Putting people first: Our climate communications grantmaking strategy

As part of an effort to center our climate communications funding around people, we're partnering with organizations like the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund who are closely connected to a diverse range of communities and populations, and whose experience and knowledge can help us direct our support.

The compounding and connected crises of the last few months — the COVID pandemic and its inequitable toll on Black and Latinx communities, the unprecedented politicization of public health, economic crises hitting Main Street harder than Wall Street, the rallying cries to address deep-seated racism in public institutions meant to protect and serve all Americans equally — have revealed important truths about what is needed for social change.

These crises have opened many eyes to the interconnectedness and systemic nature of the problems we are facing today. They reveal just how much public information, communications, and participation matter in a crisis. They reveal hard lessons about the distortion, propaganda, and politicization faced by the scientists, experts, and advocates attempting to share information and find solutions. They reveal the importance of first-person accounts, video evidence, social media, and human-centered storytelling. Perhaps most importantly, they reveal the importance of movements driven by real people and communities, and that those movements require long-term investment.

Solving climate change will also require a much deeper integration of movement building and narrative development, as well as much deeper and more diverse public engagement than ever before. Among other tasks, this means that we must invest more deeply in efforts to engage and reach more diverse populations, both in the U.S. and around the globe.

Recognizing these urgent needs, last year, we dedicated an additional $20 million to support public engagement efforts through 2022, specifically to complement and make more robust the communications and public engagement grantmaking already underway.

This decision followed a robust analysis in 2018-2019 to determine the best use of our funds in this area. To inform our thinking, we commissioned a field assessment focusing on climate communications, looking specifically at the climate advocacy field’s shared assets and infrastructure for public engagement and communications, mostly focused in the U.S. The assessment involved more than 60 stakeholder interviews of leaders and experts inside and outside of the climate field — from grassroots and justice leaders to advocacy coalition and network leaders to technologists and communications leaders, a literature review of more than 100 academic and field strategy papers and evaluations, four outside case studies, and four working groups of climate communications practitioners and funders to identify rising opportunities.

In keeping with the aim of our overarching climate strategy, we looked at strategies to support bold, transformative change as opposed to incremental change. While majorities of people around the world support aggressive climate policies, our policies still do not reflect that support.  So, we must further rally the public so that the need for strong, widespread, and durable climate action is no longer contested — and so that policymakers feel compelled to act in accordance with public demands.

Last year, we drafted our grantmaking strategy and began to implement it with grants to groups such as the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Center for Cultural Power, the Climate Advocacy Lab, the Potential Energy Coalition, and more. And in the year since, we have further refined and updated the strategy based on much additional input from partners around the world.

This resulting strategy, which will guide additional Hewlett grantmaking from this special fund through 2022, revolves around a set of objectives that emerged from this work:

Center our communications funding approach around people, and support communities and constituencies: This means starting with people, understanding what matters most to a diverse range of communities, and partnering with and investing in these communities and constituencies to build their own capacity for communications and public engagement. For too long, climate communications have narrowly centered around policies, science and statistics, laws and regulations, carbon emissions targets, and climate outcomes rather than people. This explains, at least in part, the climate field’s difficulty in engaging populations outside of the environmental “base” — and its past challenges in bringing in diverse communities across the political spectrum. Focusing on investing in building communications capacity in constituencies and communities is thus a key strategic imperative for our communications grantmaking.

Philanthropic partnership will be key here. We will work to partner with organizations, including both in the grantee field and among foundations such as the Climate and Clean Equity Fund, who are closely connected to a diverse range of communities and populations, and whose experience and knowledge can help us direct our support.

The Center for Cultural Power is a women-of-color, artist-led organization, inspiring artists and culture makers using art, TV, and film to help the public expand its imagination around climate solutions. Read their report about how funders can support culture change here: https://bit.ly/FundCultureChange

Build the field’s capacity to engage populations digitally: Increasingly, people and communities are building virtual, digital connections. And the COVID-19 pandemic has driven further dramatic change — in a world of enforced physical distance, where we are finding ever more innovative and effective ways for digital, virtual community building and human connection. But even before COVID, our assessment found that the climate communications field has long centered its outreach around print news coverage as the prominent channel of communication. The field needs to increase investments in digital media channels of communication and public engagement immediately.

To meet this urgent need, Hewlett is focused on helping a range of groups increase their digital capacity and sophistication — from local, frontlines groups to national and international organizations. In addition to supporting advocates who are building online communities and engaging new audiences and constituencies on climate change, we are also hoping to provide support to enable groups to learn from audiences and to build the capacity, skills, and tools to do this, through data analysis, content creation and more. Technology, for all its challenges, can now help us better understand constituencies and better connect with them, and climate funders and practitioners alike must increase investments in making the best use of digital communications technology.

Support the field’s capacity to respond to disinformation and organized opponents of climate progress: There are industries and actors who benefit greatly from lack of public understanding on climate change, and they have been engaging in well-funded efforts to prevent public understanding and sow disinformation. Digital technology has been used by opponents of climate change policy as a force for disinformation, deception, distrust, division, and denial — and it continues to promote discord and push false information. A confused or deceived public does not help climate progress. We must get a better handle on how climate opponents are spreading disinformation, and we must support the climate field’s capacity to respond, correct, and inoculate against these harms. We will look to learn from our colleagues in other arenas (including in Hewlett’s own U.S. Democracy Program), who have been funding research on digital disinformation. With their help, and with the research they are funding, we will look to explore ways to build the climate field’s capacity. These are early days of the disinformation challenge — and it is also evolving quickly; there is still a lot for us to learn about ways that our funding can make a difference.

Focus on supporting connective tissue and infrastructure for coordination on these issues across the field: In supporting any of the above efforts, supporting the field’s capacity to connect and coordinate is crucial — and will make all our philanthropic dollars go further. An investment in one campaign without connecting it to other related campaigns will be significantly less effective, just as an investment in one organization, without helping it share its work and build partnerships among peers in the field or relevant actors outside the field, will mean an enormous loss in the potential for change. And while the climate communications field is diverse and large, very little connective tissue is directly supported by climate funders. Inasmuch as the climate advocacy field will likely always be outspent by those who want to stop climate policy, it’s even more important to ensure that resources and knowledge in the field are being shared and connected and leveraged for maximum impact. The current pandemic illustrates why we need to support infrastructure and connective tissue in the field: We are currently bearing witness to the consequences of the lack of coordination among and between those responsible for public education, public health, unemployment relief, and business development, not to mention those addressing social ills of homelessness and food security. Supporting the networked infrastructure for coordination is crucial. And that coordination must be part not only of the community directly working in the field on solutions, but also be further developed among the community of grantmakers, who can facilitate the interconnectedness in the campaigns and organizations only if they themselves are better linked up.

Expand resources for communications: Our assessment found that a very small portion of overall climate funding is going toward public communications and engagement efforts. Climate funders must increase investments in people-centered communications and public engagement activities. Our assessment also found that climate funders are too often making short-term, project-, or specific policy-focused grants for communications efforts, which have left a huge gap in funding for work fostering broad, highly motivating, people-focused narratives about climate change. For our part, Hewlett has committed to investing time and resources in funder coordination in this area, and we will continue to promote and support philanthropic collaboration and learning in order to stretch resources and address gaps.


As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, crises change the nature of the work and change the needs and methods for public education. Our goal in this funding strategy is to support capacity-building in the climate change advocacy field to adapt to new and changing situations (including climate disasters), as well as new methods and tools for doing and learning at all levels.

Last winter, just before the new year, Greta Thunberg, a wise 16-year-old, captured the challenge before the climate community perfectly:

“In just three weeks we will enter a new decade. A decade that will define our future. Right now, we are desperate for hope. Well, I’m telling you there is hope. I have seen it, but it does not come from the governments or corporations. It comes from the people — the people who have been unaware but are now starting to wake up. And once we become aware, we change. People can change. People are ready for change….. It is public opinion that runs the free world. In fact, every great change throughout history has come from the people.”

For us, the most meaningful and impactful part of this strategic process has been listening to the people who are out front in the field and on the ground doing this work. We are committed to continuing to listen to and learn from leaders and practitioners in the climate communications field, and we hope to play a role in enabling better feedback loops between funders and practitioners in climate communications. The feedback loops are especially essential now, as we are all adapting our work to the COVID-19 crisis. We welcome feedback, ideas, and discussion now and going forward.

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