Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation

A climate focus

21 March 2023

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Dr Catherine Brown OAM leads Australia’s largest and oldest community foundation as CEO of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

“Our job is to gather donors together and use our strategic grants program from bequests to respond to the big issues of the day facing Greater Melbourne,” she says, which include the pervasive impacts of climate change.

The foundation funds across four areas: environment and sustainability; inclusive and sustainable economy and jobs; healthy and climate-resilient communities; and homelessness and affordable housing. “We placed a climate lens across all of this work at the beginning of 2016,” says Catherine, who championed the approach following the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) held in Paris the year before.

“I had the benefit of taking part in a funders’ initiative there, which brought together foundations working in climate around the world. Every day, we’d follow the negotiations; delegates would speak with us and share learning.

It became clear that the health impacts of climate change were huge, the food impacts were huge, and that everything would be affected — that no part of our life didn’t need to change to become more sustainable and resilient.

Dr Catherine Brown OAM, CEO, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

A climate lens

On her return to Melbourne, Catherine tabled a series of recommendations at her board’s strategy meeting. “I proposed we use a climate lens and build the capacity of the team in that area. We appointed an environment and sustainability program manager, and built a program that has climate at its centre in the environment space, while putting the lens over our economic and housing work. Since then, we have appointed a program manager with expertise in climate resilience.

“Our strategic plan shows our work is becoming more and more climate focused. It’s quite explicit: we don’t just talk about resilience and disasters, we talk about climate resilience and climate-safe neighbourhoods, so our climate lens approach is well integrated now. We funded very close to $4 million in grants using the climate lens in 2020/21, which was 43 per cent of our strategic granting program.”

How climate change intersects with funding areas

Looking through this lens, the foundation has a clear picture of how climate change is intersecting with its different funding areas and armed with this knowledge, is responding in innovative and practical ways.

“If we’re funding affordable housing, for example, we fund well-designed housing that’s energy efficient and will be cheaper to run with lower emissions over the long term,” says Catherine. “It also has to be located in places that are part of a sustainable city — near public transport, services, schools and green space. These are requirements of funding.

“We put the climate lens over everything, including financial disadvantage and employment. For example, when we’re thinking about where the jobs are going to be, we’re not supporting jobs in unsustainable industries, we’re supporting jobs in emerging and clean industries, so the funding in this area has also started to pivot more and more.”

It’s actually pretty exciting — you get a double whammy for many, many projects. I think incorporating a climate lens into our work is one of the best things we’ve done.

Dr Catherine Brown OAM, CEO, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Applying a climate lens to grantmaking

The foundation has updated the outcomes it looks for in its four impact areas to include specific climate goals. “For example, now we don’t just say affordable housing, we say sustainable affordable housing with low emissions — we put that into grant guidelines,” says Catherine. “We ask ourselves, what can we do to reduce emissions or increase resilience through this grant?”

This approach is delivering significant outcomes, with the foundation’s philanthropic support for the Climate Resilient Homes campaign — led by its grantee, not-for-profit Renew — a case in point.

In 2022, state, territory and Commonwealth governments agreed to improve residential energy efficiency standards. The decision was years in the making, with Renew’s campaign leading the call for change. This uplift in standards will result in a cut to emissions by up to 78 million tonnes by 2050 — the equivalent of taking 26 million petrol-powered cars off the road for a year — and reduce poverty and inequality by ensuring higher standards in social housing and private rentals. In sum, it’s a win for people and the planet, and proof positive that the climate lens can be a powerful philanthropic tool.

“Philanthropy is the most valuable funding because it’s the freest. It’s available for capacity building and it’s available for innovation. A lot of government funding is tied to specific outcomes, whereas philanthropy can help people see things in a new way or test and demonstrate new ideas, and I think we really have to use this unique role. We have to be brave.”

The foundation funds projects that take a systems view as well as those that have a direct on-the-ground impact, such as advocacy that leads to policy change, like the uplift in energy efficiency standards.

“We look for philanthropic investment that will have a catalytic impact to leverage funding from others such as government and business.”

Applying a climate lens to investments and operations

The foundation has a responsible investment policy — it screens out the usual suspects such as tobacco, alcohol and armaments — and is now laser-focused on a decarbonisation agenda within its investment portfolio.

“We’ve been meeting with fund managers and talking about how to achieve this, both through our Australian and global equities. There are steps they can do already, and then there are others that are going to take longer,” says Catherine. “It’s an effective approach because it puts pressure on the fund managers. They listen to us — we’re not just charities anymore, we’re investors who might have $10, $20, $30 million in their fund — so it’s a whole different ball game. If every foundation did this, it would be very effective.”

The foundation has included a 2030 decarbonisation goal within its business plan, which has also prompted the foundation’s imminent move to an energy-efficient building designed by Six Degrees architects, among other operational changes.

If you really want to make action happen internally, do the strategic work and then put it in the business plan as a KPI and make it happen. By setting those targets you move to them.

Dr Catherine Brown OAM, CEO, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation

Measuring impact

How do you measure impact when it comes to climate change mitigation and adaptation? There’s no single answer says Catherine — it depends on which area you’re working in, and it can get complicated.

“The foundation has a series of outcomes it is working towards that we report against, for example, ‘enable our transition to an inclusive and sustainable economy that serves people and planet’, and ‘the health and community sectors can support community resilience to climate change and disasters, including pandemics and other shocks’.

“In the climate communications space, you can measure reach and awareness, for example, the number of viewers who watched their TV weather presenter show climate data [an initiative of the Climate Change Communications Research Hub at Monash University]. You can measure the jobs created in a zero-carbon-friendly future or the changes in energy efficiency ratings on buildings.

“But in terms of trying to measure emissions reductions — which we do on the investment side of things — it’s complex. We’re working on that decarbonisation journey in most of the asset classes in terms of our investments. The fund managers are beginning to report more on this and our new asset advisors, Cambridge Associates, have this area as a priority to work with us on.”

The benefits of a climate lens

“We can definitely have a lot more impact with what we do. Late last year, Housing Choices Australia and architects 6 Degrees started building our first affordable housing challenge in Preston and they’re going to achieve really good efficiency outcomes. So, we can reduce homelessness and reduce emissions. Our sense of urgency about addressing climate change has only grown.”

Learning and recommendations

  1. Start with two questions — how can we reduce emissions or increase resilience? — then choose a couple of areas you’re already working in and change the grant guidelines to accommodate these considerations, and see what comes in. Many people will rise to the occasion.
  2. It’s about trying to envisage, both in a rural and urban setting, what a zero-carbon economy is going to look like, and then granting to that. Don’t grant to what we’ve got now.
  3. Don’t be scared to apply a climate lens. Now that we’ve been using it for this number of years, I think people respond really positively. Just start! You’ll find a good idea to support whatever area you’re funding in.

Related links

An Australian foundation taking action on climate change, F20 (19 June 2023)

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