From Sandbox to Toolbox: Philanthropy and transformative climate action

Benjamin Bellegy shares his inspiring ideas on how philanthropy can contribute to solving one of the most pressing issues of our generation—climate change. Banner image: Shutterstock/ Sergio Ponomarev

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This year, we witnessed the effects of climate change—from devastating floods to unstoppable forest fires and unprecedented temperatures—not as some distant crisis but as an existential threat, in the here and now. Climate change is very clearly an emergency: dealing with it requires urgency, innovation and co-operation, within and between institutions, organisations and sectors.

The philanthropy sector can do its part by leveraging a variety of strengths: USD 1.5 trillion in financial assets and the capacity to innovate, connect actors, support advocacy and social movements, take risks and influence mainstream markets and governments. Making an impact will also require individual philanthropic actors to see climate as part of their mission, not a separate cause, and that we as a sector transform our economic models and global governance. All of this requires collective effort and co-operation.

WINGS, as a global network whose role is to strengthen and grow more impactful philanthropy worldwide, has historically been cause-agnostic. But this year, for the first time we decided that we have a responsibility to leverage our network—which reaches out indirectly to 100,000 philanthropy actors around the world—to push the sector to take action on the climate emergency.

Find more on the Forum Network: Building beyond the Bust: How skills in the fossil fuel sector can create the net-zero economy, by Luisa Da Silva, Executive Director, Iron & Earth

We engaged 40 philanthropy networks from across the globe to launch the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change. The Commitment states that there is a special responsibility on philanthropic organisations, which hold assets for the common good, to use their resources, independence and influence to rise to the challenge. And it calls on all philanthropic actors, regardless of their mission, status or geographic location, to commit to take action on climate change. There are several pillars of action in the Commitment that encompass a wide range of areas within organisations, from education and learning to the commitment of resources and evaluating assets, endowments and operations. Together with a series of national commitments in Canada, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, we currently have more than 370 signatories that constitute a growing global movement of #PhilanthropyForClimate.

One of the ways philanthropy can play a key role in addressing the climate emergency is by acting as a bridge between governments and civil society and advocating for crosscutting climate action. Philanthropy has the capacity to be innovative and flexible and can therefore serve as a “testing ground” for ideas that are too risky for governments. In Australia, the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation’s work on energy efficiency in vulnerable households was able to prove that energy efficiency is a powerful climate mitigation strategy, which also improves health and creates better living conditions for low-income families. After seeing this success, the Victorian State Government replicated the programme and introduced AUD 797 million in funding to support the uptake of renewables and energy efficiency across the residential sector. Partnering with philanthropy means that changes that have already been proven at local levels can be scaled up and implemented simultaneously across entire regions. This mix of bottom-up and top-down approaches can contribute to reaching our climate goals.

Find more on the Forum Network: Net-zero Economy, Net Economic Benefits: The green future of skills, jobs and infrastructure, by Philip Jordan, Vice-President, BW Research Partnership; Senior Fellow, Harvard University

Signatories of the Commitment like the Laudes Foundation reimagined their role, and in 2020 centred climate change and social justice in their work. They focus on making industry and finance active levers in the fight against climate change. This systemic approach is a key element of philanthropy: creating change at a sectoral level that governments can draw on to draft strong legislation that will impact other sectors and industries. Philanthropy can accelerate the change to transform economic models, increase global governance and implement new ways of doing business.   

An example of philanthropic funding building upon and sustaining action from civil society and government is the recent news that more than 20 leading philanthropic organisations have partnered to commit USD 223 million to drastically reduce global methane emissions. Funders will co-ordinate their giving to provide expertise, financial resources, technical support and best-in-class data to ensure methane reduction progress and accurate monitoring, verification and reporting, including in the resource extraction and agriculture sectors.

Given the scale of the climate crisis it is self-evident that the only way to address it is by working together. Civil society, governments, international institutions and philanthropy must all find ways to complement and support each other’s efforts—catalysing action and stimulating innovation—while at the same time striving to walk the talk when it comes to concrete, meaningful climate action.

Lear more about how finance can foster green economy at the OECD Green Finance and Investment Forum

Find more information on policies for climate action in the OECD COP26 Virtual Pavilion:

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Benjamin Bellegy

Executive Director, WINGS

Benjamin is the Executive Director at WINGS. He has previously led international programmes in fields such as civil societies’ strengthening, sustainable development and post-disaster reconstruction. He has managed international programmes at Fondation de France, worked for the International Cooperation Agency of Monaco and for several NGOs in Ethiopia, Tunisia and Canada.