How Climate Leadership Initiative is accelerating climate philanthropy

The Hewlett Foundation has, for well over a decade, supported organizations around the globe that advance ambitious solutions to the climate crisis. The individuals within these institutions are smart, dedicated, effective, and committed to ensuring more voices are part of advocating for policies and practices that lead to a sustainable, healthy, and prosperous future for all. This feature article is part of a series highlighting grantees that are moving the needle on one of the most pressing issues of our lifetime.

Jennifer Kitt, President of the Climate Leadership Initiative

In October 2018, Jennifer Kitt, then chief development officer for Stanford University’s Medical Center, received a call from a recruiter. A new organization was forming with the purpose of growing the community of climate philanthropists and needed someone to lead it. That morning, the New York Times had published a clear-eyed call to climate action in its opinion section: “Stopping Climate Change is Hopeless. Let’s Do It.” The piece had brought Jen to tears; she took the recruiter’s call.

Funding for climate comprised less than 2% of global philanthropy, the recruiter told her. “It was just really stark,” Kitt said. “I realized the amount of money that Stanford was raising annually was close to the entire scope of what climate philanthropy had been able to do. Up until that point, I wasn’t convinced that climate needed someone with my skills.” Two weeks later, Kitt was being interviewed by Hewlett’s president, Larry Kramer, about taking the role of president at Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI).

Just as Kitt hadn’t initially realized that her skills were needed in the climate space, charitable donors, including wealthy families, who are new to climate philanthropy don’t always realize at the outset the meaningful role they can play. And that’s exactly where CLI comes in with its mission to scale global philanthropy to accelerate climate solutions.

“Climate is a big overwhelming problem, and they don’t know where to start,” Kitt said about the donors CLI works with. “We help them understand what philanthropy can do — help them see with clarity the things they can fund.”

Hewlett’s president, Larry Kramer, said seeding the work of CLI has been critical for catalyzing more funding for the field. “Climate advocates and experts have compelling solutions — but they need more support. And the need is well beyond what established foundations like Hewlett can support by ourselves. We realized we had to find ways to expand funding overall, to benefit not just our existing grantees but countless other organizations that we can’t fund that are doing incredible work.”


increase in global climate philanthropy year over year — far outpacing overall philanthropic giving.

Over $3.4 billion

raised in the past three and a half years through the Climate Leadership Initiative to address climate change.

Along with five other funders, Hewlett has provided core funding to CLI, enabling its team to focus all of their efforts on bringing new donors into the climate philanthropy space. In the three and a half years since it began operations under Kitt’s leadership, CLI has helped 77 givers move $3.4 billion into addressing climate change, an average of nearly $1 billion per year.

That figure dovetails neatly with the overall increase in climate philanthropy — which grew an estimated $1.5 to $2.5 billion between 2020 and 2021, according to an October 2022 report from another Hewlett grantee, ClimateWorks Foundation. And while climate philanthropy still represents a small portion of global philanthropy, funding in the climate space has been increasing more than 20% year over year, significantly outpacing the growth in overall philanthropic giving.

To be clear, that is still not enough given the tremendous challenge the climate crisis presents, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Kitt chalks the growth of climate philanthropy up to several factors. The first is that the impacts of climate change feel increasingly immediate. “You can’t ignore it when it’s at your doorstep. Most donors are realizing it’s happening and it’s happening to something they care about,” she said, noting that ​​those who want to address global poverty are realizing that the problem is only made worse by pressures on the climate. “Anywhere you live, you are experiencing some version of nature’s struggles with climate change. You can’t miss it any longer.”

Second, she says, high-net-worth individuals are encountering changes to the economy prompted by the response to climate change. “In part because of philanthropy, businesses are being held accountable by investors and employees to address climate change,” she said.

A compounding effect is also at play: The growth in climate philanthropy has prompted larger-scale thinking, which translates to new philanthropists feeling more comfortable with solutions that require bigger investments. “The ability to see solutions becomes easier for donors,” Kitt said, adding that in years past “the climate community would dream in $5 million or $10 million increments. But when you ask, ‘what does it take to win?’ the community starts to scale up and think in terms of transformational change.

Hewlett’s grant to CLI — like most of our giving — comes in the form of flexible funding. According to Kitt, that style of giving frees her team to “be trusted advisors to those who are new to climate philanthropy — and to be thinking about ‘who are the donors who don’t know about this yet?’”

The CLI team takes that trusted advisor role seriously as it helps welcome families into the climate philanthropy space. “We’re meeting them where they are to help them learn how philanthropy is a tool and how it works with other tools for change — including strategic litigation, communications, finance, and technical assistance to government,” Kitt shared. “We’re helping them set the criteria, make a first set of goals, and source a portfolio [of grantees].”

Hewlett’s giving to CLI also includes “beyond-the-grant-dollars” support because established funders are essential for bringing in more necessary funding into climate philanthropy, Kitt said. Sharing expertise and grantmaking strategies and being willing to venture into new territory, for example, “gives confidence to the newcomers.”

Established funders can also help by working in collaboration with new donors on large-scale strategies; by helping grantees to translate their fundraising materials — often crafted for experienced and technically knowledgeable donors — for those who are new to the field; and by devoting time and energy to sharing knowledge and steward ongoing partnerships with new givers.

The climate crisis remains daunting, but the energy from new philanthropists has moved Kitt well past the despair sparked by that 2018 New York Times story. “I’m most excited anytime I see momentum,” she said. “Momentum is when the doers get resources — and get to soar.”

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