Foundation system

Seven questions for Helen Mountford, CEO of ClimateWorks Foundation — Inside Philanthropy

Earlier this year, the ClimateWorks Foundation named Helen Mountford as its new leader.

An environmental economist by training, her professional life has been “on the other side of the table” from philanthropy, as she told me, most recently as vice-president of the World Resources Institute.

But nearly eight years at the Washington, DC think tank have given him plenty of experience in one of the key roles of the global climate broker: working with large groups of partners to fund and carry out complex projects. Not to mention that she has spent decades working on international climate issues.

This includes almost 17 years at the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, during a career in Australia, the UK and France. And now she runs a central grants fund that sends three-quarters of its funds overseas.

Mountford has no plans to overhaul the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation, which was described to me as being in its third incarnation when I profiled it in 2020, and has recently come under renewed criticism for his approach. Instead, she sees the opportunity for some “strategic shifts” and “speed-ups” for an organization once called the “800lb Gorilla.”

“We are here to help all of climate philanthropy address the climate crisis as best we can. This is our role. This is not about ClimateWorks per se, and what we do in our programs is about supporting and amplifying the effects of all climate philanthropy,” she said. “So it’s definitely not a gorilla,” she added with a laugh.

I learned more about what awaits the broker, what philanthropy should learn from the latest IPCC report, and how ClimateWorks hopes to emulate MacKenzie Scott (see: participatory approaches) during a recent conversation with Mountford. Below are excerpts from that exchange, which have been edited for clarity.

You spent long periods at the World Resources Institute and the OECD. What attracted you to the role at ClimateWorks and to a role in philanthropy?

One of the things that really drew me to ClimateWorks was that as we approached COP26 last year, and beyond, we were starting to see a lot of new commitments, from countries , businesses, the financial sector, cities. It is clear that to meet these commitments – let alone go beyond them, which we are going to have to do – is going to require an enormous amount of new effort and agility to explore new approaches, different types of levers, different types of support.

The philanthropic role here – to help identify solutions, catalyze them, and help scale them – is so essential. This flexibility and this agility – and this ability to explore new approaches in a way that public funds or private funds are less likely to do. For me, this is a time when philanthropy is actually starting to ramp up significantly on climate finance, when others are a little hesitant. We need to seize this and ensure it is used to best tackle the climate crisis. So ClimateWorks, where we’re trying to catalyze and amplify the impact of climate philanthropy, is the perfect place for me right now.

What are some of the “changes and accelerations” you want to help lead at ClimateWorks?

There are a few that are absolutely essential. One is much more people-oriented for the whole community. We simply cannot separate climate action from what we need for social equity and justice. How can we ensure that climate action delivers a better world and better solutions for all of us, but especially for the countries and communities that have already suffered the most from the climate crisis?

A second area is really looking at the interconnections between climate change and other priority areas. At the moment, we are facing several crises at the same time. We hope we are getting through the COVID crisis, but there is still massive unemployment and economic challenges in many regions. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have serious energy security issues and we have food security issues ahead. How to bring together solutions that can deal with several crises at the same time, rather than making compromises and favoring one or the other?

A third area is accountability for achieving net zero goals. We have these incredible commitments that were presented in Glasgow by governments, businesses, the financial sector, cities and others. But now we need to make sure that they are hitting those net zero targets and that they are held accountable so that there is trust that this is real and not greenwashing.

What does a more people-centric approach look like in practice?

ClimateWorks has strongly prioritized where we can get the most emissions [reductions] per dollar. More and more, what we’re seeing is that while you can come up with some fantastic technical and practical solutions, you need to have the buy-in to make sure they’re actually adopted and that they’re sustainable. For example, there are many health co-benefits of climate action in energy and transport. We know that air pollution and its effects on health tend to affect the poorest and most disadvantaged communities the most. So how do you understand where there are co-benefits of action, but also where there are challenges, and identify some of those trade-offs or challenges and the solutions to them.

Another would be just transition. We are trying to rapidly evolve our energy systems, our cities and our food systems to deal with the climate crisis. This means that there are industries that will decline, just as there are many other industries that are growing. For declining industries, how do you help workers and communities that depend on these industries identify new opportunities, diversify the economy, and transition to new jobs? We have to be honest about those [realities] and identify solutions that can help address these challenges.

ClimateWorks hosts the Table of funders, an invitation-only group for major climate funders. I’ve heard that it serves as a useful forum for coordinating and strategizing, as well as criticism that it’s a closed space. Will there be any changes to how this group is managed and owned?

Absolutely. One of the things that happened under COVID is that because the backers table was held virtually, it allowed the team to open up the space for donors, partners, regional donors in more regions of the world, small donors, etc. regions that previously could not attend meetings.

The next donor table meeting will take place in May. We’re going to have a hybrid meeting, so we’re going to have people in person, but we want to make sure that we still realize those benefits of involving people from around the world and a more diverse group. [The team is] try to do it in a way where you have both in-depth discussions, but also that ability to engage a much more diverse group. It’s gonna be exciting to see. It is an obvious priority.

MacKenzie Scott’s latest round of climate grants went largely to groups that prioritize participatory grantmaking. Do you think this will have an impact on the wider field?

I hope so. We are looking at how we can implement a more participatory approach and also help the wider community understand the benefits and ways of adopting a participatory approach. This is so essential as we look at uplifting communities working on racial and social justice: approaches that are multi-year core operational support. ClimateWorks also tries to provide non-financial support to our beneficiaries: support, advice, brainstorming, administrative support. How we get there with a much more participatory approach will be key, especially as we try to address these twin challenges of climate and social justice. We are excited about this and eager to continue learning, developing and supporting the field.

Another IPCC report has just been released on the climate threat. What lessons should foundations learn?

The enormous urgency of the challenge is absolutely clear. The action window closes. The impacts are already being felt on all continents of the world. Most communities are affected in one way or another, some in truly devastating ways. The window of what we can do to keep emissions below 1.5 degrees Celsius is shrinking very quickly. There are no longer any pathways that keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius that do not include, for example, the removal of carbon dioxide. So we will have to use it.

What is clear from this report is that we need to use all the tools in our arsenal. We need to get a lot more money out in a much more urgent way and in a radically collaborative way. There is no time for sharp elbows and competition with each other. It’s about how we work together to target big opportunities, which are multiple. But we must act quickly.

There is no way that we as a community are tackling just one problem—just the energy system—or that we are using only one type of approach—[e.g.] data and research. It has to be this multi-pronged approach. Some of them are going to be slower, but we have to start now. Part of that is building movement on the pitch. We see a lot of this in various countries and regions, increasingly focused on sub-national action. While it takes a lot of action at the federal or state level, to make this sustainable, people need to understand why it will benefit them, what they can do, and how to move forward.

You moved to the Bay Area for work. What do you think of your new environment?

I’m actually doing the horrible thing of being bi-coastal right now, which is terrible in terms of air miles. I’m really looking forward to having a bullet train across the United States. I have a son in 11th grade at DC – and he’s having a really good time at school for once, so we’re not moving him yet.

I must say that I love San Francisco. And my children and my husband are too when they came. It’s such a beautiful city. I have the joy of staying in an apartment in – I guess it’s called SOMA South Beach – so I walk to and from the office along the Embarcadero. I have these stunning views every morning and evening and take way too many photos of the evening sunset over the Bay Bridge. I send them home to my family, who say to me: “Do you know that we are in the cold and the ice?” [Laughs] “Sorry, but it’s beautiful here.” I truly appreciate it.