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Philanthropy’s Role in Creating Sustainable Cities

11 July 2017 at 8:58 am
Wendy Williams
Philanthropy has an important role to play in creating “time and space” for cities to become sustainable, according to the program director for the sustainable development grantmaking program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Wendy Williams | 11 July 2017 at 8:58 am


Philanthropy’s Role in Creating Sustainable Cities
11 July 2017 at 8:58 am

Philanthropy has an important role to play in creating “time and space” for cities to become sustainable, according to the program director for the sustainable development grantmaking program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Michael Northrop is set to give the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation’s annual Inspiring Philanthropy oration discussing the role of philanthropy in creating sustainable cities.

The event, taking place in Melbourne on Tuesday, aims to focus on the issues that intersect with the foundation’s environment and sustainability impact area.

Northrop, who also serves on New York City’s Sustainability Advisory Board, told Pro Bono News philanthropy had created soft capital that allowed cities to innovate.

“The most important actors in a city are going to be your mayors and your city councils and so on, but I think all of these networks of cities that exist in the world now – and there are a lot of them – were fundamentally all created with donor capital, whether that was private foundation capital or bilateral aid money, money from the EU, things like that,” Northrop said.

“Those different fora became places where cities could meet and talk and think together and share lessons and steal ideas from each other and out of that has come this flourishing of really cool, good, innovative approaches to moving things forward.

“I don’t think philanthropy wants to take credit for any of that but I think philanthropy has created some of the soft capital that has allowed those meetings to happen and those conversations to proceed.”

Northrop, who was previously executive director of Ashoka, said the key to attracting more philanthropic funding into the space was storytelling.

“I think the whole climate change space is perceived to be dominated by environmental green groups, and that’s not actually true,” he said.

“I think a lot of environmental philanthropy, tends to go to environmental green groups but just think about the US, it was probably 20 years ago that people started to see mayors and governors in our context as potentially important incubators of new creative approaches and they began to fund some of these networks and these support services for mayor and governors and it proved to be a different way of spending environmental dollars.

“And I think, if you look back over those two decades, you just see a lot of productivity that came from those dollars and I guess the challenge is trying to get environmental philanthropy to see cities and states and the support networks around them as viable recipients for grant funds rather than just environmental green groups.

“Mike Bloomberg has been huge with the money that he has put into the space, it has really made a difference, and there are others who have been part of that, a big transition in Denmark called Realdania, is a big supporter of that, The Children’s Investment Fund in London, is a big supporter of the C40 Cities that Bloomberg got started, so I think philanthropy will stay engaged, more in the background as support for these cities, to create the time and space for them to innovate and do their good work.”

Northrop said it was about a different way of thinking and creating a social infrastructure to encourage collaboration.

“I think if you look at Australia now, you have got a really great set of cities playing a leadership role,” he said.

“There is just a lot of good intent out there, but those folks are doing a million things, they don’t have enough time to spend on it, they have one staff person doing this work or something, they could use the same kind of support here that you see in Europe and the United States and Canada where the mayors, the governors, the premiers, their key staff are able to get together, meet and think together about what they can do.

“There isn’t that kind of social infrastructure here and I think it is time, you have got this critical mass now.”

Northrop said he believed there was a role for philanthropy in Australia to step in and “create spaces for these folks to meet and think together”.

“It would be I think very valuable,” he said.

“So maybe a couple of years ago that didn’t seem like an opportunity but it really feels to me like you’ve got a number of governments here who really have expressed a desire to take a real leadership role and they just need more time to think about it and talk about it and work on it together.

“I think it would be a useful thing for a really smart philanthropic sector here in Australia, to just get behind it a little bit more. It doesn’t take a ton, if there were five foundations who really started to think about this and just started to nurse it along, I think they would be thrilled with the outcomes over the next three to five years.”

Northrop said to be in a place where “we essentially decarbonise the globe”, then everybody has to act.

“So that is every company, every town, every village, every city, every state, every country. We all need to be moving. Nobody really escapes responsibility,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to an interesting place now where the markets for clean energy have really matured and we have competitive prices for solar and wind and renewable energy and for energy efficiency and the markets are guiding us in a big way now, we don’t have to subsidise this stuff the way we used to in the past, and that’s going to be a real game changer for all of us.

“It makes us start to think about how we create creative financing schemes to make things happen, it isn’t about buying down the cost of stuff anymore and that is a totally different game and I think a better game for us to be playing right now.”

He said change was more possible at a city level than at a federal level.

“It is more creating really interesting public private partnerships, financing things better, figuring out critical policy angles that drive the change and again, in the cities, it is much more possible than it is at a federal level,” he said.

“So you see all these cities all around the world actually taking these steps and figuring this stuff out, entrepreneuring these changes.

“Cities aren’t the only answer but it is one of the places where you see a lot of this innovation happening and it is happening faster and in more places than even three or four years ago so more reason for optimism.”

He said there was a playbook forming that could help cities replicate what others had achieved.

“Every time a new mayor or new premier comes into the issue, and they go ‘yeah, we’re going to work on climate change’, they’re reinventing the wheel,” he said.

“I think there are some tools that we could collectively create that would be really good guides on how to proceed and I think we’re finally at that place where we kind of have a lot of that playbook, ready to be distributed and I don’t think that was true two or three years ago, I think it is true now.

“There really is a playbook out there now, we just need to synthesize it, and then spread it around and then get folks to really feel more confident about what they can do.”

Northrop said he hoped to use his oration to convey the sense that there “really is a path forward”.

“Lots of others are blazing the trail, and that it is a safe space to work in,” he said.

“It is hard to go first. But we’ve had a lot of firsts now, whether it is figuring out a way to get the building sector or the transportation sector or the electricity sector or the waste sector cleaned up, we now see these experiences.

“I think it is a time to really grab these things and start moving and time is really short on this issue.

“We really have so little time to bend the emissions curve down if we’re going to avoid the really horrible catastrophic climate change that could come our way.

“But I think people should not despair, I think there are path ways forward and good examples of how to make progress and do it in a way that really makes sense.”

Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation CEO Catherine Brown told Pro Bono News the aim of the Inspiring Philanthropy oration was to show thought leadership within philanthropy on current issues.

Each year, the foundation, Australia’s largest independent community foundation, provides grants of more than $9.5 million to not-for-profit organisations throughout Melbourne to increase life opportunities and promote social inclusion.

Brown said they were hoping to learn from Northrop and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to see what their next steps should be in supporting the community in the transition to becoming a more sustainable city.

“We have actually done quite a lot on environment and sustainability in the last five years, but we’ve been thinking quite a bit about Melbourne and climate change, and our role as a community foundation and preparing the city and making sure we are a resilient city,” Brown said.

“We don’t want to duplicate what the government does and our real focus is on how do we support the community and how do we make sure that we have a good sustainable city, secure food, energy efficient and are able to prepare and recover from disaster as well. So that’s what we’re looking to learn more about.

“It is really about us learning from what other foundations have done, what other opportunities there are for us to make sure that we have a resilient community.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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