Seb Elsworth: All funders have a stake in climate change

The example of the UK's first climate change refugees shows all charities will need to help deal with the ramifications of climate change in the years ahead

Seb Elsworth (Photograph: Claudia Leisinger)
Seb Elsworth (Photograph: Claudia Leisinger)

Residents of the village of Fairbourne in north Wales are arguably the UK’s first “climate change refugees” after Gwynedd council said defending the village from rising sea levels was unsustainble, adding that it intended to “decommission” Fairbourne in the middle of the century. Residents report having no idea when they will leave or where they will go. With no long-term future in sight, house prices have plummeted. 

It doesn’t take much to imagine how the story evolves from here. There will be no inward investment into a village that might be there for only another 30 years. The economically active will leave and services will close. The community will slowly die even if the sea doesn’t wash it away.

For most of the 16 years I’ve worked in the charity sector, I have felt there is an implicit distinction between those of us seeking social impact and those seeking environmental impact. Climate change has always been a huge challenge, but one that has felt different and distinct from tackling other social challenges in communities around the country. 

I have also seen this distinction – if anything, more strongly – within the funder community. Many funders have a focus on a specific social impact area, with the deep knowledge that goes along with it. They might therefore feel they are not environmental funders and don’t have a mandate to consider climate change in their work.

Last year I ran a workshop about how social investment needed to better serve the charity and social enterprise sector in the future. Also at the table was Jen Hooke from the independent grant maker Thirty Percy. After about 45 minutes of discussion, a puzzled-looking Jen asked us why no one had mentioned climate change and wondered how we could be considering the future resilience of the sector without this being at front and centre. Many of us were a little defensive in responding, arguing that without a mandate as an environmental funder this wasn’t really something we could do.

A number of follow-up conversations with Jen helped me to understand how Thirty Percy saw no such distinction between climate change and social impact. In November the Association of Charitable Foundations’ annual conference focused exclusively on climate change, the social consequences of it and how in that context all foundations should be considering their roles in areas such as human rights, migration, economic justice and place-based initiatives. 

At the conference the Funder Commitment on Climate Change was launched, setting out a helpful framework for foundations to develop their role. Crucially, this doesn’t mean that funders need to change their mandate to start funding renewable energy projects or sea defences. Rather, accepting that climate change is going to affect every community over the decades ahead and responding to it requires a complete overhaul of the economy, the commitment helps funders consider the consequences for the area of social change in which they work and how it will affect the resilience of the charities and social enterprises they support. 

The trustees of Access have discussed what this means for us and our work at our last two board meetings. Resilience is at the heart of our work, so we must encourage and support the charities and social enterprises we work with to consider the impact of climate change. Will their beneficiaries be affected by the direct consequences of climate change, like the residents of Fairbourne, or by structural changes in the economy as whole industries disappear? How will business models remain sustainable, and what opportunities are there to develop new enterprise models within a post-carbon economy? What role does sector infrastructure need to play to support this transition, and how does it need to change itself?

We have also started having these conversations with the local partners in each of the six places we are working with in our Local Access programme. This hasn’t been easy. Some partners are worried that we are seeking to impose an additional theme on their work, adding complexity and more requirements for impact measurement. That’s not our intention. Rather, it’s an attempt to start embedding this thinking across our programmes, recognising that the sector as we know it is rapidly changing.  We are grappling with this as much as everyone else and see it as a shared endeavour.

Whether or not we think we are environmental funders, we will all be funding the consequences of climate change soon enough.

Seb Elsworth is chief executive of Access, a foundation that helps widen access to social investment for charities and social enterprises

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