Taking on climate change is a daunting challenge for any institution, let alone a small place-based foundation in a state with no coal-fired power plants.
So when I learned that the focus of Council on Foundations’ annual conference was climate change, I was delighted. At The Fund for New Jersey, we learned firsthand the dramatic effects of a warming climate in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy — the intensity of which scientists predict may become an annual occurrence at the Jersey Shore by mid-century — ripped through our home state. In responding to this disaster, we looked at the bigger picture and began making grants for climate work to ensure New Jersey is prepared for the changes to come.
I felt eager to share our experiences and what we learned with grantmakers from across the country and around the world at the April conference. I proposed and organized a panel highlighting how foundations of all types and sizes could make a difference in meeting the challenge of climate change.
I invited national leaders to join the discussion: Nicola Hedge, Environmental Initiatives director at The San Diego Foundation; Mary Skelton Roberts, senior program officer for Climate at the Boston-based Barr Foundation; and Scott Cooper, CEO of RE-AMP Network, a Midwest collaborative of foundations and non-profits. Our shared goal was to encourage other place-based foundations to join us in supporting climate change work.
The examples are inspiring.
Since 2003, the San Diego Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the nation, has been working to address climate change issues. After devastating wildfires ravaged the region, the foundation launched a climate initiative in 2007 to catalyze regional action to reduce emissions and build more resilient communities.
Over the last decade, it has invested about $3 million to bring about change. The coalition connects scientists with technical experts in local government, brings together public safety and disaster professionals, and funded a San Diego Bay sea-level rise adaptation strategy. Today, 18 cities have emissions inventories and two thirds of them have adopted or are developing climate action plans. The San Diego Foundation’s leadership helped philanthropy make real change.
A $1.6 billion family foundation in Boston, the Barr Foundation has made a significant commitment to climate issues over the past 16 years. They aimed to help 20 percent of the commercial and industrial building owners in Boston reduce their emissions by a total of 80 percent, an effort led by a green-ribbon commission of private sector leaders who implemented best practices in their buildings. Others quickly followed their example.
Barr also focused on transportation, working to ensure that communities are built with the resources people need available close to home such as access to public transit, and that are climate resistant. Bostonians experienced a vivid wake-up call in 2015 when a massive snow storm dumped 109 inches and the transportation system stood still. Barr continues to work with the city and key stakeholders to develop smart policies that encourage walking, bike-sharing, and other forms of mobility that can ease travel in the most challenging circumstances.
The RE-AMP Network offers yet another approach. Spanning eight states in the upper Midwest, its members include more than 15 funders and more than 150 non-profit partners aiming for 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions across eight states by 2030 in the energy sector and by 2050 in the entire system. The network pursues action on many fronts, including encouraging funders to support closing coal plants, the largest polluters in the Midwest. RE-AMP sees its value as providing a learning community across the Midwest by supporting local, place-based work that can lead to scalable solutions.
At The Fund for New Jersey, we started by doing what philanthropy does best: we convened our environmental grantees and other experts for advice. Unanimously, they concluded that climate change was the most important environmental issue we could work on. And after conducting extensive research to learn what other foundations in the U.S. and the world were doing, we knew we needed to encourage new policy approaches centered on carbon mitigation and greenhouse gas reduction.
You can read more about what we learned in a white paper on The Fund’s website.
With particular greenhouse gas problems created by New Jersey’s on-road transportation systems and the threats of building new gas pipelines across the state, we focused our attention on issues The Fund’s grantmaking could have the biggest impact.
- Climate action planning
- Transition to clean energy, more energy efficiency, and decoupling (so utility companies can be rewarded for reducing their energy usage)
- Expanding public transportation and electric vehicles
- Making homes and businesses greener; and
- Building public support
Because we were starting fresh, we chose to take a broad approach, providing grants in multiple areas to see what work we could catalyze.
For example, we paired a planning group with the Urban Mayors’ Association to help municipalities begin carbon mitigation planning. We helped faith-based groups in non-white communities educate and empower their members to get active on climate issues. We catalyzed research on public transit and other ways to reduce greenhouse gases while advancing the economy. And we supported the development of a broad coalition working to stop gas pipeline construction on sensitive lands.
We’ve been encouraging our grantees to take risks, find new partners, and develop pilot initiatives.
The good news: New Jersey leaders are developing innovative ways to make our state cleaner and greener, as they are also working to improve public health, create jobs in a green economy, and build stronger and more equitable communities.
Much work remains to be done, but The Fund and our partners continue to move forward, knowing that it takes time and patience to make change. We are learning that even small foundations can contribute for the good of the planet and all of us who live here.
Kiki Jamieson is the President of The Fund for New Jersey, a private, independent foundation that works to improve the quality of public policy decision-making on the most significant issues affecting the people of New Jersey and our region. The Fund is a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey.
Photo at top courtesy Stephen Melkisethlan / Creative Commons