Universities Get Big Bucks, Climate Does Not. But Recent Gifts Show Growing Crossover

NYC’s Governors Island will be the site of a new philanthropy-backed climate campus. Photo: Audley C Bullock/shutterstock

How does climate philanthropy compare to university fundraising? It’s like apples and asteroids.

Three universities — Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins — raised more money in fiscal year 2021 than every foundation in the entire world spent on climate mitigation that calendar year, with that trio alone pulling in $3.7 billion versus the roughly $3 billion foundations spent on the climate emergency.

Add in the other elite schools that made up the top 10 university fundraising powerhouses, and the sum of all the grants, individual donations and other contributions that still-small group received rivals the total amount all funders spent on climate action that year — foundations and individual donors alike. That is, those schools took in about as much as the $7.5 billion to $12.5 billion donated to climate causes, based on data from Council for Advancement and Support of Education and ClimateWorks Foundation.

Yet a series of announcements over the past month suggests that those same prolific fundraisers — i.e., university development officers — are winning more and more big checks for university campaigns related to the climate crisis, potentially tapping a huge new base of support for action to preserve a livable planet.

A $700 million island climate laboratory in New York, a carbon-neutral campus in North Carolina, and a batch of awards for historically Black colleges and universities from Laurene Powell Jobs’ climate fund are just a few recent projects that show how much climate causes could benefit from linking arms with higher education, one of the most perpetually popular causes among U.S. donors.

Education accounted for nearly 15% of all U.S. giving in 2021, while all environmental gifts totaled just 3.3%, according to GivingUSA. Even lower still is climate mitigation support, which has long hovered under 2% of philanthropy, based on ClimateWorks research. Foundations account for a third (33.1%) of philanthropic support for U.S. colleges, more than alumni donations or any other single source. 

It’s hard to say whether crossover support for climate initiatives at higher ed institutions is truly rising. After all, we’ve seen plenty of high-profile examples in the past, including John and Ann Doerr’s $1.1 billion pledge to Stanford last May to establish a climate school with their name on it. And donors like Eric and Wendy Schmidt, covered below, have decades-long histories of grantmaking at this intersection. But the longstanding fundraising disparity between the two fields means any such trend could be a massive boon for climate funding.

If the recent run of such announcements means the parched climate funding landscape is starting to tap the deep reservoir of donor dollars flowing to educational institutions, it will be a welcome financial boost amid warnings that the world will blow past the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, provoking even greater climate chaos. Yet considering that the bulk of higher ed philanthropy goes to the wealthiest institutions, this could also be another trend that reinforces existing disparities — and could be worse still if it steals away limited climate funding.

The good news is that many projects on this list involve philanthropic backing for institutions that rarely win the favor of the wealthiest donors, like HBCUs, public universities and schools far from the coasts. On the other hand, nearly all the funders listed here are climate donors, not typical higher ed funders who happen to be backing such projects. And there’s a risk that new money will simply go to the kinds of big capital projects that mega-philanthropists tend to love.

If we do end up seeing an acceleration in climate-higher ed crossover support, let’s pray that traditional higher ed donors get on board, too — and back more than just fancy new buildings.

The $700 million climate island

Let’s start with the most traditional project. Twenty years ago, the federal government sold New York City a 172-acre island shaped like an ice cream cone for $1. Last month, the city unveiled their plan for Governors Island.

A consortium led by Stony Brook University will create a 400,000 square-foot campus on the car-free strip of land, which is reachable only by an eight-minute ferry ride from Manhattan. Due to open in 2028, it will be called the New York Climate Exchange. 

The plan leans heavily on private support. Foundation backers include the Simons Foundation ($100 million) — the philanthropy of billionaire hedge fund manager Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies — and Bloomberg Philanthropies ($50 million). Another $400 million has yet to be raised. 

This won’t even be the first philanthropy-backed higher ed island enclave in New York. Cornell Tech opened a campus on Roosevelt Island in 2017, following a competition launched by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has provided at least $100 million for the project since leaving office via Bloomberg Philanthropies. Mike likes this stuff, apparently.

There’s plenty of need for climate research in the Anthropocene (i.e., these days). And it’s promising that this effort is headed by a public university. Yet it also feels a bit like business as usual: Billionaires awarding millions to a research center abutting one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Let’s hope this project brings in first-time climate funders to fill the rest of its budget, instead of drawing down the limited resources already earmarked for the crisis. 

Laurene Powell Jobs’ climate fund backs HBCUs

Speaking of billionaires, Laurene Powell Jobs’ climate-focused Waverley Street Foundation may still be finding its feet, but that hasn’t stopped it from launching a project to back climate work in partnership with multiple historically Black colleges and universities, as well as Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and universities.

As part of the new initiative, the foundation sent $5 million to the Bullard Center for Environmental Justice at Texas Southern University, which is run by Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the father of environmental justice, and $4 million to the City University of New York, which will work with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance on front-line climate solutions. 

Undisclosed amounts went to various other institutions, like Salish Kootenai College, which serves Native American students from across the country and works to preserve the culture of Séliš, Ksanka and QÍispé peoples from the Flathead Nation. Other higher education recipients included centers at Drexel University, UCLA and the University of Maryland, College Park. 

The awards boost a group of institutions that draw their students from the same populations that are typically hit by the impacts of a changing climate first and worst — largely Black, Indigenous and people of color. And they follow comparable moves by other climate megadonors. 

For instance, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos granted $4 million to the Bullard Center from his climate fund in late 2021 as part of a collection of grants to environmental justice leaders and organizations. Meanwhile, climate heavyweights like MacKenzie Scott and Bloomberg have also made big HBCU pledges, albeit not in a climate context. 

Anonymous donors help a Southern campus go carbon neutral

Some of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies are still struggling to release credible plans to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, let alone actually halving emissions by 2030, targets set as part of the 2015 Paris climate accords. But Catawba College, a small private university in Salisbury, North Carolina, announced last month that it has already achieved carbon neutrality, which was verified by the nonprofit Second Nature.

Who to thank? We can’t say. The 1,140-student school has received $242 million in anonymous donations to its endowment fund over the past year and a half, which leaders credit with helping the school reach its carbon neutrality goal seven years before its original 2030 deadline. The funds will also support sustainability and environmental programs for students. 

New schools are not just for billionaires

Eric and Wendy Schmidt are billionaires. But their $1 million gift to the University of Vermont in mid-May to launch a new Institute for Agroecology is a move well within the reach of more “modest” multimillionaire donors who, unlike the Schmidts, do not qualify for the Forbes list.

Agroecology falls into that class of climate approaches that are ready to go but lack the same potential for profit that seems to drive the funding and expansion of technology-centered solutions. Through its 11th Hour Project, the Schmidt Family Foundation has backed such work for more than a decade, helping to launch the Berkeley Food Institute and a center at Florida A&M, another HBCU. Nor are the Schmidts solo supporters in this case. The new institute also gets funding from McKnight Foundation via its Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems program.