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Reflections on social purpose: A client perspective

How environmental philanthropy can (literally) help save the world

2 min read


It might be the season of goodwill right now, but throughout all of 2019, the Coutts Institute has helped clients use philanthropy to support the causes that they care about most.

Whilst the motivations for wanting to help a charity or a campaign are unique to each person, there’s no doubt that 2019 has been the year when environmental issues have piqued a collective interest amongst our clients.

Good intentions are just the beginning

Against this backdrop, we were delighted to host a client event at our 440 Strand headquarters, in collaboration with the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) – a UK-based network that looks to improve not only the volume, and also the effectiveness, of financial support for environmental causes.

As well as aiming to demystify the field of environmental philanthropy, the event focussed on giving tangible examples of how philanthropists can have the best impact on the climate and biodiversity crises.

Expect opinions

The panel discussion was chaired by Rachel Harrington, Head of the Coutts Institute, who spends a lot of her time talking to clients and their families up-and-down the UK about philanthropy. As she explains, a trend has been gaining pace in 2019: “This year has seen more clients than ever, across all generations, wanting to help environmental causes. It’s a topic that comes with a sense of urgency, but also some fear and frustration about the scale and complexity of the challenge.”

Joining her on stage were four speakers who all shared their thoughts on the scale of the climate crisis, and their tips on what philanthropists can do to help:

The 3% reality

According to Florence Miller, Director of EFN, there’s a big mismatch between the problem and desire to fix it: “Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the world has experienced in 3 million years . Human civilisation has not existed with these levels of greenhouse gases. We’re already starting to see their effects, but this is just the beginning; there is a decades-long time lag when it comes to seeing their full impact on our climate and sea levels,” she said. “Despite this, the amount of money going to environmental causes in the UK and around the world from UK trusts and foundations has averaged at just £105 million per year. That represents about 3% of overall philanthropic giving from UK foundations. By way of comparison, education, health and arts and culture get more than 50% of funding. However, just as public concern about environmental issues has risen with astonishing rapidity in the last year, so are new donors starting to back the many solutions out there for the climate and biodiversity crises. Many wealthy individuals and families are realising that there isn’t really a more important legacy to leave than a habitable planet,” she concluded.


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Walking the talk

Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder of Ashden and the Ashden Trust, also acknowledged the scale of the climate crisis as she shared lessons learned from her 30-year philanthropy journey as a pioneer in the field of green energy and sustainable development. She advised new philanthropists to start by “splashing around in the shallows”, supporting lots of small, interesting initiatives and then focussing once they find the things that really interest them: “Funding for the environment or climate change encompasses almost every sector from the law and finance, and food and farming, to technology, health and international development.  Follow what interests you and what you might have expertise in, and you will find so many innovators and exciting opportunities out there to support.” She stressed the importance of trying to, “walk the talk”, to consider not just giving but also living, investing and doing business in a sustainable, low-carbon way. In her words: “Roll up your sleeves and get involved in every way you can”.

Don’t be paralysed by the quest for perfection

It was a sentiment echoed by Harvey Jones, founder of The Pig Shed Trust, who advocated getting stuck in if you want to make a practical difference.  He speaks from experience thanks to his hands-on work managing a 440-acre farm for wildlife conservation, and a sustainable scallop farm. But in his opinion, philanthropists should take the view that it’s better to get started and do something, than to try and wait until you’re the ‘perfect’ environmentalist: “'You can't be perfect in an imperfect world but you can look back and ask whether some good was done”.

On the front line

For Sophie Marple, co-founder of Gower St (a charitable foundation), feeling personally connected to the cause helps your philanthropy to yield the best results. As well as funding the Extinction Rebellion protests, for example, she also took part in them because she didn’t want to feel disconnected from the people taking action on the ground. She emphasised that “the climate crisis is going to touch every sector and is the red thread running through everything we fund as philanthropists – whether that’s children, refugees, health, poverty and so on– so find the thing you’re most interested in and passionate about, and start with how that connects.”

“This year has seen more clients than ever, across all generations, wanting to help environmental causes. It’s a topic that comes with a sense of urgency, but also some fear and frustration.”
Rachel Harrington, Coutts Foundation

Here to help

As Rachel explains, the desire to do something philanthropic is not as easy as throwing money at a problem: “As is often the case, a problem that attracts a philanthropist’s eye might be obvious, but the solutions are rarely simple. The scale and complexity of the climate and biodiversity crises can seem daunting, but there are many ways philanthropists can make a big difference with even modest sums.” She continued: “You don’t have to go it alone. The more you can learn from other donors and experts in the field, the quicker you’ll start to see an impact from your giving – and it will be a more enjoyable journey too. That’s where Coutts can help. Please do speak to your private banker if you’d like more information”.


The topic of social purpose is very close to our hearts at Coutts, with our long history of helping worthy causes. All colleagues who work here are entitled to the equivalent of 3 days out of the office a year, to volunteer.

In parallel with this article, you can read part two - Reflections on social purpose: A colleague perspective – which sheds light on some of our 2019 efforts, by clicking here.