July 15th, 2021

What philanthropy’s response to the pandemic can teach us about tackling the climate crisis

By Johanna Fuhrhop



Every crisis brings something new for us to learn and grow from. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but it has already taught us many things – about resilience, adaptation strategies and the power of innovation. The experiences and learnings from this crisis have been as multifaceted as they have been individual, and yet they also reveal many commonalities. A closer look also proves that the crisis has taught us a few things about philanthropy. 

The global health crisis has triggered an unprecedented response in terms not only of the volume of philanthropic capital that was rapidly made available (estimated at $20.2 billion in 2020 alone), but also of the way this occurred.  With this in mind, we asked ourselves: What practices that philanthropy has used in its response to the COVID-19 crisis could be adopted across the sector and applied to address the climate crisis in particular? 

Over the past one and a half years, we have observed several parallels between the health crisis, which poses an acute and visible threat, and the climate crisis, which, while no less pressing, is a more persistent challenge that many find much less tangible. To help learn and grow from one crisis to fight another, we would like to share three key lessons for the future of (climate) philanthropy. 

1. Embrace the interconnectedness of issues 

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us once again how deeply intertwined seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives really are: how our health is highly dependent on the way we source and produce our food and treat the ecosystems on which we rely; or how a health crisis can quickly develop into an economic crisis, affecting people globally but especially the most vulnerable among us. These interconnections are equally or even more significant in the context of the climate crisis. Both crises painfully disclose the weaknesses in our systems and the deep inequalities underlying them.   

Funders around the world are doing their best to support people most in need during the pandemic. Yet, many have started to reflect upon their daily work, realising that a more systemic approach is needed now, as Tracy Nowski et al. already emphasised in the early days of the pandemic. Addressing the effects of the pandemic is not enough if its causes remain unaddressed. The same holds true for the climate crisis. To be able to support solutions that positively impact multiple crises at once, philanthropy needs to apply a more holistic approach. 

Active Philanthropy’s intersections guide is a starting point for philanthropists to become aware of the link between climate change and the causes they support. The guide outlines the interconnections between the main funding fields in philanthropy (among them public health, disadvantaged groups, education, just and democratic societies, and nature conservation) and climate change, and provides answers to the question of how foundations can bring a climate perspective into their portfolio. 

2. Try new forms of grantmaking 

Over the past years, and with the aim of increasing the transparency and accountability of the sector, philanthropy adopted a strong focus on metrics. However, as Woodcraft and Munir recently emphasised, this turned out to be to the detriment of organisational capacity building, which increasingly became underfunded. Now, recognising that the pandemic requires an exceptional response, many funders have been reducing the burden on grantees and adapted to their needs. More than 800 organisations have signed the Philanthropy’s Commitment During COVID-19 Pledge, promising to loosen their restrictions on current grants, so as to make new grants as unrestricted as possible and to postpone reporting requirements. This newly gained flexibility could significantly benefit the sector in its fight against climate change. 

Funders have also become aware that, for their support to be as effective as possible, local knowledge is crucial. Prompted by the idea that the best solutions to the most complex problems of our time cannot be found within foundations themselves, participatory grant-making shifts the decision-making power from funders to implementing partners. To combat the climate crisis and to ensure a just transition, it is hugely important for funders to listen to, learn from and cooperate with those grassroots organisations and activists on the ground representing previously unheard voices – or as Mattingly put it: “Reflecting deeply on the power dynamics of funding relationships is the first step toward building a just and sustainable future.” 

In the latest issue of the Alliance Magazine, Felicitas von Peter and Winnie Asiti also encourage philanthropy to step up its game in the fight against the climate crisis by practising unconventional forms of grantmaking. The authors emphasise that bureaucracy and complicated reporting procedures are “not only time-consuming, but [do] also often exclude Indigenous groups, young people and those with disabilities, who may not have the skills or capacity to fulfil the required criteria”. Instead, the authors claim, “funding should focus on innovative non-traditional initiatives […] led by these groups to ensure that they do not continue to disproportionately bear the impact of climate change.” 

3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate 

The pandemic accelerated the trend towards greater collaboration within philanthropy. Because of the urgency of the situation, many donors began pooling their resources and expertise and sharing their learnings through partnerships with others. This saved time and enhanced already existing solutions.  

But greater collaboration has also emerged beyond the philanthropic sector. Funders have been providing risk capital to support the development and implementation of government response and recovery programmes. Corporations and philanthropists have pooled their resources to develop fast and effective responses to the challenges caused by the pandemic.   

The challenges of climate change mitigation and adaptation are in many ways similar to those of Covid-19 but they are also much more complex, and cross-sectoral collaboration is now more important than ever. This is where philanthropy, given its political and financial independence, can take on a key role as a partnership convener, bringing together actors critical to sectoral, societal, and systemic change. Additionally, collaboration among donors is vital to rapidly scale effective solutions in the limited time left for effective climate action. 

The Philanthropy Coalition for Climate’s peer groups offer foundations the possibility to engage with peers for collective learning, imagining and climate action. After the initiative kicked off in June, the first group, with the thematic focus on the intersection of health and climate, is currently in its set-up phase and will be launched soon. For more information, please contact Karalyn Gardner at the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate. 

Moving forward: Participatory, innovative and holistic philanthropy 

As is the case for any other sector, it is critical for philanthropy to refrain from going back to “business as usual” once the pandemic abates. While the past one and a half years have revealed the many vulnerabilities of our systems, they have also shown what is possible: once the urgency of the situation had been recognised, philanthropy quickly adapted and did its best to complement the private and public sectors in the complex effort to overcome this crisis. We must now ensure that we face the climate crisis with the same seriousness and the same sense of urgency.   

To do so, philanthropy needs to stop working in silos and, instead, strengthen its efforts to address the interconnections of global inequality, environmental degradation and the climate crisis. It is important that the sector maintains the flexibility it adopted during the pandemic, funds capacity building and includes the most vulnerable groups in its decision-making. And lastly, for climate action to be effective, it is vital to foster collaboration not only within the sector but also beyond it, with corporations and governments, to reach the scale needed to respond to the climate crisis.