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UK charity accelerates philanthropy for climate change mitigation

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Feb 2024

By offering a portfolio of the best climate charities to support, the Global Returns Project is helping individuals and businesses make a measurable difference through their charitable giving.

July 2023 had the highest global temperatures on record, providing the world with a glimpse of life 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Climate change mitigation has been a matter of urgency for decades, but last year’s COP28 conference underlined the importance of immediate action over lofty ambition.

One organisation trying to turbocharge change is the Global Returns Project (GRP), which aims to make it easier to mitigate climate change through philanthropy. Launched in October 2020, the charity is working “at the most basic level to make it as easy as possible for individuals or businesses to support the best climate charities in the world”.

Less than 2% of philanthropy goes to climate mitigation, according to research by ClimateWorks Foundation. Although governments worldwide have set ambitious targets to achieve net zero, progress has been slow. Technologies such as carbon capture are potentially impressive, but remain unproven and greenwashing is blurring genuine corporate change for consumers who want to change their behaviour.

“We’re in a decisive decade for the climate crisis. The reality is quite a few climate solutions that we need are very difficult to financialise. They don’t always deliver a financial return. And so it’s just tough for even a great sustainable market mechanism to get to them. That, for us, leads us to philanthropy,” says Jack Chellman, Chief Project Officer at GRP.

The project was established by Yan Swiderski, a former fund manager, and Jasper Judd, a non-executive director. It is designed around the fund manager model, where managers are actively involved in handling investments – in this case philanthropy – to perform.

“For us, that means trying to apply a new degree of rigour to this sector that too often is guided by emotion or by instinct. Too often that’s the end of the story with charitable giving – you put all your charitable interests in one organisation and forget about it,” Chellman says.

Governing philanthropy

GRP is taking a more targeted approach by selecting a diverse range of what it judges to be the best climate charities in the world and monitoring their success rates in delivering climate mitigation projects. If a charity is not performing well, it is at risk of being dropped from the list. Critically, the project doesn’t take a cut, distributing 100% of donations to the selected charities.

A team of experts, aided by the project’s trustees, oversee selection and assessment of the group of charities, applying the charity’s own methodology designed in conjunction with climate scientists and overseen by a governance process. Only the highest-scoring organisations in a particular sector are admitted to the portfolio. 

Charities currently include ocean conservation organisation Blue Marine Foundation, which is the newest addition. It has helped to protect more than 4m sq km of the ocean already. ClientEarth, made up of a team of environmental lawyers, is another. It has 168 active cases around the world and a 74% litigation success rate.

Every six months, GRP rescores all the charities and produces detailed impact reports. If a charity starts to underperform based on its metrics, the trustees will consider removing it and replacing it with a higher performing one.

“These organisations act fast at scale around the world and they’re operating across all kinds of sectors, such as ocean conservation, rainforest protection, reforestation, environmental law, advocacy – all these critical areas,” Chellman says.

Fundraising for climate mitigation

So far, GRP has raised more than £650,000 for charities. In March, its goal is to raise another £150,000 for six high-performing charities as part of its Ready for Earth Day campaign, with the ultimate goal of raising millions annually for them.

Unless otherwise specified by donors, GRP will split the donations equally among the six charities, but are also happy to facilitate more bespoke selections.

Today, GRP has around 30 financial institutions and corporate donors on its books that donate as part of their sustainability work or offer GRP’s portfolio of charities to clients. Some corporate donors donate as part of their corporate social responsibility budget, while others donate to GRP instead of buying carbon offsets.

“There are quite a few things that even a great offset would have trouble doing because offsets only see the things that are countable. There are lots of uncountable issues that we’ve got to tackle for climate change, such as advocacy and systems-change. Great offsets can sometimes be hard to find,” Chellman says.

Financial institutions and corporate donors are able to build philanthropy for climate change into their sustainability strategies, offering obvious marketing benefits as well as moral ones. Some fund managers working with GRP are also giving a portion of their management fee from their investment products.

Institutions with private clients are also making climate philanthropy a normal part of their offering to retail clients, often in conjunction with sustainable investing or their environmental, social and governance commitments. 

Chellman says: “We’re in a time where corporate social responsibility – and sustainability in particular – is such a busy space, and stakeholders are demanding more and more from corporates. And yet the options that are on the table are numerous and unfortunately often challenging in terms of what they will actually deliver for climate change mitigation.”

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