Poor air quality in San Francisco during the record-breaking 2018 wildfire season in California. FinPin/shutterstock

Poor air quality in San Francisco during the record-breaking 2018 wildfire season in California. FinPin/shutterstock

When MacKenzie Scott shook up the philanthropic world last month with a Medium post announcing she’d given away an eye-popping $1.7 billion since last fall, the recipients and the nature of the support were as striking as the sum.

Gifts were unrestricted, released up front, and many went to groups that often struggle to get substantial support from institutional philanthropy: labor organizers, grassroots movements and organizations run by people of color, women and LGBTQ+ leaders. It was a massive endorsement of those groups’ repeated requests for more flexible support, especially notable coming from someone poised to become one of the country’s most consequential philanthropists.

The $125 million she dedicated to climate change, on the other hand, follows in the footsteps of the world’s largest climate funders—and by its size, places her as their peer. It is a vote of confidence in a funding structure and approach built by the small group of foundations that have given the most to climate change over the past decade-plus—a group that many recognize as strategic, veteran leaders in the climate funding space, but which detractors criticize as a closed circle. 

Three gifts went to grantmakers—the Energy Foundation U.S., Energy Foundation China and European Climate Foundation—who are part of a tight-knit international network of pass-through funders that have historically prioritized a policy- and market-centric vision of climate progress. A fourth went to one of the largest environmental NGOs in the world, the Nature Conservancy, which received over $1 billion in total revenue and support in 2019. (Unlike the other climate recipients, the Nature Conservancy disclosed the amount it received from Scott: $25 million.) The fifth grant went to Potential Energy Coalition, an alliance of advertising and marketing agencies that seeks to shift the public narrative on climate change.

Scott’s decision to take on climate change in the first place should be celebrated, and there’s surely a lot more giving on the horizon. But unlike her other areas of giving, nearly all the climate organizations she chose are established organizations that have close relationships with the biggest philanthropic players. That is somewhat surprising, coming from a donor who went outside the mainstream with so many of her choices in her first round of major giving. With these picks, Scott is, so far, overlooking some of the most exciting, diverse leaders in today’s climate movement.

The Nature Conservancy and the three foundations—Energy Foundation, Energy Foundation China, the European Climate Foundation—have all received gifts, many in the seven and eight figures, from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In 2008, those two jump-started philanthropic engagement on climate change by committing $200 million annually for five years to the issue, laying the foundation for an approach to climate giving that in many ways remains dominant.

The connections between these groups remain dense. Jonathan Pershing, environment program director with Hewlett, serves on the boards of both the European Climate Foundation (ECF) and Energy Foundation China, where he’s joined by Walt Reid, director of Packard’s conservation and science program. Hewlett and Packard are also the founding funders of ClimateWorks Foundation, which has given substantial grants to the Nature Conservancy, ECF, and to the Energy Foundation, including for work in China, and whose president, Charlotte Pera, also serves on the ECF board of directors.

Coordination of those institutions’ finite resources is the goal. As the ECF notes on its website: “We work alongside the Energy Foundation in the United States, the Energy Foundation China, Iniciativa Climatica de Mexico, Instituto Clima e Sociedade in Brazil, the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation in India and the ClimateWorks Foundation to align the objectives of the climate community and beyond.”

It’s also worth noting that the Nature Conservancy’s Blue Bonds program—one of two projects at the organization that Scott chose to back—is demonstrative of the massive, multinational efforts these deep-pocketed organizations are able to pursue. The project, self-labeled as “audacious,” seeks to raise $40 million to help 20 island nations refinance their debt and invest the savings in ocean conservation.

‘Impressive Climate Justice Work Led by Black, Indigenous and People of Color’

It has long been true that the most well-funded environmental groups are predominantly white. While Scott prioritized diverse leadership in her giving, even providing percentages of what portion of recipients were led by members of the communities they worked with, her climate recipients appear to be no exception to the field’s rule. 

In 2019, two-thirds of the staff members of both the Nature Conservancy and the Energy Foundation were white, including 82% and 86% of senior staff, respectively, according to Green 2.0, an advocacy group that tracks staff diversity among top environmental organizations (also a Hewlett grantee). The two organizations’ governing boards were 73% and 88% white, respectively. Both had majority female staff, with Energy Foundation’s board evenly split between genders and the Nature Conservancy’s with a slight male majority. (The two organizations are the only of Scott’s five climate recipients that participated in the survey.)

May Boeve, executive director at 350.org, praised Scott’s overall support for organizations led by women of color and working for racial, gender and economic equity. But she hinted that those principles should be extended to Scott’s climate giving, as well. 

“Acknowledging that it takes a lot of work to find the smaller groups on the front lines, we also note that there is a lot of impressive climate justice work being led by Black, Indigenous and people of color, and a few good funds that are redistributing smaller grants to the grassroots, where it’s needed most,” she said in an email.

As we’ve highlighted in the past, there’s a growing list of green intermediaries designed specifically to help large donors and foundations support movement building and grassroots climate action—groups like the Climate Justice Alliance, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, and a number of regional networks and grantmakers. A 2019 report commissioned by the CLIMA Fund called out the fact that grassroots solutions to climate change are too often overlooked by funders.

“In pursuit of leverage and our fear of climate catastrophe, these funders have prioritized scale above all else. And in doing so, the funder community has largely missed significant opportunities deemed too small or too dispersed to matter,” the report states.

Of course, some of Scott’s funding could end up with front-line groups. Energy Foundation, for example, has made some grants to organizations working directly at the intersection of climate and equity. But those investments are on the smaller end of the scale. For instance, the foundation recently gave a $30,000 grant to the National Black Environmental Justice Network, and another past grantee is Dream Corps, a prison reform and environmental organization founded by environmental justice activist Van Jones, which received $40,000 in 2017. 

Could Scott be a Catalyst for More? 

High-net-worth philanthropists often first turn to friends and peers for information, so philanthropy like Scott’s can guide the next wave of gifts, said Jennifer Kitt, president of the Climate Leadership Initiative. The nonprofit provides wealthy donors—“who are Giving Pledge level, essentially”—free advice on climate change philanthropy. (Kitt would not say if Scott or her team consulted with them; CLI does not reveal its clients.)

As an example, Kitt noted she’s aware of three wealthy donors or families who, in the past year, began to explore climate funding. “They’ve begun by asking experienced peers about what they’re doing,” she said. “Their very first gifts were generally aligning their funding with experienced peers.”

Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer of the Nature Conservancy, said she sees the same potential. “When philanthropists step forward with big commitments, it encourages others to do so, as well,” she told me. “It’s catalytic because it gives people a sense they can build on that.”

What’s Next for Scott?

Perhaps the biggest question remaining with Scott’s philanthropy is how much bigger it will get.

As impressive a figure as $1.7 billion is, as a percentage of her fortune, it is well under the 5% threshold that allows foundations to exist comfortably in perpetuity (as an unincorporated donor, Scott sets her own rate of giving). If Scott is going to “keep at it until the safe is empty,” as she wrote in her announcement, she’s going to have to give a whole lot more. Even if she doubled her annual giving, it would still take her nearly 18 years—until she’s 78—to give away everything. But that almost certainly won’t keep pace with the growth of her assets, which have grown from $38 billion at the time of her divorce a year ago to nearly $61 billion today.

In fact, a recent study from the left-leaning Institute of Policy Studies found that’s the common reality among the super-rich. Many of the billionaires who signed the Giving Pledge a decade ago have seen their wealth nearly double since then, to a collective $734 billion, the study found. A few are giving away massive sums, but most are getting richer even faster.

As temperatures rise, storms worsen, crop yields fall, and habitats change, many hope a large chunk of that wealth will go toward preventing a wholesale collapse of our planet. 

“In terms of how much money can you pour into the climate change problem, there’s no real answer to that,” said Tom Brookes, communications director for ECF.

That makes for an intimidating challenge for a brand new philanthropist with a fortune to give away, but MacKenzie Scott is demonstrating that she’s no ordinary philanthropist. Let’s hope that, as her giving continues, her climate funding goes beyond the mainstream, just as she has in other arenas.

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