Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Best known for its “genius” grants, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gave away $214 million last year across a dizzying array of programs. International programs included human rights and international justice, peace and security, conservation and sustainable development, girls’ secondary education in developing countries, migration, and population and reproductive health. US programs address community and economic development; housing, with a focus on the preservation of affordable rental housing; juvenile justice reform; education, with a focus on digital media and learning; and policy research and analysis on issues such as the implications of an aging society, America’s fiscal future, and the use of economic analysis in policy making. Then there are media and culture initiatives supporting public interest journalism;  grants to more than 300 theaters, museums, and music organizations in Chicago; and efforts to strengthen American democracy.


Those days are over, says the foundation’s new president, Julia Stasch. In a recent declaration called Time for Change, Stasch said that instead of spreading itself thin (my words, not hers), MacArthur will make “big bets that strive toward transformative change in areas of profound concern.” The first bet, on criminal justice, will aim to “help reverse the practice of mass incarceration in the US.” The second will “support U.S. and global leadership to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Smart choices. This post will look at the first round of $50 million grants devoted to curbing climate change, in light of the principles that Stasch says will shape MacArthur’s new approach:

Be bolder and aim higher. Embrace independent, even unconventional, thinking. Act with greater urgency, even as we remain patient for the fruits of real, lasting change. Be more open, curious, and experimental, and take more risk. Set ambitious goals that are clear and practical, and seek significant, measurable progress.

So how do the climate commitments shape up?

Certainly they are bold and ambitious and reflect a sense of greater urgency: $50 million is a lot of money, even for MacArthur, which, with $6.5 billion in assets is among the top 10 foundations by asset size in the US. Its goal of helping to curb global climate disruption by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is ambitious.

But there’s nothing unconventional about this program, and nothing about this first round of grants that indicates that MacArthur is ready to be more open, curious and experimental, and take more risks. Just the opposite, in fact.

Look where the money is going:

  • $20 million to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy
  • $15 million to the Sierra Club
  • $3 million to ClimateWorks Foundation, a creation of several big foundations
  • $3 million to the Energy Foundation
  • $3 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council
  • $1.5 million to the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
  • $3 million to ecoAmerica
  • $340,000 to the Carbon Disclosure Project

Of those nine big NGOs, all except one–the Carbon Disclosure Project, with the smallest grant–are prior MacArthur grantees.

As the French police captain said in Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.” Whatever you think of these organizations, they’re essentially the same crew that tried to deliver federal climate legislation back in 2008-2009. They’re the same generals who fought and lost the last war.

That said, some of these grants seem smart to me, at least one is a puzzle, and there is a glaring omission or two from the list. Writing as a reporter who has covered climate issues for the last decade, here’s my take on the MacArthur program:

Bringing conservatives back to the climate movement

It wasn’t all that long ago that Republican Senators McCain, Warner, Snowe, Collins and Alexander supported climate action. So did GOP governors including Schwarzenegger and Romney. Now it’s hard to find prominent Republicans who take global warming seriously. That’s a problem. So the $20 million grant to Environmental Defense Fund and Nature Conservancy “to engage a cross-section of political and other constituencies” makes good sense. As Diane Regas, the executive director of EDF, noted when we talked the other day: “Every major environmental law that has provided cleaner air, cleaner water, safer drinking water in this country has been passed with bipartisan support.”

EDF and TNC have chosen four states — Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and West Virginia — where they will work with Republicans, business leaders and political moderates to promote clean energy, energy efficiency and smart-grid policies that will deliver climate benefits. The immediate goal? Emissions reductions. Over time, their efforts are intended to broaden the base of support for federal climate action.

EDF and TNC want to “shift the narrative from the negative to the positive,” says Lynn Scarlett, a former Bush administration official and president of the libertarian Reason Foundation, who is now director of public policy for The Nature Conservancy. (I wrote about her in the Guardian in 2013.)  EDF and TNC also support an informal group called the Conservation Leadership Council that is “encouraging conservative voices to join the conversation about the environment.”

Some polls indicate that most Republicans favor climate action. If those Republicans get organized, they can have an impact on party leadership and even the GOP presidential candidates, most of whom have no plans to do anything about climate change, unfortunately.

Rewards for a job well done

The NRDC and its tireless team of climate warriors, led by David Hawkins, David Doniger and Dan Lashof, essentially wrote the blueprint for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to decarbonize the electricity sector. The Sierra Club, led by hard-charging Mike Brune, has helped drive the retirement of 200 coal plants since 2010. (Cheap natural gas prices and state clean-energy rules helped, too of course.) So MacArthur’s $3 million for general operating support to NRDC and $15 million for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is likely to be money well spent, as they carry that work forward.

This one’s a puzzle: ecoAmerica got a $3 million grant, on top of the $3 million it got from MacArthur in 2011 and 2012. I had never heard of ecoAmerica until recently, and that’s not surprising, Bob Perkowitz, the group’s president and founder, told me. “We don’t market ourselves,” said Perkowitz, who is a former corporate marketer and entrepreneur and longtime environmental activist. Instead, ecoAmerica does deep research and through an effort called MomentUs provides “local leaders in health, business, higher education, communities, and faith with practical tools so they can address climate change and inspire others to action.”

That sounds good. The more trusted messengers (like doctors and clergy) who talk about climate, the better. But after doing a bit of digging, I’m skeptical. Momentus operates three programs; Climate for Health, Solution Generation in higher education, Blessed Tomorrow in the faith community, as well as groups organizing business and civic leaders. ecoAmerica made some headway with its oldest program, SEED, which supports community colleges.

But, as best as I can tell, the others have had little impact. They have held summits, done research, produced reports and recruited some impressive advisors and board members, but execution beyond that has been lacking. I follow business closely and was unaware of ecoAmerica’s efforts in that sphere. BSR, Ceres and We Mean Business are all more visible and powerful. People who have been involved in ecoAmerica’s health work and religious work are decidedly underwhelmed. Health Care Without Harm has accomplished far more.

One small measure of a group’s influence is its Twitter following. None of the Momentus groups has even 1,000 followers. has 249,000. Which brings me to…

The Missing

No organization has organized more climate activists in the past five years than, which, for better or worse — better in my view — has brought the divestment movement and the climate issue to hundreds of college campuses, churches, foundations and cities. With a small team of paid staff, has sparked a decentralized, global climate movement, brilliantly using social media to spread the word. It has activated many thousands of people. For what it’s worth, some foundations have seen fit to support; its biggest foundation funders are the Kendeda Fund, the Oak Foundation and the Grantham Foundation. Bill McKibben, a founder of, has also changed the conversation about climate by popularizing the concepts of a global carbon budget and “carbon bubble,” notably in his landmark 2012 Rolling Stone story, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.

The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, also have introduced new thinking to the climate and environmental movements, particularly in the Ecomodernist Manifesto they published earlier this year. Their support for nuclear power and genetically modified crops makes them controversial, but their politics–and especially their optimism–could make the environmental movement a lot more appealing to moderates.

A few concluding thoughts

As an environmentalist, I’m pleased by MacArthur’s new commitment. Jorgen Thomsen, who leads the foundation’s environmental work, told me it’s just as start, and they may well expand their grant-making to new organizations. So far, though, it’s hard to see how this makes MacArthur “open, curious and experimental.” 

The bigger and more important question is, how do MacArthur and other foundations measure the impact of environmental groups, a question that I explored in an Ensia story last spring headlined How good is that environmental nonprofit, anyway? Until the green groups set public, specific, time-based goals, it’s terribly hard for foundations and other donors to evaluate them.

Finally, I asked MacArthur whether it had any plans, in light of its new commitment to climate, to divest the fossil fuel holdings in its endowment. Here’s the reply:

Our broadly diversified portfolio does include an allocation to private energy funds that may invest in a variety of companies in the in the energy sector, including companies engaged in oil and gas exploration and extraction as well as others supporting renewables and other forms of low-carbon energy. Our current investment in coal is less than one percent.

Because all of our investments are made by professional managers that have broad investment discretion, divestment is not a simple matter and the Board investment policy does not permit divestment to assert policy preferences, censure, or to gain political leverage.

There you have it.

A couple of updates

When I wrote, above, about the need for green groups to set specific, time-based goals, I should have noted that Environmental Defense released a five-year strategic plan that includes goals and metrics to which it can be held accountable. Here’s a link.
I also heard by email from a climate expert who said that, if MacArthur truly wants to engage conservatives and Republicans, it should have funded some of them. Candidates include RepublicEN, a group for “liberty-loving climate realists” led by former Congressman Bob Inglis; the R Street think tank. which is researching the potential of a revenue-neutral carbon tax; and the Niskanen Center, whose free-market oriented approach to climate change is explained here.

3 thoughts on “Round up the usual suspects: The MacArthur Foundation’s “big bet” on climate

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