A post-pandemic agenda for the environment

Canada’s leading funder groups together with The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have launched an ambitious drive to push the climate agenda to the forefront of charitable activity in Canada.

Canada’s leading funder groups together with The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have launched an ambitious drive to push the climate agenda to the forefront of charitable activity in Canada.

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The pledge, the first of its kind in Canada, was unveiled a month before the start of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow and is a focus of the Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) conference, which concludes November 10.

The other participants include Environment Funders Canada (EFC) and Community Foundations of Canada (CFC). The four groups aim to have 100 signatories by next June.

“Indigenous leadership is fundamental to respond to the climate emergency,” said Kris Archie, CEO of The Circle, in a statement released in October about the initiative. “Our stewardship emerged at the beginning of time and centres language, rights and intergenerational responsibilities to all life, land, water and air.”

“The point of the pledge is to reach out to philanthropists and say, ‘This is a global crisis and requires a whole-of-sector response, just like with COVID-19,” says EFC executive director Devika Shah. “Philanthropy plays a very important catalyst role in systems change, and that’s what we need right now.”

Climate change is not just an environmental issue.

Joanna Kerr

The pledge was announced in the wake of a federal election that saw every major political party present a climate plan. Most Canadian voters supported parties with specific climate policies, including carbon pricing, and Justin Trudeau subsequently appointed, as his new environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, a former Quebec climate activist who founded Équiterre.

These themes all surfaced earlier in the year during both the EFC and CFC conferences, which also focused on funder collaboratives and the role that funders can play in advancing the climate agenda. EFC’s conference, dubbed “Transform 2021: Bubble-Breaking and Sense-Making,” explored how philanthropy can draw on the lessons of the pandemic to support the development of a green and equitable recovery.

“Climate change is not just an environmental issue,” says MakeWay CEO Joanna Kerr, who moderated one of the panel sessions. “Many of us are hoping that funders working in issues of health, food security, or education are seeing that climate catastrophe is impacting our society. There need to be more funders working together to see the whole ecosystem and [determine] what is and isn’t getting funded.”

Dana Decent, CFC’s director of partnerships, says many in the sector are re-evaluating the role of philanthropy and trying to imagine how funders can be “more than just grantmakers.” Foundations, she adds, should consider asking asset managers about climate risk, examining their own carbon footprints, screening companies and projects for net-zero commitments, educating donors, and collaborating with partners in the environmental movement.

The strength of philanthropy is to catalyze actions from actors who individually don’t have the power to mobilize and intervene.

Karel Mayrand

This work has already started, as some leaders in Canada’s philanthropic community realize they have a key role to play in accelerating Canada’s transition to a low-carbon future.

Earlier this year, for example, the Foundation of Greater Montreal (FGM) launched a $500,000 Collective Fund for Climate and Ecological Transition, in collaboration with the Trottier Family Foundation and with the support of the City of Montreal. The goal of the fund is to mobilize Montreal’s business, political, and philanthropic communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and help the city reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

“The strength of philanthropy is to catalyze actions from actors who individually don’t have the power to mobilize and intervene,” said Karel Mayrand, FGM’s president and CEO. “Foundations tend to work in isolated fashion, but there’s great results in collaboration.”

Mayrand hopes such collaborative models can be replicated across Canada’s non-profit and charitable sector. Yet this approach also demands more resources. According to EFC, the environmental sector, which includes conservation groups, animal welfare organizations, and climate advocates, receives only about 1 to 2% of all charitable donations.

Environmental funders need to be the ones pushing the boundaries.

Devika Shah

This shortfall has been recognized for some time. In 2010, the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance called for Canada’s public and private foundations to invest at least 10% of their capital in mission-related investments like climate-mitigation efforts by 2020. Since then, Canada’s philanthropic sector has shifted from giving money to grassroots organizations that were campaigning against oil and gas efforts to funding climate-specific projects. “The groups that used to do a lot of the campaigning have shifted a bit to a deeper focus on policy advocacy and implementation,” Shah says.

The pandemic has added an extra wrinkle for environmental funders. Climate projects require a lot of capital, but the COVID-19 crisis has placed competing demands on public and philanthropic resources as funders have faced calls to invest in social causes like poverty, housing, or health.

Climate risk is interconnected with everything philanthropy does.

Brianna Aspinall

Shah argues that environmental funders have to take some risks. “We need to be the ones pushing the boundaries.” But as the joint declaration indicates, all philanthropic organizations have to change what they are valuing and measuring to respond to the climate crisis, including who is included in the decision-making process, especially when Indigenous communities are impacted. This will mean learning how to become a participatory grantmaker and employ more trust-based philanthropic efforts.

It is possible to carry out philanthropy using a climate justice lens, says Brianna Aspinall, the founder of Carbon Conversations TO and a facilitator at the CFC conference. “Climate risk is interconnected with everything philanthropy does, so if we can’t provide climate funding, we can at least start talking about climate change more,” she says. “Food scarcity and poverty is connected to climate change. Housing and health is connected to climate change.”

Amidst a plague year punctuated by record-shattering heat waves, brutal hurricanes, and widespread flooding, there is an emerging realization that if the world can respond rapidly to a global pandemic, it has the capacity to do the same with accelerating climate change. But as the politicians and advocates come home from Glasgow to translate those high-level targets into local action, Kerr says funder collaboratives and ENGOs need to act ever more broadly, advocating not just for policy change, but also for shifts that encourage Canadians to choose low-carbon options, such as “15-minute cities,” as well as change their behaviours, such as adopting plant-based diets. “It’s a ‘both-and,’” she says. “We need movement-building.”


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