Facing a moral conundrum head on: Funding in the time of climate crisis

Suncor Energy Foundation, which celebrated 25 years in 2023 – the hottest year on record – doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations about where its money comes from.

Suncor Energy Foundation, which celebrated 25 years in 2023 – the hottest year on record – doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations about where its money comes from.

It’s April 2023, and in celebration of their 25th anniversary, Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF) posts a colourful collage on Instagram. The logos of SEF’s funding partners make up the artwork – from MaRS, to Alberta Ecotrust, to The Walrus Foundation. But alongside 126 “likes” are comments like “Philanthropy is a scam. You buy good PR to make up for things like Indigenous genocide, illegal pipelines, and environmental destruction.”

When you’re a foundation founded by Suncor Energy Inc., North America’s fifth-largest energy producer, with annual revenues in the billions, such comments are par for the course. As 2023 – the hottest year on record – wraps up, UN Secretary-General António Guterres tells COP28 climate conference delegates in Dubai that “record global heating should send shivers down the spines of world leaders” and calls for immediate action to phase out fossil fuels. A few days earlier, Suncor announced plans to expand operations.

Dig a little deeper into Suncor, particularly into its oil-sands operations in northern Alberta, and you may well find reason to stop reading (or indeed writing) this article – from the deaths of migratory ducks, to toxic air pollution, to tailings ponds leaking into the water table. But delve deeper and the water becomes murky. The climate crisis has spilled beyond scientific fact into fractious debate fuelled by a host of eco-emotions and a quest for justice. While some say the oil and gas industry must “choose between contributing to a deepening climate crisis or becoming part of the solution,” others say that vilifying Big Oil has created “fights that are at best internecine, and at worst wholly counterproductive,” where virtue is measured in driving an electric car and buying fake meat.

For a group of nearly 1,500 scientists and academics, the debate is over. “We are terrified,” they warn in an open letter to the public. “We need you.” Put down what you’re doing, they say, and become a climate advocate or activist.

There isn’t a single conversation or partnership that we enter into that doesn’t come with a conversation about . . . where our money comes from.

Kelli Stevens, Suncor Energy Foundation

To write a story about SEF is to enter into this arena, to ask uncomfortable questions. How does a funder begin to navigate such a supercharged space? Kelli Stevens, manager of community investment and social innovation at SEF, welcomes such a question. In fact, “there isn’t a single conversation or partnership that we enter into that doesn’t come with a conversation about this,” she says. “I wish that other philanthropists and funding organizations were able to do this because there’s no secret about where our money comes from.” These issues are “far more nuanced than what many Canadians and others want to think about,” Stevens says. “But for us, we have to think about it all the time because it’s absolutely part of our work.”

Conversations with 70 Stakeholders: Climate Activist Attitudes and Perspectives on Funding Tied to Fossil Fuels explores the “moral conundrum” of weighing the benefits of financial support against the “potential compromise of its integrity and commitment to climate action.” Nearly 80% of respondents say they support accepting funding tied to fossil fuels (with conditions). While the “no” side talks of a betrayal of values, selling out (summed up as “the big ick”), the “yes” side talks of distributive justice, reclamation of power, “moral purity” as a luxury of the privileged. Some note that all money is oil money in Canada, with taxes and royalties paid by public Canadian energy companies expected to reach $64 billion this year. “The ‘all money is oil money’ sentiment is particularly pervasive in prairie regions,” they write, “as many social innovation programs simply would not be funded without investment from companies linked to fossil fuel extraction.”

One of the ways we build trust is by not shying away from this question.

Kelli Stevens

Such revelations are old hat to SEF. They’ve long taken the view that the best way to address a moral conundrum is head on. If you don’t ask the uncomfortable questions, they will: “One of us will say, ‘Have you thought about what it will be like for your employees or your program participants, or others in your circle, to know that the money is coming from an extractive industry?’” Stevens says. “One of the ways we build trust is by not shying away from this question.”

These conversations are “no longer a discomfort,” Stevens says, but it doesn’t mean they don’t take a personal toll. Sometimes in non-profit-sector circles, “I’ve been seen as the evil businessperson.” But at Suncor headquarters in Calgary, “I’m often teasingly called a socialist,” she says. “On your exhausted harder days, it can feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. But on the better days, I think it’s a giant opportunity to be a bridge between different worlds.”

By adopting this bridge-building attitude, SEF has been able to transform the way it funds. “We’re not expecting any of the things that have sometimes been the norm,” Stevens says, such as how they get recognized for a donation. “We usually start that conversation with questions like ‘What would best serve your organization and its needs?’” Engaging in difficult conversations has helped build relationships and taught them that “at the heart of everything that we do, and the major learning of SEF over time, is that there’s no one type of entity that has all the answers,” Stevens says. If we don’t work together – businesses, charities, academics – we won’t “be able to do anything that the 21st century calls us to do,” she says. “Underneath that is a need for trust and a need for deeper connection than what a transactional-type donation might elicit.”

Forged in a boom-and-bust province, SEF has distributed $260 million and appeared in numerous case studies and reports for its innovative funding strategies and ability to pivot in times of crisis. In 2022, Imagine Canada featured SEF as one of 25 funders engaging in non-restrictive funding practices – “part of a larger rethinking of the power structures that underpin traditional philanthropy.” Consistently one of Canada’s top gift-giving foundations, SEF has been acknowledged by organizations including Actua, the Banff Centre, Evergreen, and QUEST Canada.

It wasn’t always this way. When former director Cathy Glover, who retired in 2017, entered the picture 22 years ago, SEF was employing a “buckets of funding” strategy. It was “very reactive,” she says, “slicing and dicing” numerous funding requests into three buckets: community, environment, education. This all changed when a 10-year strategic review revealed they’d invested $49 million “but we hadn’t moved the needle on any social issue.” Inspired in part by a book called Getting to Maybe, SEF changed course: “We flipped what we were doing. We became proactive. We learned about sustainable communities.”

SEF put that learning into action with a test case: the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the epicentre of Canada’s oil and gas industry, encompassing more than 63,000 square kilometres, 10 rural communities, and Fort McMurray – “often pigeonholed as the epitome of unsustainable exploitation and community development.” Fort Mac was also making headlines as a centre of drug abuse, gambling, and violence against women. From 2010 to 2015, SEF and its partners applied their newfound social-innovation strategies to this mix, including the creation of a non-hierarchical backbone team, to launch Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, the catalyst for today’s FuseSocial.

A major piece of learning surrounded the shift from funding programs to becoming a convener of multiple stakeholders (a role analyzed as a social innovation strategy in a 2017 Munk School study). “We realized we didn’t have to fund a program, that we could fund and support the process of that, and help support the bringing together of different players,” Glover says. Inspired by Tim Brodhead, former CEO of the McConnell Foundation, SEF shifted to “loving the problem,” Glover says. “He said as funders, we need to learn to love the problem, to try to really get ourselves focused on the root cause of things, not just how to make them better.”

When people would say, ‘How can you work for that company?’ I would say, ‘Well, you can create change from outside an organization or you can . . . try to create change inside an organization.’

Cathy Glover, Suncor Energy Foundation (retired)

At first, people didn’t get what they were doing, Glover says. They were suspicious, especially when they began to engage in dialogue surrounding the energy transition. “It was hard for me sometimes,” she says, “because you’re kind of invited, but not really. Because you might be the enemy.” But there’s always an opportunity to find the “little spaces,” she says, to change perspectives. “When people would say, ‘How can you work for that company?’ I would say, ‘Well, you can create change from outside an organization or you can go into an organization and try to create change inside an organization.’”

In Philanthropic Foundations in Canada: Landscapes, Indigenous Perspectives and Pathways to Change, Glover and Kelli Stevens examine how being a corporate foundation at arm’s length from the company “allows for clear governance of granting decisions.” They describe the “iterative” process of co-creating a social sustainability goal with Indigenous communities: “we told stories; we cried; we came up with words for a goal; and then we re-worked the goal . . . over and over.” They stress the important “translator” role of a corporate foundation’s staff – “by bringing the outside in, and the inside out.”


In a Zoom call in late September, following a summer of wildfires, a company-wide cyberattack, a summoning of Suncor’s CEO to testify before Parliament, and a round of layoffs, Stevens sits in front of a painting of the rolling foothills of southern Alberta. Before we get down to business, she suggests a check-in. “We work with folks,” she says. “It’s baked into our DNA to want to know more about you.” She listens to my ramblings, mostly about cats. The way Stevens listens gives me a taste of how SEF operates, a focus on the “relational” rather than “transactional,” as she describes it. You begin to think – maybe they have an agenda, or maybe they actually want to be your friend.

In era of “global polycrisis,” the authors of The Philanthropy Transformation Initiative Report say it’s time to err on the side of the latter. They call for a return to the original meaning of philanthropy – a love of humanity – and a belief that “at heart we are driven to co-operate and help one another.” This is the starting point, they say, “for creating strategic yet human-centred approaches that help overcome the many interconnected concerns we all face.”

For some groups, this might be a big ask. After centuries of exploitation and broken promises, Indigenous communities in Canada have reason to feel jaded. In 2017, Indigenous Climate Action rejected a $150,000 award from the Aviva Community Fund, citing a contradiction between Aviva’s financial relationship with oil and gas projects and the organization’s values. Other communities, such as those in support of the Ownership Is Reconciliation campaign, express a different point of view.

As part of Suncor’s “Journey of Reconciliation,” an Indigenous Youth Advisory Council (IYAC) works with SEF “to listen, share, reflect and act on issues of mutual interest that are affecting Indigenous communities and the lives of Indigenous youth.” Bailey Watson, a member of IYAC for five years, says that she feels “comfortable, seen, valued,” that her ideas matter. Her initial “high degree of skepticism” about SEF’s motives, where she feared yet another round of “Indigenous youth-washing,” has shrunk. She uses the word “aunties,” an Indigenous term of endearment, she notes, to refer to the SEF team. What she’d expected to be an “adversarial” experience, holding Suncor execs to the fire for “the exploitation of Indigenous lands and peoples and waters,” has turned out to be “more relational.”

SEF’s 2022 Gathering felt as if it was put on by an Indigenous organization.

Bailey Watson, Indigenous Youth Advisory Council

SEF’s annual “Gathering” – a decade-old convening of non-profits, thought leaders, Suncor employees, and Indigenous youth from across Canada – provides attendees a two-day opportunity to experience this for themselves. In 2014, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi described the event as a chance “to breathe the same air as one another and to talk about really tough things.” Watson says that the 2022 Gathering “felt as if it was put on by an Indigenous organization.”

Respect for Indigenous culture has made a huge difference in Watson’s experience with IYAC. From beginning meetings with a prayer by an Elder, to inviting her to lead a guided meditation related to the medicine wheel, to a smudge room built for Indigenous employees, it’s “woven into a lot of what they do and how they operate.”

We’re at this point where we have to adapt collectively and rapidly in order to pivot as a species. And one of the most important ways we’re going to do that is through learning.

Julian Norris, Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning

For people like Julian Norris – one of the founding directors of the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning, “a community of systems educators, practitioners, guides, activists and artists” – the proof is in the pudding. This is about cultivating ecosystems of learning, cultivating emergence, he says. Evidence of SEF’s commitment to this “is in every one of our programs” (including Here Be Dragons or The Imaginarium – “part art studio, part petri dish; this is a practice space for building our complexity muscles,” the course outline reads). At Wolf Willow, “without being able to be certain about anything, we deeply believe in what we’re doing,” Norris says, and the SEF team gets it – and convinces the SEF board to provide funding. Besides, whatever a company’s corporate objectives, “you don’t get to control what people do with their learning,” Norris stresses. Pay for 10 scholarships at Oxford, he says, and you may get a Nobel Prize–winning physicist or the next president of Syria.

“We’re at this point where we have to adapt collectively and rapidly in order to pivot as a species,” Norris says. “And one of the most important ways we’re going to do that is through learning. And that requires leaders who understand their leadership to be a form of inquiry and are skillful at helping others learn.”

Humility is an essential part of this learning process. Wolf Willow co-founder Cheryl Rose, a leadership educator and systems coach for 20 years, says it’s a hallmark of complex leadership. She’s witnessed SEF team members walk into rooms where they knew they had enemies, where it would be really easy to say, “You are the problem.” Instead, they are comfortable enough to say, “I don’t know. Help us figure this out.” And that’s not an easy thing to do, Rose says, “to be able to stand on those ledges all trembly, to be willing to be attacked, to be willing to not know, and be willing to make mistakes.”

I have a tremendous amount of trust in that small team at SEF, that they actually are an internal organism that is doing all that they can.

Cheryl Rose, Wolf Willow

Rose references the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace to describe how the SEF team works, acting as a bridge between those on the ground and those at board level. And though Rose’s trust may waver when she reads something negative about Suncor, or her grandchildren can’t go outside because of wildfire smoke, “I have a tremendous amount of trust in that small team at SEF, that they actually are an internal organism that is doing all that they can – to support things outside of the organization, but also to help influence within the organization to move it in positive ways as quickly as possible.”

Time is of the essence when it comes to the climate crisis. At the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), an Alberta-based coalition “working to accelerate the transition to the energy system the future requires of us,” managing director Alison Cretney feels this every day. “From a climate perspective, it’s really obvious what we need to do. We need to drive down emissions very, very quickly,” she says. In 2014, as conversations surrounding energy grew increasingly polarized, SEF helped spearhead the creation of EFL to explore what Cretney describes as a “sense of stuckness” around the future of energy.

While lots of technical solutions are needed, “what we do is look very holistically at all the non-technical pieces, so those things that enable or address the barriers that get in the way of that technical development or deployment,” Cretney says. These might include policy pieces (or the unstacking of the “policy pancake”) or cultural shifts. In the early days, “what we were dealing with was this deep sense of identity,” she says. “We’re an oil- and gas-producing province. And that’s what we do. And that’s what we know.”

It’s rare in the funding world to invest in organizations and actually be encouraging adaptability and flexibility, which we know is essential in complex systems-change work.

Alison Cretney, Energy Futures Lab

EFL’s goal is “breaking people out of their echo chambers,” Cretney says. While she’s noticed a big shift in the past 10 years, “creating a much bigger space, what we call the radical or messy middle, people working on solutions across that bridge from where we are today to where we need to get to,” there are many obstacles – increasing polarization, online “messiness,” vilifying people. Misconceptions about Alberta and the oil and gas industry don’t help: “From outside this space, it’s really easy to have simple answers.”

Having a funder that understands what it means to do social-innovation work has been “a huge enabler,” Cretney says. “It’s rare in the funding world to invest in organizations and actually be encouraging adaptability and flexibility, which we know is essential in complex systems-change work.” It’s more important than ever “to come together as citizens, as our whole selves, while also bringing our expertise, our jobs, and everything into that room,” she says. “We’re not going to solve the challenges that we all face collectively on the planet without learning how to work together.”


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