August 7, 2020
Guest Blog

Engaging in a Bold, Global, Interconnected and Collaborative Agenda on Climate Change

Jacqueline Colting-Stol, PhD Student (School of Social Work, McGill University) and PhiLab member

As the climate crisis deepens, foundations, and other actors in the philanthropic sector worldwide are identifying climate change as an immediate priority requiring bold action. With current and impending climate catastrophes, growing inequalities and increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissionsi, the climate crisis is an existential threat to our species and the planet.

Increasing climate action in philanthropy through pooling resources and collective efforts is crucial to preserve the environment and build sustainable communitiesii. However, climate change remains one of the least funded areas by foundations in Canada and abroad.

Many actors in the philanthropic sector have begun to question the status quo, but they struggle to take concrete steps to move forward with a climate agenda. While strategic coordination is essential to have the far-reaching and deep change needed, approaches may be disjointed, fragmented, or face political and structural barriers to implementation.iii

There is a shift happening to support climate action through bold action, policy influence, grassroots mobilization, and community solutions but this shift is not fulfilling the need for deep systemic change. In identifying a climate action agenda and in shifting to a climate justice framework that engages with grassroots solutions to climate change, foundations often struggle with narratives around innovation, scale and spread, metrics and measurability, capacity, and geographic reachiv.

In recent years, this gap in coordination, innovation, and capacity has been narrowing with collaborative efforts being spearheaded by the McConnell Foundation, the Trottier Foundation, Environment Funders Canada, the Circle on Philanthropy and Indigenous Peoples, among others, through initiatives such as the Clean Economy Fund and the Low-Carbon Funders Group.

In this context, PhiLab (Canadian Philanthropy Partnership Research Network) convened a meeting with several foundations interested in exploring a research agenda and initiatives that could advance the role of foundations and philanthropic donors in supporting climate change and climate action. The partners of the project include:

  • PhiLab
  • Environmental Funders Canada
  • The Circle on Philanthropy and Indigenous Peoples
  • Community Foundations of Canada
  • EDGE Funders Alliance North American Steering Committee
  • Philanthropic Foundations Canada
  • McConnell Foundation

PhiLab is partnering with these organizations through different phases of research and knowledge mobilization with the aim to:

  • Make foundations’ options for climate action strategies more explicit
  • Increase awareness and contribute to a common language about the role of philanthropy in climate action and a just transition

Foundations vary greatly in how they approach and address climate change. This report aims to capture grant-making foundations’ diverse strategies and to advance and make explicit the narratives and practical actions that foundations can take to address climate change.

This research report offers an overview of eight case examples of foundations engaging in climate action, relevant literature, and several key informant interviews. Their work exists along a spectrum of approaches, roles, and strategies with a focus on the foundations that have made explicit their commitments to addressing climate change.

Selected case examples:



The original report includes the ways grant-making foundations frame the problem, their strategies for change, and the internal and external tactics they can use to help them begin mapping out their role in addressing climate change. Below is an overview of the various strategies for change that show existing champions, initiatives, and practices that can be shared and uplifted.

Throughout this research project, it became clear that the interrelated problems of climate change require foundations to engage in multi-faceted approaches with mobilization and collaboration within the philanthropic sector and across different sectors.

Leveraging existing approaches and champions of change in their investments and grant-making can be an immediate step to collaborate more effectively on climate action goals. A climate approach can be embedded in internal policies and processes, such as impact investments and responsible investing while applying the external tactics from contributing to shifting the narrative of climate action to business innovation.

These strategies for change go hand-in-hand and should not be considered in a silo. Collaborative efforts are key. The relatively small number of foundations in Canada that engage in climate action have been building momentum in collaborative efforts, showing the possibilities of peer learning, strategic coordination, and building from existing practices and policies.

Include bold visions for climate action, climate justice and just transition in missions, visions, values, programming, and policies

Foundations’ approaches are very diverse and may be guided by principles that range from free markets and individual prosperity to system transformation and Indigenous sovereignty. Many foundations frame climate issues around their programs, such as programs focused on conservation. Foundations may explicitly name climate change in the mission or have dedicated programs or grants for climate change or other environmental priorities.

According to ClimateWorks, the main climate actions that foundations should help with include reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG emissions and addressing energy poverty. These reductions can come from clean power, clean transportation, energy efficiency, sustainable forest and land use, non-CO2 GHG mitigation, and faster innovation and cultivation of natural carbon sinks.

The goals of reducing GHG emissions and transitioning to a low-carbon economy are complicated by funders bringing in a justice analysis. Climate justice prioritizes issues of human rights and empowerment alongside climate change initiativesv. The CLIMA Fund highlights particularly overlooked solutions at the grassroots level that can incorporate justice and equity toward long-lasting change in emissions and in communities.

Challenge power dynamics and the status quo

Foundations that focus on systems transformation, movement-building, and grassroots change tend to challenge the existing power dynamics of the grantor-grantee relationship and the status quo. Decision-making power aims to be re-distributed to the people impacted by the social issues in the community.

We also heard in our interviews how more technical frameworks with potentially large-scale investments could entrench the same patterns that do not move forward on the fundamental shifts needed both internally and externally among foundations to drastically impact climate change. We heard that there needs to be efforts to ensure patterns of extraction and domination over lands, resources, and social capital are disrupted.

Engage strategically with a wide range of stakeholders

There is a need to engage with a broad range of relevant and strategic stakeholders to meet climate action goals. Collaboration across borders and social, economic, and political systems are critical to tackling the complexity of climate change. Collective Philanthropy is an approach that works toward collective and shared resources, a guiding principle of the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Engage with issues interconnectedly and across borders

Environmental issues exist through our climate and atmosphere, biodiversity, agriculture, land and water, transportation, and energy. Yet, these are also interconnected and interlinked with issues of housing, health, education, and poverty.

Relevant to the literature and to the cases are the ways that different issues are interconnected and require action together. Poverty and climate change are often linked together, in that the poorest communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Fundamental to ClimateWorks Foundation is a Global View on the issues of climate change, which recognizes how ecosystems are interrelated. GHG emissions and deforestation in one part of the world also impact other parts of the world. Further, GHG emissions from different sectors, such as buildings, industry, transport, and fuels, are mostly concentrated in the same industry-heavy countries.

Community-led initiatives often identify who are those most impacted by climate change and associated issues. These individuals then become the key people leading the change in their communities. Foundations working across the Global South and the Global North identify specific groups that should be leading the change, including women, Indigenous peoples, and youth (see Chorus Foundation, Thousand Currents, and MakeWay).

The Chorus Foundation provides an example of linking economy, environment, and local communities and translates these interconnected issues to their mission and their grant programs. They hope to build an economy where all people can find meaningful work, contribute to an environment where everyone has access to clean air, clean water, a stable climate, and the ability to have a say in a democracy. Similarly, the Catherine Donnelly Foundation recognizes the links between the environment, housing, and education for adults, and strives for collaboration across these areas.

Aim for long-term solutions and flexible funding

Foundations supporting the community and grassroots work in climate action aim to reduce the barriers to the nature and complexity of these issues. Through the case examples and the interviews, we found that foundations have been challenging the usual power dynamics in grantor-grantee relationships to shift toward more participatory, grantee-led, community-focused and grassroots approaches.

The McConnell Foundation is an example of a foundation striving to uproot these power dynamics, especially through their work on Indigenous reconciliation. Some ways that foundations are able to respond to community-oriented solutions and to the demands of climate change are through grant-making which provides capacity for long-term solutions and flexible, unrestricted funding. Another strategy for doing community-led work involves the role of intermediaries in local contexts who have deep knowledge, capacity, and relationships for bridging grant-making foundations with work on the ground.

Support those most impacted by climate change

Foundations doing transformative climate change initiatives often explicitly aim to support those most directly impacted. These initiatives include place-based and cross-border work with Indigenous peoples, women, the working class, and those living in poverty. Healing and land and intergenerational connections were themes brought up by foundations working in long-term relationships with Indigenous peoples.

Invest in relationships and partnerships

Foundations that lead to climate action in Canada are a small subset and are often already interconnected. They gravitate toward pooling their resources and partnering on projects, including with communities. It is important to build a relationship with Indigenous communities and to work alongside them toward climate justice goals.

For example, healing strategies and behavioural change are not as well-funded nor able to be captured through commonly used yet restrictive evaluation frameworks. MakeWay (previously Tides Canada) worked with Indigenous communities in Northern Canada to develop a Northern Program Theory as a part of their Culture and Language Resurgence Program reflecting their worldview that sustainable, resilient, and vibrant communities and ecosystems depend on Indigenous leadership, stewardship and ways of being and knowing.

Some of the critical questions and challenges we heard were: Is the sector ready to not only talk about bold action but make the shift to challenge and dismantle historical power dynamics between philanthropic funders and grassroots communities? How can the sector measure and evaluate programs that are more grassroots and community-oriented which may not fit within the common theories of change? How do we prioritize the experiences and voices of those most impacted by the consequences of climate change? The findings of this research project show that there are existing and innovative frameworks, tools, resources, initiatives, and conversations happening from local to international levels that are moving forward on the large steps we need to take to reach global climate change targets.


i World Meteorological Organization. (2019). Greenhouse gas concentrations in atmosphere reach yet another high. Accessed March 2, 2020 at:

ii Dunsky Energy Consulting. (2015). En Route to a Low-carbon Future: A Landscape Assessment for Canadian Grantmakers. Retrieved from:

iii Ibid.

iv Mease, L. (2018). 5 ways that funders approach climate philanthropy. Accessed April 20, 2020 at:

v CLIMA Fund. (2019). Soil to sky: Climate solutions that work. Retrieved from:

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