Becoming a Climate Catalyst for Other Funders
Terry Gamble Boyer
Tackling the root problems of climate change and nuclear proliferation.
HOW IT STARTED
Giving $50 to the United Negro College Fund as a child in the 1970s.
HOW IT’S GOING
Funding high-impact, earlier-stage opportunities in climate, environmental, and nuclear non-proliferation spaces. Helping convene peer funders to learn and share best practices, investment opportunities, and resources together, and inspiring others to consider climate as core to their strategy.
Background and Evolution
Shortly after my father started a community foundation in Southern California in the 1970s, he asked me to make my own donation. I gave $50 to the United Negro College Fund. It wasn’t much, but I cared about civil rights and my father taught me to start small and expand later. I’ve since reconsidered parts of that giving philosophy, but the ideas of consistency and purpose provided a strong foundation.
My husband and I have a small foundation and we look primarily at the climate’s impact. I’m also deeply committed to Ploughshares Fund, a public foundation, which works to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.
How has TPW influenced your philanthropy?
Even though I’m a relatively small donor, I’ve chosen two major existential threats to humanity. I’m either grandiose, or TPW pushed me to examine the fundamental issues facing humanity today—the sine qua non that has to be solved or everything else is exacerbated. For example, I think of a TPW friend who fights sex trafficking, an issue that will worsen as climate change displaces more people.
During more than a decade of working with TPW, I’ve developed a proactive, strategic way to think, and this set our family foundation on a more focused, gratifying course of philanthropic efforts. My family was not new to philanthropy, but changing our giving approach mandated a huge conversation. It was through TPW that I started to trust philanthropy’s potential more.
What does accountability in philanthropic work look like for you?
When you give c3 or foundation money, you’re acknowledging that the money has transferred hands, from “ours” to “for the public good.” There’s tremendous power in being able to direct those funds—whether it’s a million dollars or half a billion. And you have to be accountable. You have to ask, “Who is benefiting from our work?”
We are accountable to our grantees. That means we have to have honest conversations about adding value and work within a community. Our giving allows us to be part of that conversation, and we can also offer social and intellectual capital with our financial support.
I also feel accountable to other TPW funders and want to be a good resource to them. I’ve been in the climate space for 25 years, and am in a position to support other funders just getting started in this space.
At the end of the day, I am accountable to the nonprofits and individuals we support and also their communities.
Can you share more about being a resource to others?
I didn’t see myself as a resource when I first came to TPW and began this journey. Delivering my theory of change presentation at the conclusion of the cohort program pushed me to be conversant on climate and I’d like to think that talk informed and encouraged my fellow cohort members. Some even bought electric cars! Then the little posse we’d formed started doing quarterly table discussions as others took interest, and after seven years that small group evolved into TPW’s Climate Action Lab, now with nearly 60 members. It made me see myself as a resource just as my peers are to me in their issues of interest, including human rights and reproductive justice. We are all resources to each other.
What’s the value of being part of TPW?
Being in real partnership with TPW is where the value lies and a big part of why many long-time members stick around. The trips are great and the convenings are great; TPW provides amazing opportunities for members. But you have to be willing to suit up and show up if you want to maximize the opportunity and relationships. You truly get out what you put in. If you approach TPW asking, “what’s TPW going to do for me?”, you won’t get the same return. That’s such a fundamental life value, isn’t it?
Can you share more about a particular grant you’re proud of?
I love when I can say a grant proved effective because it accomplished the seeding that it was meant to. We funded something at Rocky Mountain Institute called E-lab with a relatively small amount of money that went on to have such broad impact that New York State redid their whole utilities model. It ended up being critical for them to get going and ultimately was enormously effective.
Tell us about a challenge you worked through.
Many of us are grappling with issues of privilege and thinking about how to decolonize wealth. When we started giving, we mostly funded think tanks and scientists, thinking that was the best use of our resources. We had almost no awareness of climate justice.
Climate is so much more complicated than I first understood. It isn’t sufficient to just reduce CO2 emissions; if we don’t start thinking inclusively, then we’re not doing our job and we’re going to fail. I’m still working through this concept because I’ve funded the “experts” for so long, not realizing the expertise in people who are living in the problem. Humility is painful, but it’s also liberating.
What are your thoughts on spending down?
We’re not consciously spending down, but we don’t adhere to the 5% foundation minimum either. We’ve lost 25% of our corpus, but we can’t let that impact our grantees. I think spend-down and accelerated giving is smart for any foundation because money invested now is worth more than money invested in 10 years.
I’d like to keep making grants as a way of staying in the conversation, which I think helps us make more of an impact. Especially if, with TPW’s help, we can steer the conversation so that over the next decade, 50 to 100 other TPW members are better directed in their giving to climate solutions. That will exceed the impact of my work corpus. Feel free to punch back—I like that about TPW, you all challenge me.
How do you grapple with criticisms of philanthropy?
Glen Galaich, the former TPW executive director, once said to me, “If we really succeed at what we say we’re trying to do, we will all become irrelevant.” If we really achieve a just society—one that takes care of people—there would be no need for philanthropy to patch the holes.
It’s so important to be mindful of the power and influence we have. Just because we can hand out resources, doesn’t mean we’re experts. TPW taught me that it’s okay not to be the smartest person in the room. You’re not meant to be. But you need to be a good listener, and be willing to trust and take risks. The world seems to congeal into inequity and inequality really quickly. But we the oligarchs need to wise up and understand that gross inequality doesn’t serve any purpose.