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Rihanna’s journey as a climate philanthropist started with a hurricane; now, she hopes to fuel a movement.

The pop superstar and cosmetics mogul’s disaster philanthropy dates back to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy brought 115-mph winds and devastation to New York City. Her subsequent relief efforts for a long line of ferocious storms—Matthew, Haiya, Harvey, Irma, Maria—pushed the Barbados-born artist to get proactive; she ultimately launched a climate resilience initiative focused on the Caribbean.

Robyn Fenty—her legal name—has now opened a new chapter in her already bustling philanthropic portfolio by taking on root causes of the climate emergency. Late last month, the 33-year-old, whose net worth was estimated at $1 billion last year, directed $15 million through her Clara Lionel Foundation, which is named for her grandparents, to 18 organizations working on climate justice in seven Caribbean nations and the United States.

Made through a partnership with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall grantmaking initiative, the grants mark her latest steps as a climate funder and a new push to support the groups building a more diverse and inclusive climate movement, a goal many have highlighted as a key pillar for achieving necessary climate policy in the United States. The grants support a wide range of organizations focused on women, youth, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous and other people of color in the U.S. and Caribbean.

“Climate disasters, which are growing in frequency and intensity, do not impact all communities equally, with communities of color and island nations facing the brunt of climate change,” said Rihanna in a statement.

Rihanna’s evolution as a philanthropist

In one sense, Rihanna has followed a classic donor trajectory, according to Katherina M. Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Particularly when somebody’s giving was prompted first by a disaster, like a natural disaster or a crisis… it usually starts with immediate relief, then it goes to response, recovery, mitigation and building back better,” Rosqueta said. “It’s a cycle.”

One question is whether her celebrity will attract new donors to these groups, which have historically received just a fraction of the donations commanded by the nation’s largest—and frequently white-led—environment organizations.

There is data to suggest it might. Gifts from celebrities do lead to more contributions from the public, according to research from a pair of professors at the Rutgers School of Business-Camden. Based on a statistical study of more than 500 charities with links to public figures, the researchers found that relationships with celebrities do boost those organizations’ donations, likely due to greater attention and perceived trust.

The flip side is that a high-profile donor can bring both added scrutiny and create a perception that such groups have all they need, even when the same-sized gift from a lesser-known donor has no such impact, said Rosqueta, whose organization publishes a guidebook and runs an academy to guide high-net-worth donors in their philanthropy.

“Some donors will say, ‘Well, this person is bringing so much money, that organization is taken care of, right?’ Or ‘All these celebrities are bringing so much attention, again, that cause is taken care of.’ And of course, none of these causes are ever really taken care of,” she said.

Denielle Sachs, senior director and global lead of APCO Impact, a consultancy that works with clients that include high-net-worth donors, said she was impressed that Rihanna’s latest grants follow the field’s “best practices.” She highlighted the foundation’s intersectional group of grantees, its collaborative funding (with Dorsey’s #StartSmall) and its community-driven approach.

“The focus she’s made on having those beneficiaries… be the voices and decision-makers in the philanthropy is worlds ahead of a lot of other philanthropy today,” Sachs told me. “Those three things are the things about the approach that put her foundation in the top echelon of organizations that are pushing the bar on philanthropy.”

A pair of billionaires with a passion for philanthropy

Both members of the exclusive 10-figure assets club, Dorsey and Rihanna are an increasingly inseparable philanthropic duo.

This latest round of grants marks the continuation of a partnership that has directed roughly $57 million to similar causes, according to a tally by CNBC based on Dorsey’s public spreadsheet of grants. Climate resilience and COVID-19 relief account for much of that total.

“There’s a lot of trust,” said Justine Lucas, executive director of the Clara Lionel Foundation, which is based in New York city.

There are plenty of strategic benefits. Rihanna’s causes not only get Dorsey’s matching funds, but a bit more attention—and potentially dollars—from the tech sector that follows his moves. Dorsey, meanwhile, can direct funding based on the expertise and relationships that Rihanna and her team have built.

He’s not the only one teaming up with the pop star. Lucas named several funders with which her team has collaborated. The list includes funders in Rihanna’s unique circle, like fellow entertainment industry titan Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation or the ELMA Carribean Foundation, which was started by a recording industry billionaire. But there are also mainstream institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation and David Rockefeller Fund (whose executive director serves on the Clara Lionel Foundation board), as well as Open Society Foundations and Panta Rhea Foundation.

“Grant givers trust us quite extensively,” Lucas said. “We have a huge list of donors… [and] we leverage our donations to get other folks involved.”

Who got the money?

The 18 latest recipients include several climate justice organizations favored by donors, notably a guy by the name of Jeff Bezos. For instance, there are three intermediary funds—the Hive Fund for Gender and Climate Justice, Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, and The Solutions Project—whose profiles rose in late 2020 when the Amazon founder granted each $43 million, and which have increasingly been favored by some institutional funders.

NDN Collective, another of Bezos’ grantees ($24 million, in total), gets support from a long list of foundations small and large, and was one of several Indigenous-led recipients. Others were the Indigenous Environmental Network and Native Movement.

Prominent climate organizing groups were also among the grantees. These include the Climate Justice Alliance and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (which recently received $4 million from Bezos). Beneficiaries also included two groups based in the West Indies—the Caribbean Youth Environment Network and the Caribbean Climate Justice Project.

Many recipients are not solely focused on climate, but instead pursue that work as part of their broader mission, including the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), Black Feminist Fund and Black Visions Collective.

An intersectional approach, to varying degrees, is a common factor among all the recipients, all but three of which are first-time grantees of the foundation. Grants varied from general support to project support, depending on each group’s size and whether climate justice was a central focus. Other beneficiaries included the Center for Popular Democracy, the HEY Campaign (the Ashley Lashley Foundation) and Integrated Health Outreach.

“Because this is our first big foray into climate justice, we wanted to make sure that we chose a group of organizations that was really representative,” Lucas said. The diversity extended to including lesser-known and less-resourced groups. “Some organizations have very small annual budgets, but we found that their work was compelling and they were poised for growth.”

How the foundation chose this cause

It turns out stars’ foundations are just like everyone else’s. This new line of funding came about as a result of a strategic planning process. Over nine months last year, the team had a series of conversations to help chart their future course.

They spoke with the communities they work with in the Caribbean and the organizations they support through climate resilience grants. They also consulted with groups they had previously funded related to their racial justice work. From those chats, a clear focus emerged.

“We sort of zeroed in on climate justice being an area where it felt like we’ve seen underrepresentation in terms of funding and just had background partnerships that we felt were very relevant,” said Lucas, who is one of a foundation staff of four. “All the issues we have been working on since 2012 are converging in climate justice, which is the most urgent issue of our time,” she said in a followup statement.

Climate justice will be a core funding area for the Clara Lionel Foundation for the next three years, and the grantmaker has a long-term commitment to its pre-existing climate resilience portfolio, according to Lucas.

Rihanna has always juggled many projects. Now an expectant mother, her work spans from entrepreneurial ventures (Fenty Beauty) to cinematic features (see “Ocean’s 8”). The world may still be awaiting her long-hoped-for next album, but it looks like we’ll see more climate philanthropy drop in the years to come.

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