Historic flooding in Texas following 2017’s hurricane harvey. MDay Photography/shutterstock
Historic flooding in Texas following 2017’s hurricane harvey. MDay Photography/shutterstock

In 2008, three U.S. foundations set out to save the world from climate catastrophe.

They pledged more than $1 billion over five years—in one stroke, roughly doubling the amount going to climate mitigation annually—and formed a new entity to try to avoid a calamitous rise in global temperatures by 2030: the ClimateWorks Foundation.

In the 12 years since, ClimateWorks has contributed to significant emissions reductions and helped draw new funders to the cause. It’s also seen some of its major efforts fall flat, and drawn criticism for taking a reductionist approach and funding an insider’s club of NGOs. Meanwhile, the amount philanthropy invests in the cause annually has doubled and then doubled again, and an invigorated, youth-led grassroots movement is leading the charge with heightened focus on justice and equity.

In short, 2020 is a very different landscape than the one in which ClimateWorks launched. And now, once again, the organization is embarking on a new chapter with a revamped strategic plan.

As one of the largest climate funders in the world, and on the eve of an election that could empower new engagement on climate in the U.S. and globally, the direction ClimateWorks takes now could have wide-reaching implications for the next phase of the climate fight.

It also marks the continuation of a pattern for ClimateWorks, which was first forced to transform itself after its early period. Larry Kramer, who has served on the ClimateWorks board since 2013, believes reinvention is one of the organization’s greatest strengths.

“I think you’d be hard put to find any other organization in any field, in philanthropy certainly, that I’m aware of, that has been as nimble and flexible in adapting itself for what’s the best thing it can do for the problem, as opposed to trying to become the 800-pound gorilla in the field,” said Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which joined with the David and Lucile Packard and the McKnight foundations to create ClimateWorks. Hewlett and Packard remain its primary funders.

“It started as the 800-pound gorilla in the field.”

ClimateWorks 1.0: A Billion-Dollar Bet to Save the World

In 2007, alarmed by the threat of climate change and the limited investment by philanthropy to confront it, six U.S. foundations—Hewlett, Packard, Energy, Doris Duke Charitable, Joyce and Oak foundations—commissioned a major report on the topic. Titled “Design to Win,” it laid out a global policy agenda with an end goal of cutting emissions 30 gigatons by 2030.

ClimateWorks launched the following year, instantly becoming by far the biggest player in the space. In its early years, Kramer told me, ClimateWorks’ approach was strongly shaped by consulting giant McKinsey, which was paid nearly $45 million for support, primarily to develop a strategy to maximize emissions reductions by 2030, building on “Design to Win.” They divided the work into a grid of six regions and five economic sectors—power, industry, buildings, transport and forest—and made estimates of how much emissions could be saved in each square. After Hal Harvey, the new foundation’s CEO, sketched out a simplified version of the approach for staff members, the plan became known as the “Sudoku.”

It was a top-down, technical approach largely based out of Silicon Valley that aimed to make the biggest possible global impact by rigorously aligning ClimateWorks’ own funding with that of any new arrivals. While measurable reductions were achieved, the effort fell well short of hopes.

The problems were myriad, according to an unusually candid 64-page case study on the first years of ClimateWorks, commissioned by Hewlett and Packard. The organization lacked clear structure. It was unable to attract other funders to the cause. It was not sufficiently collaborative or receptive to feedback. And its reductionist approach to the problem failed to account for shifting attitudes and external factors.

During the period examined, ClimateWorks invested heavily in two major advocacy efforts: an international agreement during the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, and a U.S. cap-and-trade bill in 2009 and 2010. It made major grants to national environmental organizations and policy shops, alongside Hewlett, Packard, Energy, and Sea Change foundations. Ultimately, the Copenhagen meeting ended without an agreement, and the U.S. bill never made it to a vote in the Senate.

The cap-and-trade loss was a huge blow to the U.S. environmental movement, triggering a kind of reckoning over its heavy focus on market-based solutions, compromise with industry, and weakened connections to the grassroots. It was also a blow to ClimateWorks.

ClimateWorks was “a billion-dollar bet that went bust,” Gayle Peterson, author of the case study and co-founder and senior managing director of pfc Social Impact Advisors, told me. “It was an organization that imploded.”

But Peterson was encouraged by the next steps ClimateWorks took, including Charlotte Pera’s early moves after joining the foundation as president and CEO in 2012. “The organization has had the courage to learn from that experience,” Peterson said.

ClimateWorks 2.0: A Global Funder Affinity Group for Climate

In November 2012, about 20 people huddled around a small conference table at the Hewlett Foundation, Kramer told me. All were members of the original three ClimateWorks funders. They were there to discuss what was next. Thus began the Funders Table, an informal collaboration of major climate funders.

By a couple years later, Funders Table meetings were week-long affairs, with various plenaries and side sessions, Kramer said. Today, the Funders Table has members from roughly 20 institutions across the U.S. and Europe. Its growth mirrored the transformation ClimateWorks took, refashioning itself as a kind of international affinity group for climate issues, among other roles.

“ClimateWorks 2.0 was really designed to address what we learned didn’t work in ClimateWorks 1.0,” Kramer said. “ClimateWorks began to instead fill gaps where no one else was doing work, particularly around multinational efforts, transnational efforts.”

ClimateWorks’ leaders established a database of who was funding what and where. The organization invested in advocacy capacity. It put resources toward funder coordination: convenings, funder tables, funder learning communities. Today, ClimateWorks facilitates groups on cooling, climate and land use, carbon dioxide removal, and clean transportation.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do since 2013 is really create spaces where funders can come together, not to try to make sure everyone has exactly the same vision for X, Y or Z, but to learn together, strategize together, and build relationships, because trust is a great enabler of collaboration,” Pera told me.

Her use of the word “trust” is not incidental. In the new strategic plan’s account of the past decade’s lessons learned, the word “trust” shows up three times within five bullet points.

Pera points to ClimateWorks’ electric drive vehicle initiative as an example of this collaborative spirit in action. Launched in 2015, it now counts 70 members from 50 organizations around the world, including environmental, health, consumer, and research organizations, as well as foundations. The group explores topics like zero-emissions freight, the role of incentives in consumer adoption of green technologies, and designing regulations to drive electrification.

“It’s a really good model for making sure strategies are well-informed and robust, and there’s debate around them,” she said. “And that funding is aligned to a significant degree so that we can go after big outcomes together.”

“Bigger, More Coordinated, and Growing Faster Than Ever”

ClimateWorks has been part of a considerable push to channel more funding toward the issue, and there’s still a lot of room to improve, considering the foundation estimates that philanthropic giving dedicated to climate change mitigation is still less than 2% of the total.

That being said, in recent years, funding for climate mitigation has grown substantially. How much of that is due to ClimateWorks’ efforts versus the growing awareness of the scale and urgency of the climate threat is hard to evaluate. But few fields ever see such increases.

ClimateWorks, whose data on climate change funding is the field’s most comprehensive, estimates that in 2019, foundations gave between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion to climate, double the total in 2015 and an eight-fold increase over the initial partners’ $200-million-per-year investment in 2008. ClimateWorks’ own base of support has also shifted. It now has nearly 40 backers (several of whom are anonymous), including philanthropic behemoths like Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation. Nevertheless, the foundation’s budget has remained relatively steady in recent years, with expenses ranging from $76 million to $94 million annually since 2016.

ClimateWorks has also branched out from a focus on institutional philanthropy. In 2019, the foundation spun off an internal initiative it had incubated a couple years before, the Climate Leadership Initiative, into its own organization. CLI provides guidance on funding climate change mitigation to wealthy donors, free of charge.

“The timing turned out to be fortuitous,” said Kramer, who is listed as an ambassador on CLI’s website. He said there was an outpouring of interest from deep-pocketed donors who wanted support on making climate funding decisions. “They’re all like, ‘I don’t even know how to begin to get my arms around this. I don’t want to have to build a huge organization.’”

One of those new donors is MacKenzie Scott, novelist and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In a Medium post on July 28, she announced she’d put $125 million toward climate change as part of a $1.7 billion first round of giving. While it’s unknown if she worked with CLI, which does not reveal its clients, the recipients she chose included several organizations in the ClimateWorks network, including Energy Foundation U.S., Energy Foundation, and the European Climate Foundation.

“The climate philanthropy community is bigger, it’s more coordinated, it’s growing faster than ever before,” Pera said.

ClimateWorks 3.0: “We Need to Rethink the Whole Strategy”

In early 2017, a wave of former Obama administration staff turned in their badges and went looking for new jobs. Many ended up in philanthropy. Among them was Jonathan Pershing, previously the lead U.S. negotiator to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who ended up at the Hewlett Foundation as program director of environment.

Kramer told me Pershing and other new arrivals posed a new question. “Not what do we do now to get the most reduction in emissions, but where do we need to be at the other end,” he said. At the same time, the election of Donald Trump—who, during his campaign, claimed climate change was a “hoax”—had squashed any prospect of far-reaching international agreements, at least in the short term.

With these forces at play, ClimateWorks and its supporters turned their focus from maximizing the reductions of emissions by 2030 to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. It changed everything.

“All sorts of things suddenly popped up that we weren’t paying attention to,” Kramer said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, we need to rethink the whole strategy. There are whole areas we haven’t been focusing on that we need to move into now.’”

ClimateWorks started working on carbon dioxide removal and facilitating climate-related finance. As a new wave of funders entered the space, the foundation ramped up the research, analysis and strategy development services available to grantmakers. It has kept its collaborative projects going, but its focus is turning toward choosing and scaling technologies that could help meet the 2050 deadline. Kramer said the sum of those shifts resulted in the new plan.

“We’re still focused on philanthropy and what philanthropy can do, but we now put less emphasis on building the field of climate philanthropy and really put climate solutions front and center,” Pera said.

The other aim is to put people first. As an example, Pera cites the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, one of two large joint-action funds ClimateWorks hosts. Born out of an international agreement reached to lower the use and production of hydrofluorocarbons, this philanthropic collaborative combines a critical climate mitigation measure—refrigeration features in the top 10 of Project Drawdown’s table—and changes to improve people’s lives, particularly as temperatures rise. She says ClimateWorks will increasingly focus on that intersection.

“Really, the only way to achieve transformative change at the speed and scale that we need is to focus on solutions that make people’s lives better now and in the future,” Pera said. “There’s been a bit of a history that climate has been framed as a distant global problem with technical causes, technical solutions, and that made it harder for a lot of funders to engage and get interested and bring lots of perspectives to bear on the problem.”

“We Realized We Had to Do More on This Front”

Two years ago, ClimateWorks launched an internal diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. Guided by an internal task force with help from the consulting firm InclusionVentures, it has led to a series of actions common in such processes: revamping hiring practices, rethinking how the foundation recruits candidates, holding trainings on unconscious bias, and facilitating discussions on systemic racism.

By the numbers, ClimateWorks is one of the more diverse organizations in a field known for being overwhelmingly white. In a 2019 survey by Green 2.0, which is also supported by Hewlett, ClimateWorks ranked as the eighth most ethnically diverse of the top 40 environmental organizations in the United States. (Green 2.0 counted them among nonprofits, not foundations.) Currently, the staff is 69% female and 37% people of color, “which is not good enough, and a lot of those non-white staff are Asians,” Pera told me. “We have work to do on our diversity numbers, but we are taking it seriously.”

Groups working on climate from an equity or justice standpoint do not feature prominently in ClimateWorks’ grant list, but there are some examples of such work. For instance, along with the Energy Foundation and Hewlett, the foundation recently supported a 20-organization coalition that advocated for California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule. Members included several groups representing communities heavily impacted by pollution, including the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, and Brightline Defense.

But it’s worth noting that this thread of its work is barely perceptible in the new strategic plan. For instance, the words “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion” and “justice” do not appear. The opening Vision and Mission section touches on social and racial justice, relaying a vision of “universal access” to clean water and air, healthy food, quality education and good jobs, but there are few other references.

That’s surprising, considering that since ClimateWorks was founded, racial and environmental justice have become dominant themes in the climate movement, present in rising organizing efforts like the Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance, and policy platforms like the Green New Deal and even Joe Biden’s new, $2 trillion climate plan.

“We didn’t do a deep dive in the strategic plan in the way we have in the wake of George Floyd’s killing,” Pera said. “Like many organizations, what has happened in the last few months has really inspired us to look more deeply into our work and the responsibility we have to fight racism.”

In response, the foundation released a seven-point plan in early July, which made commitments to further diversify its board (currently 82% white and 64% male), diversify its grantees and contractors, and reallocate money saved due to reduced travel costs to the racial and social justice elements of its programming.

ClimateWorks will also fast track its efforts to support workers displaced by the climate transition. Its engagement on this topic dates back to a 2016 grant to the Just Transition Centre, but in the strategic plan, those efforts are deemed “exploratory.” Whether such issues become a more visible—and more substantially funded—element of its work remains to be seen.

Has ClimateWorks Fundamentally Changed?

While ClimateWorks has shifted how it works, a substantial portion of its funding still seems to flow through a small set of usual suspects. Many of its largest grants over the last three years have gone to similar intermediaries with close links to the foundation or its core funders, such as the Climate and Land Use Alliance, the European Climate Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the Instituto Clima e Sociedade.

“It’s a very closed kind of network of funders,” said Eduoard Morena, a lecturer at University of London Institute in Paris and the author of “The Price of Climate Action,” about philanthropy’s role in climate diplomacy. “If you’re not aligned to their strategy, it can actually be very complicated to access funding… You have to be validated by everyone, basically.”

While a lot of things changed after ClimateWorks 1.0, funding to those related organizations continued, Kramer told me. “We thought that would be necessary to get them to ‘play ball,’ to share information,” he said. “That turned out not to be true.” ClimateWorks has since scaled back funding to those long-affiliated groups, which he says will end in the next year or two.

Kramer hopes the perception of ClimateWorks being an insider’s club shifts. “Nobody loves that,” he told me. “It’s necessary to be much bigger and broader, and that continued sense actually hurts our efforts rather than helps.”

More broadly, Morena argues ClimateWorks’ approach, particularly with regard to the international climate space and negotiations, has not fundamentally changed.

“At the end of the day, the overall strategy, when it comes to international climate policy in particular, it doesn’t fundamentally challenge U.S. interests,” he said. “It’s always about, ‘How do we get the U.S. on board?’”

Pera disagreed with that characterization. “I’ve been leading ClimateWorks since 2012, and I never think about that,” she said. In a follow-up email, she emphasized that ClimateWorks seeks to ensure the “strongest” policies are enacted to mitigate climate change. “We would like to see the U.S. fully committed to the Paris Agreement and playing a leadership role to follow through on the agreement,” she added.

What’s Next for ClimateWorks

ClimateWorks’ board approved the new strategic plan in late 2019; in the months before it went public in May, the world was hit by a massive new global challenge that some have called a test-run for the climate response: the COVID-19 pandemic.

ClimateWorks responded by redeploying millions in funding to address the new landscape, mostly within its network, and easing grantee requirements where possible, Pera said. “A lot of it is shifting work with existing grantees, or working on new projects with grantees that we funded in the past,” she said. Its COVID-19 plan focuses on ensuring that climate and the environment are top considerations as governments and major industries like air travel seek to recover after the pandemic.

Of course, some of those possibilities hinge on what happens this November. The United States is barely three months away from a presidential election that offers virtually opposite paths forward on climate change.

“The strategic implications of what approach the U.S. federal government is taking to climate change affects how everybody thinks about funding priorities,” Pera said. She added that the election “will absolutely affect our grantmaking,” but demurred on whether that would mean more money shifting to U.S. groups.

Just 12% of ClimateWorks’ funding supports work in the United States, with another 32% spent in other countries and regions, according to its internal figures. The bulk, 56%, supports global/transnational work. Like the foundation’s prior efforts in climate diplomacy, it is work without borders.

If Biden wins, the representation of former Obama and Clinton staffers in the ClimateWorks network—for instance, longtime Democratic operative John Podesta, who serves on the foundation’s board—and its deep connections with European policymakers would likely buoy the group’s influence.

If so, ClimateWorks’ approach could play a role in shaping a coming wave of policy, a reprise of its efforts a decade ago. It would be a high-stakes test of how the organization has grown and what it has learned.

Share with cohorts