Extinction Rebellion: What’s next and how can philanthropists get involved?

Mother nature is finally gaining a stronger voice. Last week, the UK declared an ‘environment and climate change emergency’, one of the key demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the campaign calling on the public to join their non-violent civil disobedience protests and pushing governments globally to prioritise environmental policies.

XR gained enormous momentum, with warnings from the likes of young climate activist Greta Thunberg, who held the UK government accountable for its role in creating climate change, and David Attenborough, whose latest documentary on climate change presents us with sobering climate facts. Despite this, however, XR has had little success with fundraising.

Since January, XR has mainly been funded through small, public donations of up to £50 raising almost £200,000 with a few additional private grants boosting the total up to £365,000. In comparison, Notre Dame raised $1 billion within 3 days of it catching fire during the first week of the XR demonstrations. Why hasn’t Extinction Rebellion had that same support from major donors?

Activism calls for change in society by promoting social and environmental justice and bringing reform, so any support it attracts is inherently political. But political giving is often deemed ‘risky’ by philanthropists who want to avoid the limelight, criticism and public enemies. Compounding this, the environment just isn’t seen as enough of a priority to funders; donations made to environmental causes represented less than 4% of total foundation giving in the UK.

With the amount of work required to radically reduce our carbon emissions, or even become carbon neutral, philanthropy will need to play a key role in driving the energy from the XR protests forward. Philanthropists can support XR to ensure that politicians work swiftly to put new policies in place, and work with the government to fund new, public infrastructure that is socially and environmentally just. If you are new to funding the environment, or haven’t supported XR yet and want to do so, here are three ideas of where to start:

1. Connect with and support core volunteers and emerging leaders

XR has been structured so that anyone can join in — it is inclusive and decentralised like many other mass movements that rely on wide public engagement to be heard and gain support. This means that sometimes, there are no clear leaders, and the movement depends on a central body of volunteers who are willing to fight long-term to keep pressure on the government to act. These people, however, also have their own lives to lead; they have work and family responsibilities and may become subject to burn-out if they are not taken care of. XR already has a transparent financial system in place and provides stipends to committed volunteers where possible. You could provide core, flexible funding directly to XR, as ultimately, it is best placed to allocate the funds to the volunteers that need it most. You could also donate to other organisations that support activist movements, such as the Green & Black Cross which provides activists in their rebellions with legal advice to equip people with the legal knowledge needed to protect the volunteers prepared to put themselves on the firing line.

2. Expect less control, but more impact

Activism is by no means glamourous and requires people to be daring in supporting the raw and unstructured energy of an issue before it becomes a priority and steps are taken to find solutions. There won’t be the possibility of being invited to attend galas and dinners in return for your support, but at the end of the day, by supporting a movement such as XR, you will have a planet to live on, and this must be enough.

3. Challenge your narrative

You may think that XR doesn’t quite align with the cause area you are most passionate about or the typical areas you fund, but the truth is intersectionality is vital to environmental activism. We have to be aware of how environmental issues affect people of all identities across the world if we want concrete change. Often, it is the most marginalised people and communities with limited access to support and resources who are most impacted by the extremities of climate change, as they are excluded from finding and accessing resources to mitigate disaster and create effective solutions. Make sure you do your research and challenge yourself to understand the multiple intricate and overlapping faces of the environmental issue you wish to address. You could even create spaces for public dialogue on these issues to ensure you are listening to diverse public perspectives. By understanding the issue holistically, you will be better placed to support sustainable and efficient solutions that are inclusive of everyone.

Now that XR has had its first win — getting the UK government to declare a climate emergency — it will be very hard for the movement to maintain this momentum and transform the public’s climate awakening and short burst of high energy into long-term policy and institutional change that puts the environment first. But with the right support from philanthropy, we may just have a chance at reversing the effects of climate change before it is too late.