to think of new ways in which they can expand the work that they’re already doing.
Denver: Well, it’s a very persuasive case and is exceptionally well done. And I want to thank you so much, Sonali, for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Sonali: Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.