Climate Conservation Reports

Sustainable Cities: The role of philanthropy in promoting urban sustainability


Commissioned by the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network (CEGN), this report outlines some of the key issues related to urban sustainability in Canada, profiles some of the promising approaches, and explores various roles that the philanthropic community could play in moving communities forward in this field.

Sustainable cities are viewed as those that meet our human need for healthy and diverse habitats while preserving non-renewable resources for future generations and staying within the limits of local, regional and global ecosystems.

Increasingly, our notions of sustainability are influenced by complementary approaches to economic and social issues. Sustainable cities also focus on well-being and livability as measures of success within a “generative economy” rather than simply using economic growth as a yardstick for progress. Finally, a city that is able to draw on a rich mosaic of cultures, perspectives, and skills should, like a biological organism, be more resourceful, more innovative and more resilient.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that direct philanthropic support for charities makes up a tiny percentage of the financial resources available for this work; earned revenues and government grants make up the lion’s share of most community organization’s budgets. Government and private investments in the built environment dwarf all other financial sources that could be aligned with sustainability principles. However, foundations can tackle issues and support innovative approaches in a way that governments and the private sector cannot or will not.

This report is intended as a starting point for a broader discussion about strategic philanthropy in support of more sustainable cities. Some of the roles that foundations might consider are as follows:

  • Frame “sustainability” in a holistic way, emphasizing the link among environmental,economic, and social characteristics;
  • Design strategies, including granting parameters, that place a premium on collaboration within the environmental movement, with other sectors and across domains (health, education, recreation, economic, etc.)
  • Use their brokering skills to convene and nurture partnerships among municipal governments, community organizations, and the private
  • Provide support for promising and innovative initiatives that, if successful,can then be scaled up and financed by the public or
    private sector;
  • Strengthen the individual and collective capacity of community organizationsto innovate, to work constructively with difference
    and conflict, and to deliver results;
  • Collaborate with other foundations: co-creating initiatives, sharing lessons,and supporting the creation of a new narrative;
  • Establish impact investing policies for their endowments and create pools of capital for green technologies and sustainable real
    estate development with an emphasis on social impact.

Challenges for philanthropic funders in the field of urban sustainability

There are considerable challenges for philanthropic funders seeking to work and have impact in the field of urban sustainability. These include:

  • The path to urban sustainability is very complicated and difficult to understand fully. In some communities, nonprofits and academics are playing a critical role in identifying the levers of change and strategizing the way forward with other key stakeholders. Funders can support this work but this careful and strategic thinking needs to come from within the community.
  • The amount of philanthropic money available is small compared to the size of the problems being addressed. Developing innovative ways to leverage philanthropic support to garner additional resources from governments and the private sector is both a challenge and an opportunity for the nonprofit community.
  • The urban sustainability sector is characterized by a large number of small groups undertaking hyper localized projects. While such projects are worthwhile in themselves, they are not “game changers” unless they can
    be scaled up. This will require consistent funder support over the longterm and even collaboration among funders in order to maximize the impact of limited philanthropic resources. Funder support for capacity building
    within nonprofits, as well as support for networking among nonprofits to help ensure a greater common purpose would also be useful.
  • Funders involved in urban sustainability issues often have to face the question of how best to work with municipal governments. Identifying the best form of cooperation can be tricky. The challenge for funders is to
    identify initiatives that municipalities do not have the resources to initiate on their own but could carry through with and scale up once they are of proven value.
  • There is a lack of vehicles for facilitating learning among funders interested or involved in this sector. Funders collaborate in informal ways, but in practice, there is little cross-fertilization in terms of which funding strategies are working or not working, identification of promising groups suitable for funding, and so on.
  • Urban sustainability is an emerging field that is characterized by the need for deep systemic change. Transformative changes are being hampered by the existing policy framework but could be facilitated by supportive policy changes. Making policy change at any government level requires a realistic assessment of political forces, investment in research, convening the relevant stakeholders, building long term relationships with agents of change
    within governments, and long-term commitment to non-profit allies and carriers of key messages.

The Local Sustainability Matching Fund, USA

In partnership with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities created the Local Sustainability Matching Fund in 2011. The Fund was created with support from four Network members: the Kendeda Fund, the New York Community Trust, the Summit Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation. The purpose of the Fund is two-fold: to catalyze partnerships between local government sustainability directors and local, place-based foundations, including community foundations, and to advance important community-based sustainability initiatives. The Fund provides partnership investments between $25,000 and $75,000, with a 1:1 match required by one or more local foundations. In round one, five awards were given for a total of $500,000 (e.g., in Salt Lake City, $25,000 went to fund Clean Air Neighborhoods, a neighborhood-based social marketing campaign to help individuals negotiate barriers to alternative transportation.) Round two is currently in progress. The response to round one was overwhelming: the Network hosted a conference call to provide more information on the fund and review the selection criteria and over 500 signed on and 35 full proposals were received. A selection committee comprised of foundation representatives and urban sustainability directors makes the selection decisions.