To see the accelerating and compounding effects of climate change, look no further than California.
In the U.S. Southwest, ecosystems are strained by a ballooning residential population and coasts erode at an alarming rate. Extreme heat, severe wildfire, flooding, intense droughts are frequent realities.
Yet something else is happening in California. Universities are rallying around the issue of climate change, conducting billions of dollars in research each year to uncover the scale of the problem and develop solutions for a more sustainable planet. The work is often supported by competitive government funding, but increasingly another contingent is looking to universities to confront the issue and provide a blueprint for the future: donors.
Around the world in 2022 alone, universities received billions in philanthropic funding to support sustainability related research. California’s Stanford University received $1.69 billion to establish a sustainability school, including one of higher education’s largest-ever gifts: $1.1 billion from zero-emissions advocate John Doerr. Priscilla Chan and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gave $50 million to the University of Hawaii (U.S.) to support ocean restoration research. A £25 million gift at Imperial College London will support sustainable aviation. Significant gifts will fund programs in sustainability and financial management at Canada’s University of Waterloo, conservation research at Canada’s University of Victoria, sustainable transportation at the University of Sydney in Australia, and more.
“People see this as one of the grand challenges of our time,” said Michelle Rosenthal Clark, Associate Vice President for Development at Caltech, which received a $750 million gift from the Resnick family in 2019 to establish a sustainability school. “Some donors like big, hairy audacious problems. This is definitely one of those; it touches all of humanity.”
As some universities look toward attracting and supporting more and more environmentally conscious gifts, their advancement teams are considering the best ways to communicate about sustainability initiatives and steward donors interested in giving toward climate change research.
And fundraising is just the beginning when it comes to reevaluating advancement strategies through the lens of sustainability. Globally, many universities are setting sustainability goals and looking to reduce their carbon footprint. University investment outfits are facing heightened pressure to divest endowments from fossil fuels, and more schools are pursuing Environmental, Social, and Governance investment strategies that emphasize climate sustainability.