Phil­an­thropy and the envi­ron­ment – three trends

Humility and ambition

These three deve­lo­p­ments in phil­an­thropy are linked to concern for the environment.

In addi­tion to the public health crisis and all its impli­ca­ti­ons, the COVID-19 pande­mic has also remin­ded us of the imme­diate impact that envi­ron­men­tal issues have on our lives. This includes climate change, which is a major concern for many people. What is the chari­ta­ble sector doing to prepare for this ongo­ing shift? What approa­ches are emer­ging, or are being supported by orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that specia­lise in chari­ta­ble giving?

The Swiss Phil­an­thropy Foun­da­tion (SPF), an umbrella foun­da­tion, is one of these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. It occu­p­ies a privi­le­ged posi­tion within the phil­an­thropy ecosys­tem, with insight both into what inspi­res donors to give and into the stra­te­gic deve­lo­p­ment of foun­da­ti­ons. With about 46 asso­cia­ted active phil­an­thro­pic funds, this umbrella foun­da­tion is an impres­sive ecosys­tem in itself and one that reflects the trends that shape the wider world of phil­an­thropy. Below I high­light three trends rela­ted to the growing – but still inade­quate – concerns about our environment.

1. Syste­mic change, not only indi­vi­dual projects

We see incre­asing acti­vity among donors in support of advo­cacy work, in parti­cu­lar for orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that encou­rage govern­ments to take envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bi­lity. Asso­cia­ti­ons and rese­arch centres such as the Coun­cil on Econo­mic Poli­cies in Zurich are at the fore­front of calls to govern­ments to commit to action in the face of scena­rios that scien­tists have warned of for decades.

At SPF, we are invol­ved in the work of Finance for Biodi­ver­sity, a project initia­ted by the MAVA Foun­da­tion and joined by the Moore Foun­da­tion. This fund aims to change the system by encou­ra­ging the finan­cial world to focus more on conser­va­tion and ecolo­gi­cal resto­ra­tion. For exam­ple, it supports inno­va­tive new approa­ches to the inte­gra­tion of ecolo­gi­cal concerns into govern­ment bond markets.

2. Yes to colla­bo­ra­tion, but with agility

Colla­bo­ra­tion among donors is not merely a ques­tion of pooling finan­cial resour­ces, but also of inno­va­tion in the choice and allo­ca­tion of funds. Part­ners for a New Economy is another initia­tive in which the SPF is invol­ved. Crea­ted in 2015 by four foun­da­ti­ons, this colla­bo­ra­tive fund supports projects that observe the prin­ci­ple that the economy can – and must – serve both people and the envi­ron­ment. The Laudes Foun­da­tion and the Ford Foun­da­tion joined this pionee­ring colla­bo­ra­tive fund in 2020 – a further testa­ment to the rele­vance of its strategy.

We stron­gly believe that pooling funds within a third-party struc­ture enables each donor foun­da­tion to focus on the impact of their acti­vi­ties, thanks in large part to the ability to share the admi­nis­tra­tive burden. It also simpli­fies the rela­ti­onship for the supported part­ners, as it means they no longer have to commu­ni­cate with seve­ral enti­ties. This simple, profes­sio­nal infra­struc­ture enables colla­bo­ra­tors to stay agile in an area that demands both resour­ces and a high level of efficiency.

3. Trans­pa­rency is good; consis­tency is better

I have always admi­red those pioneers who dare to go where others are not yet bold enough to venture. In April this year, Bert­rand Piccard published 1,000 profi­ta­ble solu­ti­ons for envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion, calling on govern­ments to create an incen­ti­vi­sing regu­la­tory frame­work to promote the role of entre­pre­neurs and those that fund them. The figu­res are well known in the chari­ta­ble sector, but it never hurts to be remin­ded: Swiss foun­da­ti­ons donate about CHF 1.5 billion to various projects, of which only a small frac­tion is dedi­ca­ted to envi­ron­men­tal causes. Moreo­ver, these foun­da­ti­ons have an esti­ma­ted coll­ec­tive wealth of about CHF 100 billion.

Although this figure may not be exact, as the envi­ron­ment is a cross-sectional topic, it nevert­hel­ess indi­ca­tes how important it is that foun­da­ti­ons take a proac­tive approach when it comes to manage­ment of their funds, in addi­tion to allo­ca­tion. At SPF, in agree­ment with the foun­der of each fund invol­ved, 80% of our funds are inves­ted sustain­ably. These funds are inves­ted, as are dona­ti­ons, in a manner that is consis­tent with our mission.

The scale of the envi­ron­men­tal issues we face should humble us, while also making us ambi­tious. Foun­da­ti­ons and donors alike must attempt bold new ways of imple­men­ting their stra­tegy, as the examp­les above show – because time is running out. Our society needs predic­ta­bi­lity in order to be able to make a diffe­rence to the system and our planet. As Albert Einstein famously poin­ted out: ‘The defi­ni­tion of insa­nity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expec­ting diffe­rent results.’ Courage to try new things is one of the key drivers of change – and it is up to us to be bold.

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