Salesforce expands $6m Catalyst Fund to focus on climate justice leaders

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 22, 2024
Summary:
Unrestricted grants mean under-represented leaders don’t have to write “a new academic thesis and do multiple phone calls” just to have a shot at investment.

SALESFORCE
Rebecca Ferguson

When Salesforce launched its Catalyst Fund, the aim was to make it easier for under-represented leaders to access funding without the usual obstacles and restrictions.

Since 2021, Salesforce has distributed $6 million in funding to 50 non-profit organizations. The first $2 million was focused on addressing inequities in education, economic opportunity, and racial justice; round two saw Salesforce ringfence $1 million specifically for Black-led organizations; and for its third and latest funding round, Salesforce has expanded to include non-profits focused on climate justice. 

A key aspect of the Catalyst Fund is the recognition that philanthropy often flows to larger, more established organizations, explains Rebecca Ferguson, SVP of Philanthropy at Salesforce and CEO of Salesforce Foundation. Salesforce instead invests in younger, smaller organizations that have deep ties to the communities they're working with and the issues they're working on. Ferguson adds:

Oftentimes, those organizations are overlooked or have a harder time tapping into philanthropic capital; also a recognition that non-profit leaders spend a lot of time chasing funding, and then once they secure it, reporting on progress. The Catalyst Fund also offers unrestricted capital, to help lower the administrative burden.

What that means in practise is the amount the grantee receives can be used wholly at their discretion, as opposed to traditional donations, which are often dependent on doing work that aligns with the funders’ priorities. Ferguson explains:

The beauty of the Catalyst Fund dollars has been, we're not going to tell you to spend a dollar on buying a new copy machine or a dollar on developing a new program. It’s a trust in those leaders that they know the right thing for the organization at this time that's going to help them scale their programs, build up the backbone of the organization, experiment, and follow a new thread or idea.

Of the 15 organizations in this round, three are specifically working on climate justice schemes:

  • The Clean Energy Leadership Institute helps young professionals across the US get expertise and build their networks in the space.
  • Washington DC-based Sharing the Power Foundation aims to build the next generation of diverse climate leaders through leadership development, advocacy and community organizing.
  • Youth Negotiators Academy aims to equip future climate leaders with the skills they need through training, mentorship, and opportunities for civic engagement. It delivers its programs via a UK-based non-profit. 

Each of these three groups has been awarded $100,000. Currently, just two percent of global philanthropy flows to support climate, something Salesforce is keen to help redress. 

A further seven non-profit groups have been awarded $100,000 each, focused on areas like teaching STEM to underserved youth and helping undocumented students find scholarships.

Choices

When it comes to choosing which groups to invest in, Salesforce focuses on understanding the mission and team rather than needing to see hard evidence. Ferguson explains:

For younger, smaller organizations, they may not always have the data or the model proven out, but we want to understand the vision of where the organizations and the leaders are headed, where they want to go, the things that they use to evaluate the success of how they're doing. Those are key dimensions for us. We’re also interested in the team they have built to deliver on that work, both the leader and the composition of the people working on it.

The firm has intentionally tried to keep the administrative burden and paperwork pretty light. Ferguson shared a story from the leader of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute on why that’s important:

She was reflecting on how $100,000 might sound like a small amount, but that the funding is literally giving her the space to be able to sleep better at night and focus on advancing the program goals rather than chasing the next grant application. 

For a separate grant that was for half the amount, it took her more than 40 hours to complete the application, she had to develop a new academic thesis, do multiple phone calls and rounds before she even knew if she did or didn't get the funding.

The time spent on a laborious application process distracts leaders of smaller groups from doing the programmatic work to achieve their remit. 

As well as adding a new area of climate justice, Salesforce has chosen to reinvest $1 million in five groups from its first funding round, each of which will get an additional $200,000 unrestricted grant.

These include America On Tech, which has grown its tech sector partnerships since its initial grant, resulting in over $1.5 million in internship wages for students, and has also expanded to Miami. 

UK-based Football Beyond Borders is another Catalyst Fund success story. The organization has grown its service reach by 25% and expanded in the West Midlands region.

Salesforce has also reinvested in Australian organization DeadlyScience, which provides STEM resources to Indigenous learners.

Ferguson says the decision to evolve the Catalyst Fund in this way, to have space to keep adding new organizations but reinvest in existing ones, was key to continue being able to support the really promising organizations in growing their programs, their reach and their capacity. 

Previous grantees have cited three main benefits of getting a Catalyst Fund grant, Ferguson says:

Across the board we're hearing that the funding has helped increase capacity for things like improving their operations, maybe hiring key staff. Also some great stories about helping them increase the number of people that they serve. A really interesting one that we're excited to follow a little bit more is being helpful in helping them unlock additional funding flows.

While the 15 organizations are spread across the US, UK, Australia and Canada, there’s currently no direct investment in firms based in regions like Africa or Asia, where climate change is arguably an even more pressing issue. Ferguson says the decision on which groups to invest in is often down to staff involvement. Football Beyond Borders, for example, was brought to the company’s attention through its employee base, as some Salesforce staff are actively engaged with the group. 

Often we get a lot of great one plus one equals three when we also are able to tap into our employee base, and their excitement and interest in rolling up their sleeves and volunteering. That means sometimes we have more of a presence in where we live and work. But in our climate portfolio, we definitely hold very central to, how do we make sure those most impacted by climate change are at the heart of climate solutions.

My take

Speaking to Ferguson about the Catalyst Fund brought to mind comments made by one of the 2024 Oscar winners from underrepresented groups. Collecting his award for Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction (which is excellent and hilarious, by the way, and I highly recommend watching), the film’s writer and director Cord Jefferson made a plea to Hollywood to give more people the opportunity he’d been given, by spreading funding out. Instead of making one $200 million movie, he said, try making 20 $10 million movies or 50 $4 million movies. 

Ferguson agrees with the sentiment, noting it’s about creating space for both big, bold and ambitious bets, and smaller investments. She explains:

It doesn't have to be just one or the other. It's a bit of a portfolio in that sense. Some of it too is having an awareness of that, in making certain choices, there can be a lot of unintended consequences or assumptions in that.

Can you create space and opportunity for both of those things to exist to make large investments in great established organizations, but also make sure those new ideas and promising teams have capital at critical stages in their organizational life cycle that can help them take their work to the next level.

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