Combining climate philanthropy and sustainable investing

By: John Bernstein   |   Partner at Generation Investment Management, Board Member, The Nature Conservancy   |

Why should philanthropists get involved in both climate philanthropy and sustainable investing?

We’re at an unprecedented time where every action in the next 10 years counts. There is a time value of carbon, and a time value of sustainability. What we do now means more than what we do in 10 years.

To me, what I do in my work life and my philanthropy are not separate, they are simply two different ways to tackle the same issue. I think where people have agency, they should take action.

There are enormous opportunities now to invest sustainably. The same applies to philanthropy. There are opportunities to get big returns from philanthropic capital. It’s the best time to take action because we’re closer to a tipping point with both economies and societies. The pace of change is there to gather momentum, and there are more things we can do because we’re not pushing up against as many fixed obstacles. The science, knowledge, and financing are better than they’ve ever been. The tiers of capital are more sophisticated and offer more structures.

Often philanthropists hesitate to jump into climate action because they aren’t sure where to start. How did you get started in this field?

I’ve always been interested in nature; I did a project on pollution at school. That’s an underused word. We talk about 1.5 degrees too much, and not enough about pollution and waste dumping. It’s hard to know what to do about 1.5 degrees. But it’s easy to know what to do about pollution and dumping – stop doing it. In air, seas, and on land, there is so much pollution and destruction, so when you start addressing it, it can become infinitely scalable. You start with your street, your beach, your park, your country, and the land you love. Then you come together with others who also love the land, the ecosystems, and life, and it’s empowering. We have a system which over-rewards financial values and under-rewards the value of nature, so we’ve allowed everyone to trash the world without being held to account. When I started looking at philanthropy, I wanted to find something where my actions could be meaningful, so I focused on nature. The nature problem is just as big as the climate, but less understood. But there is a huge impact when you take a step back and work where nature, climate and people intersect.

Nature interventions often tackle all three. It’s not enough to stop eating meat or to use a bamboo toothbrush. Everyone should be thinking: How do I change with optimal leverage to create the maximum impact on underfunded strategies?

You’ve been a member of several climate collectives, funding with other philanthropists. Why is it necessary for people to work together?

When I created my first, I had never heard of the term “collective”. I just brought together a group of smart people to share insights and learning. A small group of people make better decisions than an individual. When choosing where to fund and focus, there are challenges and emotional stresses that are better to share with others. Ultimately, it’s networking, and everyone should network as much as they can. However much we think we know, there’s always more to learn.

What advice would you give to someone interested in collective philanthropy?

Find people with similar interests and work together. I encourage people to join me all the time. Don’t think of philanthropy as a gift from you. It’s a gift to you. There’s no bigger gift than discovering meaning and mission. It’s such a fulfilling way to learn, experience new things and forge great friendships.

To learn more read UBS SDG 13 guide: on thin ice - a guide for all who wish to address climate change!

Jun. 30, 2022

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