Mapping the climate philanthropy ecosystem: Foundations’ roles and strategies to address SDG 13

Par Jacqueline Colting-Stol , PhiLab Student
10 juillet 2020

This is a moment in time where the impacts of climate change and the demand for climate action and justice are undeniable. Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Action states that we take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. As countries rebuild their economies after COVID-19, there is an opportunity for “a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet”[i].

Foundations and philanthropy can play an essential role, as some do, in mitigating climate change and the challenges facing communities on a global scale[ii][iii][iv][v]. They have crucial connections, resources, power and money to influence the deep systemic social, economic and political changes needed to curb the devastating impacts of climate change[vi].

While strategic coordination and collaboration among subsets of foundations to address this issue has been growing, philanthropic foundations across the spectrum of social and ecological change struggle to clearly identify, prioritize and collaborate on the strategies and options to get there.

Foundations may position themselves differently on various social and ecological goals, such as by uplifting marginalized voices or scaling low-carbon innovations. There is a call by many stakeholders to support grassroots movements and community infrastructure to reinforce and transform the systems that support climate change and create sustainable alternatives. When foundations identify a climate action agenda and shift to a climate justice framework that engages with grassroots solutions to climate change, they face complex decisions and challenges around innovation, scale and spread, metrics and measurabilities, capacity and geographic reach[vii]

An immediate step to scale and collaborate more effectively on climate action goals that more and more foundations are taking is to leverage existing approaches and champions of change by directing their investments and grants to them. For example, the Trottier Foundation, McConnell Foundation and other philanthropic partners teamed up with C40 Cities and Suzuki to help the City of Montreal develop their carbon neutral 2050 Climate Action Plan. Several foundations, such as the Trottier Foundation, strive to address barriers that smaller community groups may face including funding to carry out essential movement-building and public mobilization.

Our research project highlights the work of a subset of local, national and international foundations who have been building practices, collaborative efforts and bold strategies to push the climate action agenda forward. Our report aims to capture the diverse frames and strategies for change among grant-making foundations to advance and make explicit the narratives and practical actions that they can take to address climate change.

Research Process

This project is the first phase in a collaborative series of initiatives focused on the role of the philanthropic sector in addressing climate change and advancing a just transition. In November 2019, PhiLab convened key players in the Canadian philanthropic ecosystem to discuss how to move the sector forward regarding climate action, climate justice and a just transition. The following partners helped define the scope of the current research project, identified leads and resources (literature, organizations, reports), and provided regular feedback on the project outputs:

–     PhiLab

–     Environmental Funders Canada

–     The Circle on Philanthropy and Indigenous Peoples

–     Community Foundations of Canada

–     EDGE Funders Alliance North American Steering Committee

–     Philanthropic Foundations Canada

–     McConnell Foundation

  • The research team, composed of, Jacqueline Colting-Stolas the research assistant (PhD Student, School of Social Work, McGill University), Jean-Marc Fontan, researcher and Co-Director of PhiLab, Juniper Glass, of Lumiere Consulting and PhiLab member, Dr. Edouard Morena, University of London Institute in Paris, and René Audet, Université de Montreal a Quebec, selected a shortlist of foundations as case examples to explore philanthropic narratives and strategies related to climate action. Through feedback from the partners and preliminary reviews of the case examples, the foundations selected were:
  • Canada

–     McConnell Foundation

–     Trottier Foundation

–     MakeWay (previously Tides Canada)

–     Catherine Donnelly Foundation

–     Ivey Foundation

  • International

–     ClimateWorks Foundation

–     Thousand Currents

–     Chorus Foundation

The key informant interviews, in addition to partner feedback, were:

  • Lindley Mease, Project Director, Climate Leaders in Movement Action (CLIMA) Fund, Thousand Currents
  • Joanna Kerr, President and CEO, MakeWay (previously Tides Canada)
  • Eric St-Pierre, Executive Director, Trottier Family Foundation
  • Anne Mark, Program Officer, The Catherine Donnelly Foundation
  • Louise Comeau, University of New Brunswick
  • Bruce Lourie, President, Ivey Foundation
  • Cuong P. Hoang, Director of Programs, Chorus Foundation
  • Inès Chaâlala, Director Learning & Partnerships, Philanthropic Foundations Canada

The challenge: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Foundations will be able to use the map we are developing to begin strategizing about the potential position they can take in their current work when it comes to climate action or in establishing their role in tackling climate change. The map begins from exploring the various narratives in the challenge of philanthropic foundations addressing climate change, the diverse ways foundations frame the problem, the strategies for change and the internal or external tactics to help solve the problems identified. The problem framing and solutions are categorized into individual, practice and organizational and systemic levels.

Throughout these problem frames and strategies, various foundations are identified to help give a picture of what it looks like in practice. For example, the Trottier Foundation addresses multiple problems at the practice and organizational and policies and systems level. Their strategies at these levels include building from and scaling transformative innovations, engaging in cross-sector collaborations and taking risks that are not possible for others. Their tactics involve a combination of internal and external actions that engage with policy, research and mobilization. They have a specific environment program, impact investment and divestments policies, spearhead and participate in several collaborations and address barriers faced by smaller community groups in accessing funding. Foundations can similarly map their involvement or potential engagement with climate change by seeing the links with these categories, strategies, tactics and problem frames.

Figure: Example of a pathway for philanthropic action on climate

Mapping the climate philanthropy ecosystem

The following image is an example taken from this map. It shows an example of how a foundation that believes in the narrative of innovation (novel ideas are most needed to respond to climate change) might try to address the problem at the practice and organizational level (for example, targeting the lack of strategic coordination, collaboration and investments) and then select a related strategy for change (engage strategically with a wide range of stakeholders) with a focus on certain tactics to help contribute to climate action (for example, funding collaboration and convening of stakeholders).

This research shines light on the importance of foundations reflecting on the climate change narratives that motivate them – and having clear strategies and actions that are cohesive with how they see the problem. Likely, climate justice and climate change mitigation will require a multitude of diverse solutions. There are many pathways possible for foundations that seek to make a contribution.


Notes de bas de page

[i] United Nations. (2020). Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 13: Take urgen action to combat climate change and its impacts. Accessed June 24, 2020 at:

[ii] Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network. (2018). Advancing a Sustainable Future: A Profile of Environmental Philanthropy, 2016 Data Update. Retrieved from:

[iii] ClimateWorks Foundation. (2020). The Challenges. Retrieved from:

[iv] Dorsey, E. (2020). Philanthropy Must Declare a Climate Emergency. Accessed March 3, 2020 at:

[v] Dunsky Energy Consulting. (2015). En Route to a Low-carbon Future: A Landscape Assessment for Canadian Grantmakers. Retrieved from:

[vi] Nardone, C. & Krupp, F. (2020). 3 paths philanthropy must take now to tackle climate change. Accessed March 2, 2020 at:

[vii] Mease, L. (2018). 5 ways that funders approach climate philanthropy. Accessed April 20, 2020 at: