Inside Philanthropy: MacKenzie Scott’s Green Giving Expands, Sending Millions to the Front Lines of Climate Change

Originally published in Inside Philanthropy on March 29, 2022

By Michael Kavate

When MacKenzie Scott revealed in the summer of 2020 that she had given away $1.7 billion over the past year-plus and billions more were on the way, it seemed one major beneficiary would be the climate movement. That initial round included $125 million in climate-related grants—more than 7% of the total.

Yet for 18 months and three subsequent Scott announcements, the climate sphere held its breath as scarcely a dollar went to a group focused on the environment, let alone the climate movement. Moreover, uncharacteristically for the novelist turned groundbreaking philanthropist, nearly all of those awards went to a cohort of groups already favored or established by major foundations, not the grassroots and largely BIPOC-led groups she otherwise prioritized.

Her latest Medium post changed all that.

More than two dozen groups that are focused on the environment, energy or climate, or count such issues among their core priorities, are among the 465 grantees awarded nearly $3.9 billion in the round of awards Scott announced last week.

The chosen organizations stretch from Massachusetts to Micronesia, but the bulk of recipients are regranters who support grassroots, front-line climate and environmental action, and most are distinguished by their varyingly participatory approaches to grantmaking decisions.

It marks a historic infusion of funding for segments of the climate movement that, for years, struggled to attract attention, let alone funding from mainstream foundations and mega-donors. Such groups continue to receive only a tiny fraction of climate philanthropy. Representatives we spoke with called the funding “a game changer” and “unprecedented,” with several calling their award from Scott the largest grant in their organization’s history, at least one by an “order of magnitude.”

Based on the grant amounts disclosed thus far, it represents an infusion of $150 million and counting to efforts supporting people from around the world facing dire threats to their lives and livelihoods from accelerating climate chaos. Scott’s latest round of giving also stands out in contrast to most international climate funding. The last two years have seen a wave of new climate mega-donors, but until now, much of their global funding has gone to some of the world’s biggest green groups, or newer, well-funded outfits such as Bill Gates’ climate group.

“Very little of this climate-related funding actually goes to those most impacted by climate change,” such as young women and Indigenous people, said zohra moosa, executive director of Mama Cash, an Amsterdam-based international fund that was awarded $20 million. It granted a total of $5 million last year. “Scott’s gifts put game-changing, system-changing resources into the hands of these folks.”

The groups chosen suggest Scott was focused on four overlapping climate and environmental priorities: Indigenous rights and land tenure, women-centered action, homegrown funds that support the countries or regions where they are based, and funds based in the U.S. or elsewhere in the Global North that support grassroots groups abroad.

Many recipients’ work cuts across several of these rough categories, and several recipients are already part of each other’s networks, such as the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), which had at least seven members or partners on Scott’s grant list.

There are also at least some recipients that have been more commonly favored by big-dollar donors, such as ClimateWorks Foundation’s Drive Electric Campaign, which received $35 million over five years. Others straddle both worlds, such as the Tenure Facility, which is partnering with ClimateWorks on a grant the latter received from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Scott’s ex-husband.

“A total game changer”

Many recipients emphasized that the potential for impact wasn’t simply the unprecedented amounts, but the unrestricted nature of the funds, an oft-celebrated hallmark of Scott’s philanthropy.

For Dr. Solange Bandiaky-Badji, president and coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, which helps Indigenous communities secure land rights, Scott’s approach is a potent signal to other philanthropists, mega or otherwise. It comes as philanthropy is showing new interest in such work, symbolized most notably by a recent $1.7 billion pledge for Indigenous protection of tropical forests.

“It’s a call to action to donors,” she said. “If we really want to support the agenda of the right holders, what they want to do, the unrestricted part is really fundamental.” She said just 10% of her organization’s budget typically has been unrestricted, and other groups provided similar figures. The group received $15 million from Scott.

RRI and the Tenure Facility, which RRI launched, are two of several recipients focused on land tenure or Indigenous rights. Others include Landesa ($20 million), Kawerak and Nia Tero, a partner in the $5 billion Protecting Our Planet Challenge. Another grantee, Blue Ventures, is focused on marine tenure.

Willy Foote, founder and CEO of grantee Root Capital, described the unrestricted grants as a “total game changer” for the field, particularly due to the lack of limits. “You can’t really drive [change] in an entrepreneurial, really ambitious way, if you don’t have that unrestricted support.”

For Root Capital, the new dollars will not lead it to embark on anything beyond what they have already planned, a sentiment other grantees echoed. But it will “turbocharge” its ability to get started, Foote said. For instance, the group plans to soon set up a long-envisioned climate finance lab, which will support farmers switching to regenerative agriculture or add solar power.

Foote is optimistic the standard Scott has set will reach beyond her immediate grantees.

“We know there’s an inherent and sometimes massive power discrepancy or disparity between a donor and a grantee. That’s changed, certainly, in recent years, recent decades,” he said. “But the level at which MacKenzie Scott is doing this will have a real ripple effect across the philanthropic world.”

“The power of yielding control”

Several recipients were struck by the language Scott used in her announcement and how both her words and the areas of inquiry from her team (several said they worked with BridgeSpan) resonated with their own philosophies of ceding control and centering those most affected.

“She emphasizes the power of yielding control,” said moosa. “That’s really important for us that a donor like MacKenzie Scott is actually espousing a philosophy that is so values-aligned with the work as we’re trying to pursue it.” Her organization, Mama Cash, is one of a handful of recipients that apply a women-centered lens to environmental and other work.

Others include Prospera (which received $10 million), MADRE ($15 million), Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres, and Fondo de Mujeres del Sur. All are involved in GAGGA, which recently published a report on women’s funds and the climate crisis. Another grantee, FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund ($10 million) has drawn attention for combining its praise of Scott with criticism of the “exploitative” practices of Amazon, which is the source of Scott’s more than $50 billion fortune.

There are also U.S.-based recipients, such as Grassroots International or Maliasili, which supports community-based conservation in Africa. There’s even one located in Canada, MakeWay, which received $15 million. Another U.S. grantee is the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, located in Washington, D.C., which was awarded $7 million. Many other Scott recipients from this round are among CJRF’s grantees or within its broader network, according to an email from its director, Heather McGray, who helped me identify several recipients.

“Such a statement of trust”

Maria Amália Souza co-founded the Fundo Casa Socioambiental, which is based in Brazil, nearly two decades ago. After attending college in California, she had long been “trying to figure out what is the way to break [down] the walls of big philanthropy for conservation” in her home country and for communities on the front lines.

“How can you actually get resources to the hands of the people who are really protecting rainforest, the ones who live there, who know everything about it,” she said.

Her group has gradually won support from places like the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Global Greengrants Fund for the group’s border-transcending, biome-driven horizontal model of resourcing on-the-ground movements. At least 50% of their awards go to first-time grantees, she said, many in “very remote” locations.

Yet it’s been hard to get traction. “Explaining this to anyone has always been very difficult,” she told me. Casa’s award from Scott might change that—not just with international funders, but with Brazilian donors who have largely ignored them.

“It’s such a statement of trust,” she said, noting that just 10% of their funding has typically been unrestricted. “That’s exactly the kind of thing that we need, coming from somebody like her. The thoroughness of the process puts us in a whole other place.”

Casa is one of at least a half-dozen funds based abroad that are receiving big checks from Scott. It’s a diverse group, but most largely fund local grassroots work. Two others are in Latin America: Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental and Projeto Saúde e Alegria. Others have offices in Indonesia (Samdhana Institute) and India (SELCO Foundation). Another is the Micronesia Conservation Trust.

The types of grantees that will benefit

The small-scale fishers that Blue Ventures works with to secure water access rights are on the front lines of climate change. They are witnesses to — and victims of — our warming oceans, falling fish stocks and collapsing coral reefs. Tropical storms have made their livelihoods more dangerous and precarious than ever.

Mostly living in the Global South, fishers are often extremely impoverished and heavily indebted, living nomadic lives and highly at risk from climate catastrophe, said Alasdair Harris, the group’s founder and executive director. Many struggle to access credit—just as the groups that support them struggle to get grant funding. “They’re seen as unfundable, they’re seen as unauditable, they would fail due diligence for many of the donors that support us,” he told me.

Many of the populations that Scott’s climate grantees work with face similar challenges. They are marginalized and highly vulnerable communities that are nonetheless resilient and resourceful. Few have access to foundation funding. But a whole new level of support is on the way.

Blue Ventures has typically granted £2.5 million a year, predominantly restricted funding, which Harris called “incredibly onerous” and “deeply inefficient,” as many of their grantees neither have the financial controls nor the day-to-day predictability that makes such funding feasible. The group has now received a $20 million grant from Scott. Similar to some other recipients, the amount exceeds what the organization has given out in its history.

“It’s seismic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

“These movements remain vastly under-resourced”

At least one of the grantees I spoke with chose not to list the grant amount on their website out of fear that potential donors would go elsewhere. That’s an understandable concern — even this historic influx of cash will only put a dent in the tremendous need these groups aim to meet.

Mama Cash, for instance, funds just 1% of the new groups that apply for funds, according to an internal analysis of its incoming applications. “These are quality applications, and we just haven’t had the funding,” moosa told me.

“People see a number and they’re like, ‘Are you done?’ No, it’s not enough,” she said. The groups they support have the potential to change norms, laws and policies, but that potential is only beginning to get the necessary support. “The movements we serve remain vastly under-resourced.”

Grantees from MacKenzie Scott’s most recent round of awards that are either focused on climate and environmental issues, or list them as a top priority:

  • Rights and Resources Initiative ($15 million)
  • Tenure Facility
  • Landesa ($20 million)
  • Nia Tero
  • Kawerak ($8 million)
  • Blue Ventures ($20 million)
  • Mama Cash ($20 million)
  • Prospera ($10 million)
  • Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres
  • Fondo de Mujeres Del Sur
  • MADRE ($15 million)
  • FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund ($10 million)
  • Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights
  • Fund for Global Human Rights ($10 million)
  • Fundo Casa Socioambiental
  • Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental
  • Samdhana Institute
  • SELCO Foundation
  • Micronesia Conservation Trust
  • Projeto Saúde e Alegria
  • BrazilFoundation ($5 million)
  • Grassroots International
  • Maliasili
  • MakeWay ($15 million)
  • Climate Justice Resilience Fund ($7 million)
  • Root Capital
  • ClimateWorks Foundation’s Drive Electric Campaign ($35 million over 5 years)
  • Woodwell Climate Research Center

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