Disclaimer:  Lauren Castelino’s views do not represent that of any organization, information shared reflects solely her own opinions and lived experiences engaging in climate justice, philanthropy and her master’s research project.

The clickbait answer is ‘no,’ the coddling answer is ‘yes,’ but the truest answer, I think, is ‘maybe, but only if organizations in the philanthropic sector are willing to self-reflect and make changes, preferably yesterday.’ 

The 2023 Wings Philanthropy Transformation Initiative Report makes a call back to the essence of philanthropy as being “love of humanity” and “an expression of fundamental optimism about human nature.” It also rightly criticizes modern philanthropy for “growing beyond its informal roots” and holding the same flaws as the system it exists in, like capitalistic market models, entrenched power structures, and siloed approaches.

I have witnessed a great deviation from the true heart of philanthropy in the realm of climate justice. It is perplexing to witness the perils of humanity as we breathe toxic air and forests burn around us, while simultaneously witnessing a sector, whose work claims to be for the good of humanity, struggle to shimmy out of the clenches of a capitalistic, colonial landscape that punches the throttle on climate change. And when one considers the racial and social injustices intertwined with climate change, it becomes especially bleak to wonder if philanthropy is in its power era. 

“And when one considers the racial and social injustices intertwined with climate change, it becomes especially bleak to wonder if philanthropy is in its power era.”

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

There are intricate nuances to consider. Philanthropy has, and is, doing some incredible work. There are lots of people and organizations pushing to drive equitable change, sometimes with limited volunteer staff. I am not advocating for puritanical action or cancelling the sector and its work, precisely why the title of this article is not: “Why isn’t philanthropy perfect?” But I do wonder if philanthropy is getting swept into a larger, problematic system and becoming a clone of social responsibility. And, in a world of urgency, I wonder about the consequences of not taking the time to meaningfully reflect during a polycrisis. 

For the next generation, whose prospect of any type of future to be excited about depends on meaningful change today, this is a complex challenge to stare down. For young climate activists, who often hold the weight of finding solutions for (sometimes) minimum wage, the prospect of a flourishing future can feel out of reach. 

Take another question posed by the Wings Philanthropy Transformation Initiative Report: “Are there inherent and problematic power imbalances between funders and recipients that make philanthropy incompatible with a desire for justice and equality?” This is pivotal to unpack. The issues that intersect climate, justice, and equality need masterful collaboration and layered solutions, and this requires funding.

“Are there inherent and problematic power imbalances between funders and recipients that make philanthropy incompatible with a desire for justice and equality?”

I spoke with Lauren Castelino, an accomplished youth climate activist and an Environmental Studies Master student, who is currently conducting research focused on the funding struggles of young, racialized climate justice activists. 

Lauren’s research project started with a Climate Coins & Consciousness cellphilm, a participatory film recorded on cellphones, that features 10 racialized climate justice activists from various regions across the country. She then showed this cellphilm to funders, hoping to catalyze a discussion about transformation in the funding space. 

“When you think about the intersections of race, class, gender and age, the folks that can get ahead are those who can relate to funders. The young racialized climate justice activists that come from low-income and other marginalized backgrounds don’t have access to those rooms. And they need to have access to those rooms,” says Lauren. 

Lauren and the other climate activists in the cellphilm spoke about the barriers they face, like restricted funding, matching funding requirements, increased cost of living, and excessive reporting requirements. Lauren also chatted with me about what ‘impact’ really means and how traditional funding models measure impact may not make sense for all projects or short-term funding cycles, especially if the polycrisis requires revolutionary solutions.

“How do you quantify relationship building or developing community-centric relationships?”

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

“There are a lot of funders who need you to constantly prove yourself through numbers and impact measurements and that’s not always feasible. Impact can also be seen as building relationships, but it’s difficult to quantify that. How do you quantify relationship building or developing community-centric relationships?” 

For young, racialized climate justice activists, problematic power imbalances between them and funders are keeping them from conducting meaningful work. Lauren tells me how there is often a lot of extra effort to verify that they’re worthy of the funds, and still quite a paternalistic stance that funders have over what they think their community needs. 

“A lot of young, racialized climate justice activists are cash strapped. They don’t have money to be making some of their projects go further. You need to receive the backing of someone else in order to deem you and your project credible, when really, it’s like you believe in the idea but you don’t have the network or connections to make that happen.” 

If the climate crisis feels hard to grasp, local solutions can feel just as mystifying. What would it look like for funders to trust in emerging organizations or to fund something that may ‘fail’? What would it mean for organizations in the philanthropic sector to be open to a different meaning of ‘impact’ or really listen to the folks who have the most to lose? 

I think venturing into “having what it takes” starts by getting back to the “love of humanity” that the WINGS report mentions and an organization’s initiative to do some radical reflection about what type of systems they’re contributing to. From that place, we should all expect and welcome a slurry of mistakes, ownership, and re-dos. But when we try again, we must not lose sight of the optimism of the future and remember what it takes to get there. Does philanthropy have what it takes to advance climate justice and the SDGs? I’d like to think so. But for the sake of the future, I hope I can soon say that I know so. 


Additional Resources

About Lauren Castelino 

Lauren is the Co-Executive Director of Regenesis, one of Canada’s largest student-led environmental organizations. She is also the founder of the Green Career Centre, where she prepares underrepresented youth for green careers. Over 

more than six years, Lauren has reached thousands of youth through developing environmental programs and sharing career development resources. Impressively, Lauren has secured more than a million dollars for BIPOC-led and impact-driven organizations which has financed the creation of scores of environmental events, dozens of green jobs, three community gardens, and a space for a soup kitchen. Lauren has been recognized by Corporate Knights, The Starfish Canada, Metroland Media and politicians for her work. Lauren’s Master’s of Environmental Studies research focuses on investigating the funding struggles of young racialized climate justice activists through cellphilm making, and she is looking forward to amplifying these perspectives throughout her advocacy journey.