It’s official: Billionaires have taken over environmental philanthropy.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve assembled a list of the top U.S. green grantmakers based on 2021 numbers, the most recent full year we have to go on. Take a look and you’ll see that four of the top five funders are Americans who rank among the 30 wealthiest people in the world, according to Forbes, and roughly two-thirds of the listed operations are funded by billionaires.
Yes, mega-philanthropy is by definition a playground for the uber-rich. But a list of the nation’s top environmental philanthropies from a few years ago would still likely have had a majority of legacy foundations, those institutions set up by now-deceased founders and guided by boards with a minority of family members, if any.
These days, however, the billionaires are in charge. Drawn into the field almost exclusively by the climate emergency, the nation’s wealthiest people are now the ones both providing and calling the shots on how “America’s risk capital” — as philanthropists like to call it — confronts the myriad environmental crises we face.
Perhaps there’s a risk of making too much of the difference between legacy institutions and those backed by living billionaire donors. After all, these institutions tend to draw from the same set of professional staffers, often from the same major environmental groups, and sign up for the same big pledges. Yet the latter often rely on a single extremely rich person, or their family and inner circle, to make the big-picture decisions. It’s too early to say what those preferences will mean in terms of which organizations and causes rise and fall, but it seems clear that billionaires’ views of the world will dominate green philanthropy for the foreseeable future.
It’s been a swift coup by the billionaires now at the top, at least by philanthropic standards. Several of the institutions on this list did not even exist a few years ago: Bezos Earth Fund, Yield Giving, Sequoia Climate Foundation. Others, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, made their first climate grants in 2021. Still more uber-wealthy folks will likely join the list next year, such as Steve and Connie Ballmer, who announced their first climate awards a couple months ago.
Other billionaires are excluded only because this list is limited to U.S. funders. It omits major grantmakers abroad, like the London-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, or the Geneva-headquartered Oak Foundation. It also leaves out community foundations, such as the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, that have large environmental programs, but typically serve as conduits for multiple donors. I also excluded corporate foundations.
Like all philanthropy lists, this one is imperfect. There may be additional foundations — or, more likely, billionaire donors — who should be on this list but were overlooked or have kept their giving hidden. There also are a few fuzzy numbers. Nearly all foundations listed below provide a total of their environmental grantmaking on their websites, or they shared such a tally with me when asked. In other words, these figures are self-reported. Moreover, a couple either did not provide a total or did not respond to inquiries, in which case I’ve made educated guesses and noted that’s the case.
1. Bezos Earth Fund — $586 million
The climate fund of the Amazon founder and former world’s richest man was the United States’ largest environmental funder in 2021, even if it gave less than you might expect given its goals. Jeff Bezos’ operation launched in 2020 with a jaw-dropping $791 million round of grantmaking, but its pace has slowed somewhat since then. If it is to live up to its commitment to distribute $10 billion over 10 years, it will need to start getting at least twice as much annually out the door in the coming years. To date, the fund has backed environmental justice at home, landscape restoration domestically and internationally, has signed onto a variety of collaborative efforts, and funded a range of other projects.
2. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — $398 Million
The nation’s largest philanthropy does not name the environment or climate change as a top-line concern. But among the $6.7 billion it granted in 2021, a single subprogram, agricultural development, accounts for all the grantmaking that earned it this spot. And it’s conceivable the figure should be higher. One could add all or part of its water, sanitation and hygiene program, which granted an additional $94 million, among other possible inclusions. In all cases, most of those dollars went abroad or to U.S.-based organizations operating internationally. Separate from the foundation, Bill Gates has raised more than $1.5 billion for his Breakthrough Energy network, which does a mix of investing, philanthropy and advocacy. The network includes two nonprofits that are making grants, although it’s not clear yet how much they are giving.
3. Yield Giving — $384 Million (estimate)
The world’s most prolific philanthropist has not made environmental causes a feature of her biannual essays on giving. Yet after giving away more than $14 billion, there’s hardly a field where MacKenzie Scott wouldn’t rank among the top givers. Her first round of green gifts went to some very traditional climate recipients, but she has since sent tens of millions of dollars to international regrantors backing grassroots organizing around the globe. It is possible the above tally is inflated, at least compared to peers. The total is based on 2021 environmental grants in her recently launched database, which relies on data reported by grantees, and thus includes general support awards to organizations that others might not count as environmental grants. Plus, for grantees that did not disclose how much they received, I used the median amount of her other green awards.
4. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — $293 Million
The Menlo, Park, California-based grantmaker, which helped kick off the first era of mega climate philanthropy more than a decade ago, remains the biggest legacy environmental funder, even if billionaires have claimed the top spots. Its Environment program focuses on Western conservation and climate and energy, but funds broadly within those two areas. It supports nearly every corner of the climate movement, from grassroots action and corporate mobilization to high-level advocacy and research. Its smaller conservation portfolio also has a mix of recipients, including major green groups, large universities and community groups. Intermediaries, particularly the ClimateWorks-linked network of regrantors it helped found, feature prominently in its grant lists.
5. Bloomberg Philanthropies — $275 Million
Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg got serious about climate philanthropy long before most other billionaires. Like all his philanthropy, the media mogul’s approach to the global emergency has been data-driven. One of his best known campaigns, Beyond Coal, pushed to close plants nationally and internationally, and has now been expanded into Beyond Carbon. Ocean protection and city-level action are other priorities of his operation’s Environment program. Bloomberg, who is also the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy for climate ambition and solutions, has also backed efforts to measure and reduce methane emissions, including a global pledge launched in 2021. Recent grantmaking includes support for the energy transition in the Global South.
6. Rockefeller Foundation — $196 Million
In case you had not heard, the foundation endowed by history’s most notorious oil baron is also one of the United States’ largest funders of environmental work. In July, the grantmaker announced it would put climate change at the center of all its work, the first legacy foundation to do so. One example of that portfolio: It is a founding member of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, to which it has committed $500 million, the largest single investment in its 110-year history. As that project suggests, the foundation’s climate grantmaking focuses on international renewable energy projects, though food and agriculture is another priority.
7. David and Lucile Packard Foundation — $177 million
The environmental field’s other major legacy funder — founded by the other half of the duo behind computing giant Hewlett-Packard — remains a force even in an environmental sphere now dominated by billionaires. Climate change, which it calls “the defining issue of our day,” is the primary driver of such funding, which spans work on energy, land use and innovation. ClimateWorks Foundation, which it helped found, is a major grantee. It also puts a significant amount into the Monterey Bay Aquarium and related research institute, which were founded by the family.
8. The Schmidt Family Foundation, Schmidt Ocean Institute, et al. — $154 million
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, have a wide range of environmental projects, including grants through their foundation’s 11th Hour Project and marine science funding. This total is representative of all their philanthropic work, according to a spokesperson. The top two priorities of the 11th Hour Project, which we profiled a couple years ago, are energy, and food and agriculture, and it funds both through a climate lens. It’s been a prominent regenerative agriculture funder and backed opposition to fossil fuel development.
9. Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — $138 Million
The third of the environmental field’s three major legacy funders, this Palo Alto, California-based grantmaker has kept its focus on conservation, even as its peers have expanded theirs to include climate change (there is, of course, overlap in all cases). Its Environmental Conservation program — which has accounted for 43% of grantmaking in recent years — is known for its work in the Amazon, support for market-based conservation, and efforts to ensure the health of oceans and wild salmon. Moore tends to fund narrowly but deeply, forging long-term, multimillion-dollar relationships with grantees.
10. ClimateWorks Foundation — $132 Million
Climate philanthropy’s largest intermediary has grown in size and influence since its founding more than a decade ago. As a new generation of billionaire philanthropists enters the field, the foundation remains a favored recipient, along with the worldwide network of regional regrantors that it helped launch. Its Drive Electric campaign, Clean Cooling initiative and other projects have drawn new funders like MacKenzie Scott, while maintaining support from founding partners like the Hewlett Foundation. It also serves as a sort of affinity group, providing research and tracking climate grantmaking. Admittedly, the figure above represents a double-counting of dollars issued from others on this list, many of whom are major ClimateWorks backers.
11. Sequoia Climate Foundation — $126 Million
Launched just a couple years ago, this new philanthropy has had a fast climb to the top. Filings suggest it is backed by the same secretive hedge fund donor, C. Frederick Taylor, who bankrolls Wellspring Philanthropic Fund. The Irvine, California-based operation is run by Christie Ulman, a Department of Energy veteran who formerly ran the energy portion of the climate program at Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. Its links to Wellspring prompted speculation that it would be a force for human rights on climate, but so far, it seems to have taken a diversified approach, with the biggest share of its grant dollars flowing through intermediaries. The operation is still growing and will likely climb higher in the ranks, as staff say it will make $180 million in grants this year. Keep an eye out for a forthcoming IP profile.
12. Waverley Street Foundation — $125 million
When this new Laurene Powell Jobs operation was publicly announced last September, it was already well into its second year of grantmaking. To date, it has sent a lot of support to two major groups — Climate Imperative and Conservation International — and several multimillion-dollar checks to climate justice outfits, particularly international regrantors. It has pledged to spend the remainder of its now-$3.2 billion endowment by 2035, which would require about $235 million in grants annually, a pace that would put it in the top five. Watch for a forthcoming profile.
13. JPB Foundation — $120 million
Barbara Picower’s $3 billion foundation is a relatively quiet grantmaker, rarely making use of its philanthropic bully pulpit, but it funds a lot of vocal front-line organizing and advocacy campaigns. The foundation’s environmental portfolio focuses on clean energy, environmental health, green infrastructure and environmental justice. It has funded a wide variety of grassroots environmental justice groups, such as Climate Justice Alliance and the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum. Other grants have sought to create nationwide networks that bring together major national groups and community organizations, such as an energy-efficiency-focused affordable housing partnership.
14. Ford Foundation — $112 Million
For one of the world’s largest and best-known foundations, this New York grantmaking giant has a relatively small and narrow environmental portfolio, though it targets a long overlooked cause. Ford focuses its Natural Resources and Climate Change program, whose budget is the figure above, primarily on supporting rural, low-income and Indigenous communities in the Global South. It is, for instance, a leading force in last year’s $1.7 billion pledge for Indigenous-led tropical forest protection.
15. Energy Foundation — $99 Million
Climate philanthropy’s other leading intermediary, this operation has a U.S. focus in contrast to ClimateWorks’ more international approach, and a lower public profile (although it was a dominant presence in the early years of climate philanthropy). Transportation, markets, energy efficiency, and power generation and transmission are its named priority areas, and it is known for its networks of local partners across the U.S.
16. Walton Family Foundation — $95 Million
America’s richest family’s fondness for the great outdoors can be traced back to long-ago trips spent hunting and fishing. Its philanthropy has counted the environment as a priority since the clan began giving away some of its Walmart-generated wealth. The foundation’s core areas of work are ocean conservation and the preservation of the Colorado and Mississippi rivers. But with a new generation ascendant, there are subtle changes, such as a new strategic plan in early 2021 that, for the first time, explicitly identified climate change as a leading challenge, along with commitments to equity, community-driven change and collaboration.
17. Wyss Foundation — $90 Million
Medical device billionaire Hansjörg Wyss fell in love with America’s natural beauty while working for the Colorado Highway Department in the 1950s. Now a Wyoming resident, the Swiss native’s philanthropy has funded efforts to preserve iconic Western landscapes for more than two decades. The foundation’s Protections program helps protect land by working with local and Indigenous communities, governments, land trusts and nonprofits. The foundation is well-known for the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which helped popularize a push to conserve 30% of the Earth’s lands and waters, a goal recently adopted by 190 nations (but not the U.S.) at the 15th annual U.N. biodiversity summit. We’re now in an era of such green mega-pledges, but Wyss was doing it before it was so popular. In 2018, he promised $1 billion over a decade to conservation, tripling the foundation’s annual international grantmaking.
18. Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies — $58.5 Million
Founded by the heiress to the Cargill agricultural fortune and based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, this $8.3 billion grantmaker now sends checks to environmental groups around the world. Its Environment portfolio has four programs: coastal ecosystems, freshwater ecosystems, tropical forests and grasslands. Most of its U.S. funding is issued through the latter program, which focuses on the Northern Great Plains, while international funding goes to groups in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
19. Builders Initiative, etc. — $55.6 million
Third-generation Walmart heir Lukas Walton went public with his philanthropy in 2021, revealing a varied investment and grantmaking operation that had grown significantly in recent years. With portfolios on climate, oceans and food and agriculture, it has backed both some of the field’s most well-funded newcomers — Breakthrough Energy and Climate Imperative — and Midwest climate equity work. The total above represents both grantmaking through the foundation and donor-advised funds. Whatever the method, this fast-growing grantmaker is likely to climb in rank in the years to come.
20. Open Philanthropy — $54.1 Million
This grantmaking operation, primarily funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, former journalist Cari Tuna, is almost solely responsible for the exponential growth in farm animal welfare funding in recent years. And it is that cause, a favorite of effective altruists, that puts it on this list. Its funding spans from fish to chickens, and includes portfolios from Europe to Asia, with a focus on neglected topics and measurable impact. The operation may climb even higher in these rankings next year, as its Farm Animal Welfare budget nearly doubled in 2022, and it rapidly expanded its smaller program on South Asian Air Quality.
21. MacArthur Foundation — $51.4 Million
This Chicago legacy foundation has named Climate Solutions as one of the Big Bets that drive its grantmaking, and it is one of the largest of the bunch. The program focuses on climate narrative, policy, innovation and power-building. Some of its largest grants have gone to major groups like the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and the National Audubon Society. Other support has gone to news organizations like Climate Central, organizing campaigns like Earthworks and corporate engagement organizations like Ceres.
22. Richard King Mellon Foundation — $48.3 million
Endowed by the former president of Mellon Bank, this Pennsylvania-based legacy grantmaker — which is still run by heirs — counts conservation as one of six funding programs, and is one of the nation’s top funders in that sector. It backs large-scale efforts to preserve biodiversity, partnerships to protect habitat, and rural community engagement, among other areas. Its top grantees included American Forest Foundation, Open Space Institute and Trust and northeast colleges for research.
23. Sea Change Foundation — $44.4 million
Laura Baxter-Simons and hedge fund manager Nat Simons — who is an heir to billionaire quantitative investor Jim Simons — spent nearly a decade giving in near secrecy. Several years ago, they “pulled back the curtain” on their climate philanthropy, but it remains a relatively quiet member of the field, though well-known. The foundation’s focus is climate change mitigation and clean energy policy, and it has backed corporate action on climate, efforts to decarbonize cooling, and utility transformation campaigns. The above figure is based on the foundation’s 2021 IRS filing. The couple also operates Sea Change International, a Bermuda-based pool of family wealth that became the target of conspiracy theories, but now shares a mission with Sea Change.
24. Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust — $41.9 Million combined (estimated)
The famed investor Jeremy Grantham and his wife, Hannelore, were early billionaire entrants into climate philanthropy. A recent dive into their grantmaking found a large share of awards have gone to academic institutions in the United Kingdom and the U.S., often with the Grantham name on them. Another major portion has gone to the world’s top green groups, including the Rocky Mountain Institute (now going by RMI), the Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund. Top intermediaries, including the European Climate Foundation and the U.S.-based Energy Foundation, have also been beneficiaries. While this data is from 2019 and 2020, both the foundation ($30 million) and the trust ($11.9 million) grew or held constant their grantmaking in the preceding years, so it’s unlikely to be any lower.
25. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — $33.5 Million
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, physician Priscilla Chan, announced their first-ever climate grants (that we know of) in late 2020. By their billion-dollar standards, it was a small first step. But it was enough to earn a spot here. The awards went to carbon removal and a Bill Gates-backed fellowship program focused on decarbonization. A spokesperson said those were the philanthropy’s only climate grants in 2021, though based on a new round of climate awards this year, they may be here to stay.
Correction: Christie Ulman directed the energy portion of the climate program while at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, not the entire program.