Who gets the latest checks from Lukas Walton’s Green Grantmaking Shop? — Inside philanthropy
Last October, Lukas Walton blazed new trails for America’s wealthiest family, becoming the first of the third-generation heirs to the Walmart fortune to launch a substantial public profile for his then $1.2 billion foundation. dollars, Builders Initiative, and its largest philanthropic and investment platform. .
The move unveiled an operation broadly focused on the environment – food, agriculture, climate, oceans – and offering a mix of support for equity-focused initiatives like the Justice40 Accelerator and efforts to boost market-based change, especially through its investments. It also left some questions unanswered, as despite some transparency around its investments, the team has yet to release a full list of recipients and rewards.
This month, the team shared details with Inside Philanthropy that provide new insight into where it is placing its biggest bets. The 35-year-old foundation has made two major five-year pledges: $30 million a year to Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy’s Catalyst program and $20 million a year to climate philanthropy veteran Hal Harvey’s relatively new political boutique. , Climate Imperative. Walton’s team is also planning $10 million in grants this year for climate equity efforts in the Midwest, supporting grantees like the Chicago Frontline Funding Initiative.
The grants reinforce the impression left by the first details released by Builders Initiative last year. Its grantmaking covers worthy branches of the climate movement, but from what we know so far, the biggest checks and the largest share of dollars seem to be directed to tech solutions and national policymaking. . This is in line with longstanding climate finance models that have drawn criticism over the years, including from advocates calling for greater support for grassroots movement building and local action.
That said, the team has indicated that it will award more than $200 million this year. Recipients of the more than $140 million remaining in grants — which will go to its oceans, food and agriculture, Chicago, and COVID response programs, among other priorities — could shift that balance. Oceans — a portfolio that will total about $35 million — and climate and energy are its top grantmaking areas, according to the foundation. And some of Builders Initiative’s first steps in their climate justice portfolio could pave the way for much larger donations in this area in the future.
What drew Builders Initiative to these two big-budget outfits
Breakthrough Energy is practically synonymous with Bill Gates, who wrote a book about climate change during the pandemic – and its leadership includes veterans from Facebook, the White House, the NRDC and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Climate Imperative, meanwhile, is led by Harvey, the engineer and former CEO of the ClimateWorks Foundation who has been a key figure in climate change finance for decades, including the unsuccessful push for a federal cap-and-tap system. exchange almost a decade ago. Other key leaders on his current team include two veterans of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, Bruce Nilles and Mary Anne Hitt.
It was these leaders who attracted Builders Initiative, said Bruce McNamer, president of the foundation, whose experience includes leading a Washington, D.C.-area community foundation and an anti-poverty organization focused on companies, as well as several roles in the technology sector. “The thing about Climate Imperative that appealed to us is the fact that they are serious people, highly credible people, thinking about politics on these dimensions,” he said. “Similar to Catalyst: Credible partners are thinking about how you reduce the costs of some of these emerging technologies.”
There is also a family connection in both choices. Lukas’ cousin, Sam Walton, is a supporter of Climate Imperative, while another cousin, Ben Walton, and his wife, Lucy Ana, are among the investors in Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Bill Gates operation.
“They’re exchanging tickets,” McNamer said of the cousins. “We certainly spoke to Sam and his colleagues as we considered our participation in Climate Imperative. And they were very helpful.
There was another draw: As “anchor partners” in the campaign, they can sit on Catalyst’s board of directors, McNamer said. He hopes this can inform the work of the foundation and that they can contribute to the group’s deliberations.
What will these pledges of $150 million to Catalyst and $100 million to Climate Imperative support? Catalyst’s grant will support its efforts to drive technological innovation in direct air capture, clean hydrogen, long-term energy storage and sustainable aviation fuel. The money for the Climate Imperative will support the development of a global policy.
Supporting Climate Equity in the Midwest
While Builders Initiative supports global efforts to close technology gaps and shape policy, it has a very local lens on climate equity. The foundation focuses on the Midwest and on building the long-term capacity of these groups.
“What we’re trying to do is build direct, one-on-one relationships with people here in the region,” said Ryan Strode, who was hired late last year as head of foundation program for climate equity. Strode most recently managed climate and environmental justice grantmaking for Franciscan Sisters of Mary, a faith-based foundation in Missouri, and earlier spent nearly nine years with Arabella Advisors, according to his LinkedIn.
The foundation plans to start by building relationships and trust with frontline leaders in Chicago, building the necessary infrastructure in collaboration with these groups, and then taking this model to other cities in the Midwest. Strode suggested it would be slow to evolve.
“You can only go as fast as they are ready and able to go. We try to do it with care and attention,” he said, later adding, “It will take time for us to figure it out.
Many other large-scale funders have turned to mainstream climate justice intermediaries when they want to give big quickly, but don’t have the connections or capacity to do lots of small grants to local groups. Strode noted that Builders Initiative has several grantees in common with a national grassroots finance intermediary, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund. Most importantly, he works with local and regional groups, such as the Chicago Frontline Funding Initiative and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network. Both are among the beneficiaries of Strode’s former employer.
Builders Initiative is also trying to turn the script on a classic environmental funding dynamic. As Strode describes, “Often larger funders like us fund large NGOs and then give grants to smaller grassroots groups. This resulted in some pretty difficult power dynamics over time. And, frankly, none of these types of bands prefer this arrangement.
Instead, Builders Initiative awarded a one-year, $500,000 grant to Blacks in Green (BIG), a Chicago-based network of groups working to create “green, self-sufficient, mixed-income, walkable villages.” in black neighborhoods. BIG may sub-grant this funding as needed to larger organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and NRDC, to support their work. It’s the first time he’s tried such an approach, but that’s in conversations about several other similarly structured projects.
More climate money for the Midwest
About a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from the Midwest. As Deborah Philbrick, program manager for the MacArthur Foundation’s Climate Solutions initiative that focuses on the Midwest, told me in a recent Q&A, “You’re not going to get to where we need to be, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, if you just focus on the coasts, it’s just a numbers game.
And yet, the Midwest receives just 11% of climate and clean energy funding, according to figures from the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s Tracking the Field database provided to IP. That’s good enough for third place among U.S. regions — and far better than the Gulf Coast, for example, which receives just 0.3% of funding despite well-documented pollution issues — but well below its share of emissions.
Funding for environmental justice groups is only a tiny slice of this already small slice. According to an oft-cited report from Building Equity and Alignment for Impact and the Tishman Environment and Design Center, only 0.7% of green funding from Midwestern funders went to these organizations, or $1 million out of $134 million. total grants.
“The Midwest has long been a hole in climate and environmental justice funding,” Strode said, adding that he’s very excited to do this work “at scale” in the region.
With this $10 million round of regional funding and other potential investments in the pipeline this year, Builders Initiative could begin to change that narrative. Whether that also helps bridge the national divide between climate justice groups and historically better-funded tech and political operations remains to be seen.