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Environmental Philanthropy: Stories to Inspire

Harnessing the power of the law to protect the planet

From our grantmaking and other work in the US, my late husband Michael and I had extensive experience in using the law to effect systemic change. We realised that no one in Europe was doing this kind of public interest legal work focused on the environment, at least not at scale, so in 2008 we founded ClientEarth. It harnesses the power of the law to protect the planet and the people who live on it. 

We hired an American associate and friend, James Thornton, to develop this new organisation. Our initial investment was in James and his years of expertise, plus guaranteed funding of $200,000 (£150,000) per year for three years to test the success of such a venture. We are still very much invested (both in funding and in board work), now to the tune of $2.5 million (just under £2 million) and growing. 

We were first funders of both the Natural Resources Defense Council and EarthJustice in the US in 1971 and still fund them both to this day. With our support, they established strategies to encourage enforcement of the US’s first environmental laws. James was one of those early environmental lawyers with whom we worked closely, especially on a clean water enforcement project that actually became a shadow Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for ten years, until the US government finally allowed the EPA to continue this work. 

Working hand in hand with James in those early ClientEarth years in London, we gradually educated the environmental community (both charitable organisations and philanthropic funders) about the value of law. ClientEarth has gone on to become not just the first European but the first global public interest law firm. Its impact in these first twelve years has been extraordinary. Its successes have included bringing the first clean air case before the UK courts, and ultimately winning that case – the first environmental case the UK’s newly established Supreme Court ever heard and decided. ClientEarth continues its efforts to enforce the UK’s Clean Air laws and force the government to comply. 

ClientEarth has developed a legal strategy of challenging old and new coal-fired power plants across Europe in our climate change battles. For example, we filed a shareholders’ lawsuit against Europe’s largest planned plant – to be constructed in Poland – on the basis that it would expose the company, and thus its shareholders, to ‘indefensible’ climate-related financial risks. The court declared the company’s resolution to proceed invalid, leaving the project without finance and the plant therefore unlikely ever to be built. 

These results show the intrinsic value of supporting a legal approach. Nowhere else have I found the opportunity to get such extraordinary leverage of my foundation money that ultimately affects such a large number of people. This is truly a venture capital approach to philanthropy: high risk and high reward! 

I have found great joy and satisfaction in using my business skills in philanthropic endeavours. Over fifty years of philanthropy both in the UK and US has given me the opportunity to constantly learn and adapt to changing challenges, enjoy professional relationships, take risks (not all succeed and that’s OK), and ‘give back’ to society for my privileged position in it. By nature, I have always been driven to ‘make a difference’ in my life and in those of others. It has been quite a journey so far.