How Climate Partnerships Can Change the World

Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, F20, is matching the aspirations of philanthropic leaders with projects that advance the world’s transition to clean energy


Growing up in the Philippines, Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, F20, learned early on to value the interconnections between her country’s natural resources and farming communities. Her father worked for the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, and the family lived on the institute’s campus, surrounded by nonprofit professionals supporting sustainable agriculture. 

In time, the environmental awareness that Ronquillo-Ballesteros developed as a child would become the springboard for a career in climate finance, also known as sustainable finance, which funds the world’s transitions to clean, renewable energy. 

Today she is a managing director of global climate strategies with Climate Lead, a nonprofit organization that serves as an impartial guide helping philanthropists take immediate and far-reaching climate action. She also served as a climate policy advisor to the government of the Philippines on matters relating international climate negotiations. 

“I come from that part of the world where climate change is having an intense impact,” she says, citing how rising sea levels and extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods, and droughts pose severe threats to coastal communities. “Yet the poorest countries are least able to cope with these climate-related challenges. That’s why I chose to work in this field and why I will continue. Climate action to me must  protect and safeguard the interests and the wellbeing of the most vulnerable populations.” 

Pivotal Partnerships 

One key pivot point in Ronquillo-Ballesteros’ career was the hybrid Global Master of Arts Program (GMAP) at The Fletcher School. The program was a perfect mid-career fit. Ronquillo-Ballesteros was living in Maryland, working full time as director of programs and strategy at Eileen Rockefeller and Paul Growald’s family fund (now named Growald Climate Fund), which invests in the transition to clean energy, and parenting three teenagers. 

GMAP offered an opportunity to not only bolster her leadership and management skills, but also to build a global network of like-minded professionals. “Fletcher to me was about building trusted relationships,” she says, “and, most importantly, they were from all around the world.”

She saw, as well, an opportunity to anchor her career in a philosophy born out of her own experience: that partnerships are a vital part of the climate change equation.

When Ronquillo-Ballesteros started her career, she worked as a journalist. But it was as a concerned citizen that she joined the fight against a controversial coal-fired power project that threatened to displace local populations and threaten their natural ecosystems. The opposition was not successful, but that defeat started her thinking about why it happened and how major funders, like the Asian Development Bank, influenced project outcomes. That campaign has later resulted in the ADB’s decision to eventually move out of financing coal fired power projects in the region.

She continued her activism by focusing on pragmatic solutions, eventually becoming part of a cohort that built partnerships with the public and private sectors to set new renewable energy and energy efficiency targets. The group successfully argued that electric utilities should scale renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and then incorporate demand-side management—encouraging consumers to modify their level and pattern of electricity usage. “Together with renewable energy, it’s one of the best forms of energy conservation,” says Ronquillo-Ballesteros, “and a key factor in rethinking the need for more coal plants.”

Fast forward to the Fletcher School where she had an opportunity to expand on the value of partnerships. In her case study of Southeast Asia (with a focus on Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines), she advocated for “radical collaboration and unconventional approaches to partnerships, especially in emerging economies.”

Collaborative philanthropy “goes beyond traditional charitable giving,” she says. “These new partnerships, I firmly believe, can have a powerful impact on advancing holistic and systems-based approach to climate solutions.”

Find What Is Meaningful 

Ronquillo-Ballesteros says that fundraising could be a long game but we need to act with the speed and scale required by the climate crisis. Exhilarating, transformative gifts only happen with consistent and patient investment in relationships. Her tireless optimism helps her and her organization to match donors with projects that can have profound positive impact.

Among the notable gifts are those collaborative approaches that support scaled climate strategies that address the problems systemically. This includes the Drive Electric campaign, which is converting to all-electric vehicles in the U.S., Europe, China, and India. Philanthropy’s role here is key in helping create the right political and market conditions for the transition to 100% clean, zero emissions transportation by 2050.The campaign resonated with both experienced philanthropists and new donors to climate mobilizing significant funding in less than two years.

Another example is the global campaign to end tropical deforestation by 2030 in Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo. Existing climate and land-use funders partnered with new donors to mobilize millions of dollars to Forests, People, Climate.

“These are examples of how philanthropy is having an impact. "At Climate Lead," says Ronquillo-Ballesteros, “we help donors identify what is meaningful to them, and then curate roadmaps in partnership with a diverse network of experts that encompass high-impact, transformational solutions. As a result, together, we can achieve some extraordinary things." 

Incentivizing Activities

Ronquillo-Ballesteros and her colleagues also steer climate philanthropy to help governments reach urgent goals. In the Paris Agreement of 2015,192 countries each committed to a national climate change action plan, and the clock is ticking to achieve the targets in those plans. National decision-makers need to make good on the agreement by incentivizing climate-friendly policies and programs, she says.

Philanthropy can help get those incentives up and running. “That is our homework: to give resources to those local and national initiatives,” she said. “In addition to global efforts to reduce emissions, we need to focus major investments in response to the needs of countries for their transition and of communities on the ground. If we don’t, we're never going to win this fight.”

She also finds donors encouraged by U.S. efforts such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which in part unlocks federal dollars to support under-resourced communities making a clean energy transition, she says.

“We facilitate that by creating a portfolio of high-impact climate solutions and act as impartial guide to scaled giving so it’s easier for a new donor to support people who are doing amazing work on the ground. We also advise them to give directly to organizations as well as give via a pooled fund, where experienced climate funders combine their resources with that of other donors. By aggregating individual climate solutions into a set of scalable strategies and outlining ways to provide resources directly into the ecosystem, they have powerful impact.”

Scaling up Impact 

Climate philanthropy can help close a massive investment gap in climate friendly technologies and programs, especially in emerging economies, Ronquillo-Ballesteros says. 

“The flow of finance, both from public and private sources, has increased, but it's nowhere near the $9 trillion estimated to be needed annually to green our economies and build climate resilience,” she says.

Currently less than 2% of global philanthropy goes to climate, a figure that ClimateWorks Foundation says “still falls short” of what’s needed to address the global climate crisis. 

That’s a rallying cry for Ronquillo-Ballesteros; it keeps her sharply focused on supporting climate philanthropy’s aim to raise billions of dollars in the next five years.

That ambitious goal “is the first reason I continue to be excited about being part of climate philanthropy,” she said. “Our community has the tenacity and the audacity to accelerate philanthropic giving for outsized climate impact. There is wealth out there, but you just need to have strategic partnerships between philanthropic organizations and the broader ecosystem to navigate and help the donors through their journey so they can give at scale.”

She also is excited by how those gifts have international and intersectional reach, spanning causes such as development, green infrastructure, health, and social entrepreneurship. 

Since Climate Lead grew its diverse staff in the past three years, more than half of the resources raised have gone outside the U.S. and Europe, “which means we're helping mobilize resources for Asia, for Africa, for Latin America, and for vulnerable countries,” she says. “When you see money being channeled to under-resourced organizations in the world doing amazing work—securing land rights for indigenous peoples, mangrove restoration, restoring Africa's degraded lands, protecting pristine rainforests and biodiversity, promoting wind and solar for climate and for energy access and empowering youth climate justice leaders—it gives me hope.”

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