Faced with the climate emergency, Canadian foundations are called upon to join the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement

Par David Grant-Poitras , Quebec Hub Coordinator & Ph.D. Student in Sociology
15 October 2021

Faced with the climate emergency, Canadian foundations are called upon to join the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement, is part of PhiLab’s Special Edition on Philanthropy & COP26

The last few years have seen a more engaged Canadian philanthropic sector, capable of taking a public position on societal issues and deploy significant resources in the face of the crises communities are experiencing. Now that the scientific community is inviting us to substantially reduce GHG emissions – and quickly! – to curb global warming [1], influential organizations have come together to launch a call for the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change.


In response to an international and collaborative process, Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC), Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), Environment Funders Canada (EFC) and the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (the Circle) came together to launch a Canadian initiative aimed at mobilizing the majority of the country’s philanthropic players. The Canadian appeal is an invitation to engage in urgent, intensive and accelerated climate action.

In this article, we present an overview of this philanthropic mobilization in order to identify its origin, meaning and scope. What is the history of its implementation? How does it differ from the international call coordinated by WINGS? How will responding to this commitment transform the action of foundations in relation to the challenge posed by climate change? To answer this question, we conducted survey work combining semi-structured interviews, with representatives of the organizations that coordinated the Commitment (PFC, CFC, EFC and the Circle), and collecting the relevant documentation produced as part of this initiative.

Here we will retrace the genesis of the Commitment and continue with an in-depth analysis of the content of the action process it proposes. This will allow us to identify the main areas on which the Commitment intends to advance the climate action of foundations. In an upcoming article in the next edition of PhiLab’s monthly Special Editions, we will present concrete examples of actions taken by foundations in response to their commitment to participate in the fight against climate change.

Genesis of the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment

#PhilanthropyForClimateThe idea of rallying foundations from the same philanthropic ecosystem to intensify their efforts in the fight against climate change did not originate in Canada but is an idea imported from Europe. The very first initiative of its kind, the Funder Commitment on Climate Change, appeared in the United Kingdom in November 2019 at the instigation of the Association of Charitable Foundations. The approach recommended was to call indiscriminately on all foundations established in that country to recognize, on the one hand, the growing risks associated with climate change and, on the other hand, to commit to mobilizing their resources to address the causes of climate change and/or to mitigate its negative effects through adaptive measures. A victim of its own success, the idea quickly snowballed on the European continent, inspiring similar approaches in Spain, France and, more recently, Italy. [2] 

Then spreading beyond the national borders in which the call originated, the climate philanthropy movement became a continental affair in December 2020 with the establishment of the European Philanthropy Coalition for Climate. This initiative was led by the Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe (Dafne) organization. This European network has continued its momentum and expanded to set itself a resolutely international ambition during the summer of 2021. WINGS was approached and agreed to take on the responsibility of expanding the call for a commitment from foundations around the world internationally. WINGS thus hosts the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change. [3] 

To facilitate dissemination of the call for Commitment, WINGS is supported by some forty philanthropic associations (including PFC and CFC), which represent around 22,000 foundations and funders worldwide.

Table 1: List of climate philanthropy commitments, from November 2019 to September 2021




This little flashback tells us that far from being an isolated initiative, the call for a Commitment from Canadian philanthropy has become part of a global movement while giving it a national dimension. Thus, the International Commitment Manifesto is enshrined in the Canadian Commitment. The signatory foundations thus swell the ranks of a global community of organizations united under the #PhilanthropyForClimate banner. These organizations are determined to create an unprecedented mobilization in view of the COP26,[4] when media attention paid to climate change will be at its peak. Therefore, in response to the climate emergency and like other signatory foundations around the world, Canadian foundations are able to express their intention to focus their efforts around seven pillars of action. [5] 

Why a Canadian version of the Commitment?

Why have a Canadian version when mobilization is already coordinated on a global scale? Coming back to the particular way in which this initiative was deployed, we understand that it is essentially for strategic reasons. Indeed, before the Commitment was officially launched on October 7, PFC conducted consultations with 32 foundations representative of the Canadian philanthropic granting ecosystem. One of the concerns of respondents was to link the issue of climate change with the Canadian specifics of the environmental, social and economic reality.

In order to recall the importance of contextualizing each national situation, a preamble has been added to the introduction of the International Commitment Manifesto. This preamble presents several items of key data, such as factual elements on the impact of climate change on our territory, information recalling Canada’s very high carbon footprint, not to mention normative elements with regard to the duty of foundations to promote inclusive, sustainable and regenerative development. On this last point, let us underline the key role of the Circle, which has joined the coordination committee so that the foundations’ response to the climate emergency is accompanied by a substantial recognition of the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous peoples. [6] 

The Canadian initiative will enable progress on three fronts

Let us now look at the content of the process of how the Commitment invites Canadian foundations. How does this call contribute to the growing importance of the issue of climate change and environmental protection? We believe that if a significant number of foundations join the cause, the Commitment will allow significant progress, on three levels.

  1. Recognizing and dealing with climate change as a crisis

A first contribution of the Commitment – and not the least – is to get the philanthropic community to recognize the severity of the risks posed by climate change, hence the need to act quickly to change the situation.

If left unaddressed, the impacts of climate change can undo our work to advance equity, health, poverty alleviation, economic prosperity, Indigenous and human rights, especially those who will be disproportionately affected – and all issues and communities on which we hope to have a positive impact as philanthropic actors. (Introduction to the Commitment of the Canadian text)

Such an act of recognition has major implications. It affirms that the climate crisis represents a sufficiently significant and universal threat and that it ceases to be solely a matter for commitment by environmental foundations. The climate issue is central to the point that it should become a responsibility to be taken on by all foundations, regardless of their mission, their status or the resources at their disposal. By doing this, the Commitment elevates the fight against climate change to the rank of a “social meta-cause”, in the sense that we consider that all spheres of activity in which foundations work will ultimately be impacted if nothing is done.

By making climate a common issue for all foundations, we can expect a greater inflow of philanthropic resources. To achieve this, much work remains to be done so that the environment becomes the cause of causes. At present, the environment still resembles what researchers Taïeb Hafsi and Saouré Kouamé call “an invisible cause[7].  Indeed, it is important to remember that the environment is still far from being a sector of activity popular with foundations [8].

2. Promote a rationale based on social justice

A second contribution of the Commitment relates to the way of thinking that is put forward to reflect on the transition to low-carbon societies. Both in the preamble and in the international manifesto, we observe a desire to link the climate issue to that of social justice. By making this connection, we are at odds with environmental approaches that advocate market solutions centred on technological advances as the only valid options for confronting the crisis. We are thus taking a step aside from what philosopher Frédéric Neyrat calls “eco-modernism” [9] , a still dominant paradigm that reduces climate change to an opportunity to modernize the economy by conquering new markets. Here, foundations are rather encouraged to seize the crisis to think about systemic changes, which involve a redefinition of social relationships and the project of society.

This implementation of a “socially just” ecological transition begins with an epistemic transition, an element on which the Canadian Commitment insists by affirming that “Canada has a lot to learn from Indigenous stewardship”. As Kris Archie, Executive Director of the Circle, explains, Indigenous cultures integrate a temporal dimension that is much better able to build a sustainable relationship with the environment:

If left unaddressed, the impacts of climate change can undo our work to advance equity, health, poverty alleviation, economic prosperity, Indigenous and human rights, especially those who will be disproportionately affected – and all issues and communities on which we hope to have a positive impact as philanthropic actors.

By valuing Indigenous leadership, the instigators of the Canadian Commitment break with certain philanthropic currents that tend to impose methods from above and are not open to dialogue, sharing, modesty and democratic values [10] . On the contrary, in the Commitment, a posture of humility and listening is recommended, admitting that the way of thinking that is specific to Western culture – and to the managerial cultures that are the expression of it – does not necessarily bring the answers that we currently need.

This concern for social justice is also manifested by taking social inequalities into account in the implementation of solutions to the climate crisis. This recognition of inequalities is apparent both from the point of view of accountability and of impacts linked to climate change.

In terms of accountability, the Commitment recognizes that there are great disparities in wealth between countries, communities and organizations. The burden of the response is not and should not be the same for everyone. In terms of the impacts of the crisis, the Commitment recalls that these will be – and already are – very unequal between regions of the planet, and also between different parts of the population living in the same territory. Donors are therefore invited to be particularly attentive to the needs of communities and groups of individuals most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change: i.e., Indigenous, black and racialized communities as well as young people and women across the country. The philanthropic resources dedicated to ecological transition must, in the same movement, strengthen the capacities of groups disadvantaged by the current system. It also implies a social transition.

3. Establish a roadmap to support and coordinate the work of foundations

A third contribution relates to the accompanying measures planned to support the signatory foundations so that they can move from words to deeds. As Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, Canadian Commitment Coordinator at PFC, explains:

It won’t be just a statement and nothing more. The declaration is made while providing resources, such as the establishment of three working groups: those who are starting their reflection; those have started their journey and have already discussed these issues with their Board; and those more advanced who could share their experience with the players at the start of the journey. (Our translation)

Additional resources may be added, such as online sessions and assessment tools to help organizations measure their progress (echoing the 7th action pillar of transparency). Taken together, these various accompanying measures represent a major step forward considering that the institutional infrastructure to support the climate action of foundations was considered significantly deficient. Indeed, exploratory research conducted in 2020 by Jacqueline Colting-Stol, on the state of climate action by foundations in Canada, told us that a major problem that they encounter comes from the “lack of collaboration, strategic coordination and investments around climate change efforts and action” [11] . The resources planned downstream of the Commitment will therefore fill a void, giving consistency and cohesion to the work of foundations with regard to the fight against climate change.

The rest of this article will appear shortly. In this second part, representatives of several foundations that are signatories of the Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change will be surveyed to understand how they intend to translate their commitment into concrete actions. This will give us the pulse of the future impact of the Commitment.

This article is part of the special edition of October 2021 : Philanthropy & COP26. You can find more information herePhilanthropy & COVID-19

Notes de bas de page

[1] The latest IPCC report is clearer and more alarming than ever about the human influence on climate change as well as the consequences of climate change on different regions of the planet. To avoid scenarios with disastrous and irreversible consequences, the IPCC reiterates the urgent need to stabilize the climate be rapidly reducing net GHG emissions to zero.

[2] Other countries are in the process of following suit while national associations are very active around the climate issue (this is particularly the case in Austria, Finland, Poland and Switzerland).

[3] For more details on this commitment, see the interview with WINGS director Benjamin Bellegy, also published in PhiLab’s Special Edition on Philanthropy and COP26.

[4] COP26 is an international conference on climate change organized by the United Nations. It will take place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.

[5] The seven pillars are: 1-Education and learning; 2-Allocation of resources; 3-Integration; 4-Endowment and assets; 5-Operating activities; 6-Influence and advocacy activities; 7-Transparency.

[6] In this sense, the Canadian Commitment is an echo and continuation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and, more broadly, of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada is a signatory.

[7] This concept is developed in the work: Taïeb Hafsi and Saouré Kouamé (2018). La solidarité en crise, Centraide et la nouvelle philanthropie, Montréal, Les Éditions JFD. In October 2020, PhiLab devoted a special edition to the theme of invisible causes in philanthropy: https://philab.uqam.ca/nouvelles/les-causes-invisibles-en-philanthropie/.

[8] In 2014, a survey of the 160 largest Canadian granting foundations indicated that only 4% of their donations are allocated to the environmental sector. An article published in 2021 by Alliance magazine indicated for its part that European philanthropy allocates only 2% of its financial resources to address climate change.

[9] This author develops a critique of geo-constructivism – and of eco-modernism which is one of its expressions – in the book: Frédéric Neyrat (2016). La part inconstructible de la Terre. Critique du géo-constructivisme, Paris, les Éditions du Seuil.

[10] This is what happened, for example, with the “new philanthropy” (or “venture philanthropy”), a movement that posited from the outset the superiority of managerial approaches used in private enterprises to generate profits and which, by the same token, pleaded for their establishment in the charitable sector.

[11]  Jacqueline Colting-Stol (2020). « Foundations and Climate Action Exploratory Research », Montreal: PhiLab, Research paper #21.