Building climate resiliency through corporate philanthropy

This article is sponsored by Wells Fargo.

Another incredibly hot summer with record and near-record highs has hit across the United States even before school was out. Heat-related health and economic risks are increasing, particularly in urban areas, where pavement, building-density and scant green space can amplify temperatures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S. and extreme heat has a disproportionate effect on residents of low-income areas, the elderly and outdoor workers. Corporate climate philanthropy could be of increasing importance in supporting communities to build their resiliency against rising heat impacts, and the need for this support is rising along with temperatures.

As with any business initiative, effectiveness is important. The approach must align with the corporate philanthropic objectives and be focused on creating meaningful impact. By bringing a comprehensive approach, learning with pilot programs and empowering nonprofits to leverage incentives, corporate philanthropy can effectively help build resilient communities for future generations.

Comprehensive approach: Top-down and bottom-up strategies

Implementing both top-down and bottom-up approaches to sustainability philanthropy allows corporations to cover a broad spectrum of initiatives and engage multiple levels of their own organization. Senior-level relationship managers, whether chief sustainability officers or foundation leads, can be engaged in the identification of best practices through broad-scale initiatives with global and national organizations.


These organizations bring technical expertise and can leverage their large networks. Recently, Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Affiliates, Enterprise Community Partners and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have published “What’s Possible: Investing NOW for Prosperous, Sustainable Neighborhoods,” a collection of essays exploring the intersection of community development and climate resilience that highlights best practices with real-world examples of building climate resiliency and equity in communities. The project, which engaged executive leaders from all partner organizations, was funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation, reflecting Wells Fargo’s interests in safeguarding the opportunity to build generational wealth in all communities.

Simultaneously with the above top-down approach, engaging with smaller community organizations on the ground can build trust at the local level, promote equity, enhance credibility, as well as better align corporate philanthropic initiatives with the specific needs of a community. For example, The Wells Fargo Foundation’s sustainability philanthropy supported the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a local nonprofit developer in California’s Bay Area. The organization wanted to better position its sustainable affordable housing projects for larger scale funding, such as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), but needed support to conduct energy audits of its housing units. The audits will help CCDC specifically identify eligible activities that can be supported through the GGRF to reduce emissions, improve resiliency and improve operating costs.

For many community-based organizations that are resource constrained, receiving technical support to develop a pipeline of eligible projects is essential to attract funding for their grass-roots activities. This locally focused, bottom-up approach is an important way to implement climate resiliency efforts that are effective for the community and include local connections with the company, while linking to enterprise-wide initiatives that support resiliency broadly.

Pilot programs for scalable success

Supporting pilot programs enables corporations to test the feasibility and effectiveness of their climate philanthropic initiatives on a smaller scale before making a large commitment. If successful, these programs can be scaled up for broader implementation. This is particularly useful on issues that require new approaches and don’t lend themselves to one-size-fits-all solutions. One such issue is tackling energy efficiency and building decarbonization in rural communities, particularly those susceptible to extreme weather. The Beneficial Electrification League piloted a whole home retrofit for low- and moderate-income homes in rural areas by combining weatherization and high-efficiency electric appliances. By funding these demonstration projects, Wells Fargo was able to create positive impact for the residents, including one participant that was able to cut their monthly energy bill in half. The research that accompanied the pilot demonstrated overall effectiveness of the approach, and the initial support was followed up by a larger grant that expanded the program to additional locations. As seen in this example, the pilot approach can create proof-of-concepts that can eventually help to expand resources on strategies proven to be effective, maximizing the overall impact of corporate philanthropy efforts.

Leveraging federal climate incentives

Using cleantech and energy efficiency incentives can help corporations magnify the impact of their philanthropic funding. By strategically supporting organizations that can leverage available incentives, companies can amplify the reach of their charitable initiatives. This not only enhances the effectiveness of corporate climate philanthropy but also aligns with the goals of the federal funding policies, fostering collaboration between the private and public sectors for a more sustainable future.

One hallmark of the Inflation Reduction Act is the Direct Access provision, which allows nonprofits that haven’t been able to benefit from previously available tax credits to get a direct payment equivalent. It also means that nonprofits across the nation are scrambling to gain the technical knowledge and know-how to bring those incentives to the communities they serve. Wells Fargo’s sustainability philanthropy team worked with Groundswell, a nonprofit that works locally in five states, to develop a financial model specifically designed to leverage the direct pay provision with other forms of financing.


The Groundswell financing model allowed City of Refuge — a faith-based nonprofit in South Baltimore that serves a community facing increased impacts of high heat, flooding and severe weather — to implement a solar and battery storage installation. The project will not only create cost savings for the nonprofit but also will allow it to serve the community as a resiliency center, providing a location for critical services such as cooling, power and shelter during power outages and severe weather.

This summer, it will be important for corporate philanthropy to be responsive to the immediate demands — helping with the provisioning and staffing of cooling centers and other heat-related responses. Building effective and long-term community resiliency requires strong foundations and a thoughtful framework. Through a comprehensive approach, pilot programs and leveraging federal incentives, corporate philanthropy can play a pivotal role in protecting communities from the impacts of climate change.

[Join sustainability professionals driving transformation across their organizations with Trellis Network.]