Laurene Powell Jobs, photo Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Laurene Powell Jobs, photo Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This week, news broke that Laurene Powell Jobs would give $3.5 billion over the next decade to address the climate emergency—the latest in a series of major philanthropic gifts and pledges on climate from billionaires.

There was a time, not that long ago, when such a big new philanthropic commitment to climate change would come with quite a lot of fanfare and exposition, in a field that has for years fought tooth and nail for greater funding. Not to get nostalgic, but we can recall when MacArthur, for example, first decided to go big on the issue back in 2015, releasing a carefully considered rationale, strategy and list of initial grantees.

But we’ve entered an era of philanthropy in which gargantuan announcements that eclipse even large foundations’ budgets seem to materialize out of thin air, via Instagram post, tweet or blog post. In the case of the pledge from Powell Jobs, whose estimated $21 billion fortune derives largely from stock inherited from her late husband, Apple founder Steve Jobs, the news came via sparse news reports with little info beyond the headlines.

On one hand, of course, billions going toward climate change is to be celebrated, something we’ve been calling on for years. It’s a sign that, if nothing else, the issue is finally becoming a top priority. At the same time, we’re talking about dollar amounts that could totally reshape the landscape of climate action, not always directed in a transparent or accessible manner. Donors may shy away from publicity, but that does not absolve them of public accountability. Honestly, it’s a little scary.

Below we unpack what we know—and what we don’t—about this latest major pledge.

What We Know

A nod toward climate justice

Powell Jobs and her LLC the Emerson Collective are always popping up in philanthropic news, but are notoriously lacking in transparency when it comes to hard details on giving. So it’s not surprising that the announcement was light on specifics. (In lieu of a statement, an Emerson Collective spokesperson simply confirmed the details in an Axios report. Powell Jobs is an investor in the media outlet.)

We know grants will be made not through the Emerson Collective, but a dedicated entity called Waverley Street Foundation. Grantmaking will center on housing, transportation, food security and health, with an apparent focus on climate justice. “Each is a lever to help solve the climate crisis,” an official told Axios. The foundation “will focus on initiatives and ideas that will aid underserved communities who are most impacted by climate change.”

The foundation has already begun hiring staff and issuing grants, and a leader for the organization will be announced soon. It does have one big name already: Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives will chair the board of the foundation. Jackson was head of the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Barack Obama.

Waverley Street Foundation is not actually new

Established in 2016 as the Emerson Collective Foundation, the Waverley Street Foundation had nearly $1.8 billion in assets as of a couple years ago. Major contributions started with a 2017 transfer of nearly 6 million shares of Disney stock. After Pixar sold to Disney for $7.4 billion, Steve Jobs became the company’s largest shareholder.

Waverley is described as Powell Jobs’ “climate-action group” by Axios. But in a January article in the Columbia Journalism Review, an Emerson spokesperson called it “the family foundation.” It is certainly under family control, at least based on its 2019 tax filing. Powell Jobs was listed as president, while board members included her brother, J. Bradley “Brad” Powell; sister-in-law, Mona Simpson; and son, Reed Jobs. The two other board members, Anne Marie Burgoyne and Michael Klein, both work at the Emerson Collective, as does Reed Jobs and Brad Powell.

Powell Jobs has funded climate in the past

Emerson Collective is a for-profit LLC, a hybrid dealing in political work, philanthropy, and investing. As such, its giving can be kept private. The website summarizes its priorities and lists a team of over 200, but few details on actually giving. And we know at least some grantees have been required to keep its support confidential. But one of Emerson’s named priorities is climate, funding at the “intersection of climate innovation and environmental justice.”

In 2019, Powell Jobs joined with Leonardo DiCaprio and private equity billionaire Brian Sheth to create a new organization, Earth Alliance, focused on climate change and biodiversity. But again, beyond a couple of announcements, there’s been little public information about its activities and almost no information on its website.

Emerson Collective’s Dial Fellowship has also supported climate-oriented entrepreneurs, such as one trying to build the first commercial electric aircraft. The LLC—a significant media funder—has also supported climate coverage, such as underwriting a series of stories on global issues by NowThis. Emerson’s impact investing arm also recently publicly backed a couple new climate funds.

It’s a big chunk of change for climate

Institutional philanthropy gave just $1.6 billion to climate mitigation in 2019, according to the ClimateWorks Foundation. That figure is likely much higher now, in large part due to a $10 billion pledge by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But Powell Jobs’ commitment still represents a substantial, long-term increase in total support.

What We Don’t Know

Will giving be transparent?

Waverley’s giving thus far has been almost totally opaque. Nearly every dollar disclosed has gone to a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which received $185 million from Waverley between 2017 and 2019. As is allowed by DAFs, that money’s final destination, or even whether it has been distributed, is unknown. The foundation’s only public grant to date is a $50,000 gift to the Resource Renewal Institute, a Marin-based environmental nonprofit.

The announcement indicates funding will flow through Waverley, which as a registered foundation is required to disclose every grant in its annual tax filings. That would be a stark contrast to Emerson Collective, which as an LLC has no such requirements. However, if the foundation continues to route its gifts through a donor-advised fund, its giving will be just as mysterious. It’s also a mystery as to why, when Emerson is such an expansive and well-staffed outfit, Powell Jobs would decide to run this new pledge through a different entity in the first place.

How will it impact the field?

Powell Jobs’ new pledge, if spread evenly over a decade, comes to $350 million a year. That’s roughly as much as the budgets of the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club combined. Those truckloads of cash could entrench the existing structure of the field, if the biggest groups get the biggest gifts. Or they could reshape significant swaths of the sector by empowering smaller or emerging groups. How those funds are distributed could have a dramatic impact in areas with limited philanthropic support, including climate justice groups that have been calling for a greater portion of climate funding for many years.

The language of the announcement suggests an environmental justice focus, and Powell Jobs has a track record as a largely progressive funder, but how exactly the dollars play out remains to be seen. Bezos used similar verbiage in his announcements, and has made some historically large grants to environmental justice groups, but the largest share of his grants to date have gone to the largest organizations in the field.

Powell Jobs’ pledge adds to the growing share of climate philanthropy directed by living billionaires. What types of change will grants from her and her peers prioritize—and which will they shun? Will any, for instance, support climate campaigns that challenge the structures that contribute to their wealth?

Why was it announced now?

As part of a larger investigation of tax shelters, ProPublica reported Tuesday that Powell Jobs had used a trust to pass nearly half a billion dollars to her children, friends and family, avoiding at least $200 million in estate and gift taxes. Her attorney said the move was made so her children could pay estate taxes on “nostalgic and hard assets,” including properties, art and a yacht. (Emerson Collective, incidentally, is one of ProPublica’s biggest funders.)

The timing of Monday’s pledge announcement, one day before the ProPublica piece was published, raises the question of whether the pledge was shared now to compete with bad press from the investigation. It is also at odds with her stated goal to give away her wealth. In a 2020 interview with the New York Times, Powell Jobs said she had no intention of passing on her multibillion-dollar fortune. “It ends with me,” she told the paper.

At the same time, she and her team could have been planning this move for a long time, perhaps dropping the news amid the momentum of other big environmental funding announcements last week.

5. Will it lead to more climate giving by billionaires?

Huge gifts and pledges on climate have come frequently over the last year. Bezos pledged in 2020 to give away $10 billion to confront “the biggest threat to our planet,” and has since given nearly $1 billion in climate change grants. MacKenzie Scott gave $125 million to climate organizations in her first round of gifts, and some expect the novelist and ex-wife of Bezos to make the global emergency the focus of future grants. Most recently, Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss’ foundation promised to give $500 million for conservation, on top of a $1 billion commitment from a couple years ago. That was part of a multi-donor, $5 billion biodiversity funding announcement last week.

While it’s risky to overstate the influence of peers, billionaires—like the rest of us—care what their friends think. As one of us argued years ago, there are plenty of apex donors who have not only shown concern for the crisis, but also signed the Giving Pledge. Perhaps this will push more ultra wealthy, particularly other West Coast tech billionaires, to put more of their fortunes to work for the emergency of our age.