Flooding in the streets in Steyr, Austria. Lisa-S/shutterstock
Flooding in the streets in Steyr, Austria. Lisa-S/shutterstock

For an institution that operates in more than 120 countries, maintains offices across six continents and whose annual budget tops $1 billion, Open Society Foundations’ relatively minimal and quiet engagement on climate change has been surprising.

But the sprawling philanthropic empire, funded by financier George Soros, last year began looking at expanding its role, including bringing together 90 external climate experts and internal leaders, among them, members of the Soros family, for a summit last November to discuss the way forward.

“Over the last year and a half, we actually started thinking very specifically about the connection between climate action and climate justice. We realized they are intrinsically connected,” said Johanna Chao Kreilick, an executive officer at OSF who is leading the initiative. “We really used the last year and a half to listen and learn to the field so we can be very, very deliberate.”

The outcome? OSF has budgeted about $40 million for a new Climate Action Initiative focused on movement-building, economic justice, and advocacy and litigation. The initiative, which will disburse funds through the end of 2021, is a sizable injection of resources into work at the intersection of justice and climate impact, an area that has received less attention from mainstream climate philanthropy, despite the heavy impacts of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

As OSF evaluated the role it could play on climate, the team asked itself, “Where can we have the most impact? Where can we really deploy our superpowers in support of the climate movement?” Kreilick said. As might be expected, the initiative ultimately focused on areas that have long been core to OSF’s grantmaking, but it also drew from a conclusion that the field needed more work on building political will than on technical solutions.

OSF has shared very little publicly about this body of work until now. Some of the grants were mentioned in an Earth Day press release, which positioned the funding as part of the foundation’s $130 million response to COVID-19. But OSF’s outlook appears to stretch well beyond the pandemic.

“The climate crisis poses an existential risk to all the communities and causes we support. This funding is part of our ongoing commitment of standing up for human rights, social justice and equality,” said Alexander Soros, deputy chair of OSF and son of its founder, in the release.

Where the funding is headed

The initiative’s grants will fit, conceptually at least, into three main buckets: nonpartisan advocacy and mobilization; economic justice and just transition; and accountability and governance, said Kreilick. Practically, there will be lots of overlap between these categories.

Funding will focus on four key geographies—Latin America, Europe, the United States and South Africa. It will also target specific cities, ranging from African capitals like Accra and Freetown to European metropolises such as Barcelona and Oslo. At least one U.S. city, Los Angeles, will be included.

“Some of the most exciting work is being taken up by climate-friendly mayors around the world,” Kreilick said.

In Latin America, deforestation will be a major focus of OSF’s work, Kreilick said. One leading concern is that environmental enforcement measures have weakened due to COVID-19. Another is the industry and private sector interests that are driving the clear cutting and burning of the region’s forests.

For its advocacy work, OSF is looking at the wave of national and regional stimulus bills underway and still to come, particularly in the United States and Europe. “We’re funding grantees that are really going to try to steer the focus of those economic stimulus packages toward a positive climate future, rather than a future that is going to lock in carbon-emitting infrastructure and policy—which will truly send us off a climate cliff,” she said.

OSF will also enter the controversial field of climate intervention, or geoengineering. It plans to bring together organizations from around the world for a convening on the governance and regulation of these still developing and little-understood technologies, as well as organizing a group of global donors to learn more about the issue.

“We want to help build a deep governance and policy framework for what is an incredibly consequential set of emergent technologies,” Kreilick said. “They have the potential to wield complicated climate impacts.”

OSF plans to partner with the Foundation for International Law for the Environment, also known as FILE, a Netherlands-based group founded in 2018 that works to create legal frameworks to mitigate climate change and support biodiversity and conservation. OSF, whose Justice initiative has a roughly 90-person staff with substantial legal expertise, wants to hone those skills. “We have a really interesting toolbox at our disposal,” Kreilick said. That body of work will include supporting advocacy, communications and strategic litigation, particularly against major polluters.

OSF also intends to work with a variety of pass-through foundations and funder networks to distribute its climate funding. “The open society challenges and climate crisis challenges are so massive that no one funder can get the job done,” Kreilick said. The team declined to name any of these partners, noting some of the grants are not yet finalized, but there is one that has been publicly announced.

A new funder collaborative emerges

Earlier this year, a new group of funders, including OSF, made the first set of grants from an informal initiative, the Climate Rights Funders Collaborative, which launched in 2019.

It was a baby step—the grants totaled $200,000—but the effort may provide some insight into OSF’s future funding via such grantmaking groups. Given the other players involved and the relatively limited funder collaboration at the intersection of human rights and climate response to date, it may also presage more funding in this area.

That’s the hope of the institutions involved, which, in addition to OSF, included Oak Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, True Costs Initiative and one anonymous donor. Support also came from the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, an intermediary backed by the Kendeda Fund and Oak, which set it up in 2016.

“We’re trying to expand the field and bring more donors in,” said Anne Henshaw, a program officer who leads Oak’s climate justice work. “The human rights field itself is recognizing it can’t ignore climate in its portfolios of grants. No matter what they’re working on, it’s going to impact their work.”

If the grant process is any indication, the demand is strong. The group received more than 30 proposals, though the grants offered were only $25,000, partly because the initial round was intended to fund exploratory work. The eight projects also focus on countries where that sum goes farther than in, say, the U.S.

“They had these really unusual ideas, and they wanted to test whether these ideas could work,” said Louise Olivier, a program officer in OSF’s human rights program, of the grantees. “We’re hoping at least 50% will move into something bigger.”

The collaborative members are also doing other joint funding, including at least one gift that’s larger than the fund itself. OSF, Wallace, the Climate Justice Resilience Fund and an anonymous donor recently gave a multi-year, $585,000 grant to the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development for work with frontline communities in Chile, the Philippines, Kenya and Nepal, said Olivier.

Whether the collaborative becomes more formal is an open question. The fund is currently a sub-fund of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, which has a narrow geographic mandate, while the collaborative is unrestricted.

OSF’s climate funding history

Neither climate change nor the environment are among the themes touted on the OSF website as of yet, nor does the grantmaker’s name typically register among leading climate grantmakers. But given its scope and scale, OSF’s grantmaking has inevitably touched on climate.

The foundation estimates it has invested more than $75 million in the climate space in the 15 years leading up to last year’s decision to start “really framing our work in the climate action frame,” Kreilick said. While not always billed as climate grants, OSF has funded areas like food security, green jobs and research on climate adaptation.

Its founder has been involved in the international conversation, as well. Back in 2010, George Soros served on then-United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s 10-month High Level Advisory Group on Climate Financing, which issued a report offering ideas for generating funding for climate mitigation.

OSF’s most explicitly climate-focused program prior to the new initiative was an effort focused on food security in Africa. Between 2013 and 2017, OSF invested $12 million—“a very modest number,” said Kreilick—in projects across 11 countries on the continent.

Funds went to support small-scale farmers and those reliant on pasture to develop resilience to the local impacts of climate change. Those grants were issued in collaboration with other funders, leading the way for the new initiative.

“That work was really a wonderful precursor and provides a basis for the current climate work,” she said. “It helped us define Open Society’s sweet spot in this moment.”

The new emphasis has been greeted warmly by the foundation’s far-flung network of staff, even though it comes at a time when funds are being stretched due to COVID-19. “It’s generated a huge amount of enthusiasm and support across OSF,” said Olivier, who is based in Johannesburg.

What’s next for OSF—and the field? 

When I asked Kreilick whether this will be an ongoing commitment, she answered indirectly: “We really want to let the field drive our direction,” she said. “We’ve been developing the climate work with a real ear to the ground with our partners, our grantees.” The political environment and the pandemic will help shape next steps, said a spokesperson in a follow-up email.

What is clear is OSF’s conversations—internal and external—on this topic are not just impacting the funding decisions of the initiative. “Our dozens of programs and national and regional foundations are also baking climate action into their next four-year strategies,” Kreilick said. “There’s a whole new strategy at the unit level.”

Other funders are also starting to make climate-related grants with a human rights lens. Henshaw cited a pair of European funders, Porticus and Robert Bosch Stiftung, among the newer entrants. In the United States, she pointed to deepening engagement by WellSpring Philanthropic Fund and ClimateWorks Foundation. Some are particularly focused on just transition—a term born in the labor movement for supporting workers who are impacted by the shift to a carbon-neutral economy, but that many progressives now use to describe a broader vision of economic transformation.

The Yellow Vests movement in France—large-scale worker protests initially prompted by rising fuel costs—was among the recent wakeup calls for climate funders, said Henshaw. The field is increasingly realizing that “the progressive policies they are supporting on transportation and other issues aren’t durable unless they bring people along with them on the solutions path,” she said. “You’ve got to account for the impact on jobs, etc.”

As the impacts of climate change become more apparent around the world and in day-to-day life, and with COVID-19 accelerating the conversation about resilience in the face of massive change, a similar dynamic is playing out for human rights grantmakers. “The human rights field itself is recognizing it can’t ignore climate in its portfolios of grants. No matter what they’re working on, it’s going to impact their work,” Henshaw said.

However, those are just two issues of philanthropy’s infamous siloes. While some grantmakers include a climate lens in their work, foundation structures and traditions in many cases still discourage broader approaches. Henshaw thinks climate progress depends on shifting from donor-driven strategic investments to more focus by philanthropy on grassroots movements, local solutions and efforts that transcend individual constituencies.

“We have to look at what these movements share if we’re really going to accelerate the change we need, as opposed to funding each movement on its merits,” she said. “If we’re going to have real change, we have to foster more cross-movement work.”