As part of our 20th birthday celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Pam Davis, President, Global Philanthropic (Europe), interviews James Thornton, CEO, Client Earth.

James Thornton launched ClientEarth in 2007, sparking fundamental change in the way environmental protections are made and enforced across Europe. Now operating globally, ClientEarth uses advocacy, litigation and research to address the greatest challenges of our time – including nature loss and climate change.

Full Transcript: 

Pam Davis 0:00
Hello, Global Philanthropic is 20 years old this year, and we are commemorating this anniversary with #Global20. Twenty interviews with thought leaders and opinion makers about philanthropy. I’m delighted to welcome James Thornton, founding CEO of Client Earth who launched the organization in 2006, with a focus on changing the system, advising decision makers on policy and training legal and judicial professionals. Welcome, James,

James Thornton 0:27
Thank you very much.

Pam Davis 0:29
The first question that I want to ask you is what was missing in the environmental conservation landscape that you believed Clint Earth could accomplish?

James Thornton 0:37
Well, when I came to the, to Europe, I moved to Europe about 18 years ago. And I looked around at the environmental landscape in the UK and the rest of Europe at that point. And I was amazed that lawyers had so little involvement in protecting the environment. Growing up in the US and becoming a US lawyer first, I helped build a very, very important organization in the United States called the NRDC, which is lawyers and others working for the environment. So it was a normal thing for me to see lawyers involved in the environmental movement.

And I came here and I went around and met leaders in the UK, in Brussels and other capitals, and saw that there were very few lawyers. So the environmental had grown in Europe. And when I say Europe, I’m including in the UK, despite recent events. It has grown very sophisticated policy, and on campaigning to very vital elements of changing things in the right direction for the moment. But I knew from personal experience that if you have the power of the law on your side, is tremendously, tremendously stronger. So you empower the movement. If you can go into legislatures, Parliament’s, and help write laws, as an expert, legal experts, not just a policy person, and then help people implement the laws. So whether it’s the European Commission, or a Defra, or wherever it may be, to implement the laws, and then when either governments or companies don’t do it the right way, if you can sue them. And so we sue people a lot, because people mess up a lot. So and there was no organized group of lawyers are doing this throughout the whole, the whole of Europe, and in the UK, despite the big organizations, there were just three or four lawyers. And in Brussels, there was not a single lawyer working for the environmental community.

And, you know, I went to the head of the European Parliament Environment Committee, and explained what I wanted to do, which was bring legal capacity to the whole community. And he said, this is such good news to me, I’ll tell you why. He said, I’m on your side. That’s why I’m head of the Environment Committee. But here’s what happens. We work on legislation. And then the environmental groups come in, and with very good intentions, they say, You must do the right thing. You must have these principles, these principles and these principles. And he said, Of course, I agree. But that’s as far as it goes. He said, then an hour later, BMW walks in. And they’re represented by four extremely expensive lawyers. And they hand me a 300 page document. And that document is all of the amendments to the legislation that they want to see, all written down, all very well written down. And then they explain why this is good for BMW, why is good for Europe and why it’s good for the world. And he said, you know, the balance is not you. So help me out here represent the environment represent the earth, and then there’ll be even argument that final.

So that is one of the things we are doing. So in Brussels now we have a team of 50 people who work with quality environmental groups, and we revise the European Commission. And we sue the European Commission, depending on where they’re getting it right or not, and sometimes defend them in court, we just won a case for them in court against the chemical industry. So helping write laws, then working with tons of environmental organizations supporting them, and empowering them because they had no legal support, generally speaking,

Pam Davis 4:31
So you really feel the gap there. And I’m wondering, given that the environment has traditionally not been at the top of the most popular areas to fund for philanthropists, what was the gap between your ambitions and what philanthropists understood and about what you wanted to do and what you wanted to accomplish? How do you negotiate that space set because that’s a very tough one.

James Thornton 4:54
Well, I negotiated with a lot of patience and enthusiasm I think that was, honestly, those are the two ingredients. And I had no money to do this at the beginning, I started up with a grant from the United States from old friend of $30,000. And that’s what got this hole going. And I started with a laptop in my bedroom. And then I had to study UK law and become a UK lawyer and then study EU law and become an EU lawyer, and then come up with a vision of what you could actually do with these tools.

And then once I came up with a vision, I started to engage in a series of conversations with philanthropists with foundations. And what was exciting because these are very smart people. And they, they want to do the right thing. And they were very open to the argument that here was a new set of tools to make things happen faster, and to empower all the other groups. So what I found was tremendous receptivity. And it took a while, it helped a lot, when even with a team of three, we had some victories, because I could go back to the people that I was in dialogue with and say, hey, look, and it works. It’s not just a good idea. So then what I found is that people quickly said, we can see that and, you know, so that the funding started early on to be as much as I could handle and it’s gone up about 25% a year every year. So we’ve gone from one person in their corner of their bedroom to almost 300 People now. And funding is about 28 million pounds or so.

So the response has been very, very positive and continuously rising. And now occasionally, I have people call up and say, I’m a foundation you’ve never heard of, could we talk? And what a wonderful thing that is, or I’m a person who does philanthropic giving, and we’ve had no contact. But could we have lunch? And that’s a remarkable thing. I think the community of philanthropists and foundations has really woken to the value of this. And it’s been a pleasure. I love working with philanthropists and foundations, you know, because you’re here, you love the same outcome, you’re looking for a same thing. And then you’re finding what’s the best way to play it together to make that happen?

Pam Davis 7:15
And how do you find the difference between somebody who might know about Environment and Conservation? And when you have to kind of inspire someone new to perhaps travel a little bit more than 50% of the way? And how do you handle that? Because that’s a tough one as well.

James Thornton 7:30
It is a tough one, actually, what I’m finding is I have fewer of those conversations now than I did 15 years ago, because people have been paying attention, you know, and because what I’ve been seeing in both Europe and the United States is that philanthropists are talking to other people who are philanthropists, and bringing them into the crowd of people who are supporting environmental work. And that’s true of foundations as well, foundations are going out and talking to other foundations, but for individuals also talking to other individuals. And that’s enormously helpful. And, in fact, it’s much more powerful than if I do it. Because, you know, I’m here representing organization, but a philanthropist as it turned out a philanthropist it’s 10 times more powerful. So that is one of the really great things going through this can be doing turning on other people.

Pam Davis 8:20
That’s great. That also picks up on a theme that that we’ve seen, which is more philanthropists and organizations collaborate collaborating towards the same end. What What have you seen around that in the past, let’s say two years during this at this very trying period that we’ve been in?

James Thornton 8:38
Yes, well, very much of that. I mean, so let me think of an example. Well, so Bloomberg, philanthropies is has become a supporter over recent years. And, you know, they have been very generous as has saved these who’s been our largest funder in, in the UK and globally, they both been very generous over the last many years, but in the last few years, in talking to others, other foundations and individuals that I have, and saying, you know, we support this work. And because we support it, we are very close to it. And we know it’s valuable, we know it’s worth funding. So why don’t you Why don’t you come in? And why don’t why don’t you talk to James as well. And that. So there you have an example of whether it’s safe for Bloomberg or or there there are many others who’ve been saying we’re involved in this, but actually more funding is needed. Could you join us and that’s been very exciting to see. And one of the things that are sort of on the other side is on the so the donor side is a parallel thing going on in the grantee side. So more and more and more. We have then working in partnership with organizations. And that could be bringing one case, but it’s very often working with them to really empower them, and then support them with intellectual property. And with funding that we bring in from donors that they wouldn’t have no access to. So the partnerships I find are on both sides, both the donor side and the grantee side, or where a lot of the action is, and where a lot of the excitement is, because of course, you are working in community then on both sides of the equation. And ideas develop better. And it’s also just a lot more sustaining, you know, because this isn’t such easy work, and to have a community on both sides is very sustaining, it helps you every morning when you get up.

Pam Davis 10:47
That’s great. I wonder to kind of stay on the same of philon philanthropists, what, what are you finding that philanthropists are saying to you about the impact? And what’s important to them? And when you go into talk to them, you know, kind of where do you start? Do you start by talking about yourself? Or do you start talking about the impact to help us that little bit? Because I think we find that often. People struggle with that. And I’m really interested, what is most compelling to philanthropists?

James Thornton 11:20
Well, I mean, in my experience, what, what I talked about is the is the impact. You know, I’m much more interested in talking about the work than talking about myself. So the, the impact is something using law really generates impact. So we can talk about impact. So we’ve stopped a generation of coal fired power stations in Europe. And in China, we’ve trained 1500 judges and 1300 prosecutors, and as a result, you know, they tell us that they’ve brought a couple of 100,000 cases, which is an amazing impact, you know, again, in China, our work was funded by the government as thoroughly underpinning in a very Chinese communist praise, thoroughly underpinning pending the government decision to decide not to fund or build coal fired power stations in all of the Belt and Road countries, which was immediately killing 100 million coal fired power stations at once. So and that’s just in one of the areas of our work, but the impact is so enormous. I mean, so what, what I always enjoy talking about is that we, you know, for this relatively small amount of money, this can be achieved, you know, and here’s what we’ve done.

Here’s the impact analysis has doing recently, which people might find helpful was, I sat down with my, my senior colleagues. And we said, so we know that philanthropic giving is the most important thing, you know, because unrestricted money is unbelievably important, you know, and much philanthropic money as unrestricted money. And it allows you to do everything you need to keep the people in the organization alive in your organization, as well as to do immediate things that need to be done that you can’t wait for two years of funding cycle to get money for who you said, we know that intuitively, it’s so obvious, and it’s on our spreadsheet. But what does it actually mean in terms of, you know, one pound when you’re $1, in achieves how much releases how much restricted funds. And that analysis was really eye opening, because what we in our own financial system found was that, you know, a one unit of philanthropic money, one pound, or one Euro $1, releases four times exactly that four times that amount in terms of restricted nine. So you can then go out and find so that you get five units to do the work for every unit of filmer, or money coming in. And that’s magical. I mean, that’s really hard average.

Pam Davis 14:01
That’s tremendous. I wonder, finally, as you’re looking ahead, and we’re thinking about trends, environmental philanthropy. What’s the good news? What’s the bad news? What are you seeing? James?

James Thornton 14:14
Well, the bad news would surprise you badnesses. There’s an awful lot of work to do. And, you know, the situation is, is quite dire for the environment and therefore for for people. Globally, we’re seeing the effects of climate change by and biodiversity is being brought down very quickly as well. So the problem is enormous.

The good news is that the the opportunity to fix it is also enormous. We actually know what needs to be done. And many governments are waking up to what needs to be done. You have that at the EU level, you have China making great moves. You have well intentioned people United States trying to make the same thing happen. So you have good governmental moves towards doing it, and then civil society to make this enormous, enormous contribution when governments aren’t moving fast enough. And when companies aren’t moving fast enough, organizations like Client Earth, and our partners can come in and require them to move faster. You know, you’re gonna see some litigation over the next few months on climate, that’s very, very important that we’ll be we’ll be doing and, indeed, we sued the UK Government a couple of weeks ago, because it wasn’t living up to its promises on reducing its emissions. So you can you see, the problem is big, some governments are getting it. And some companies are really wanting to do the right thing. And then civil society organizations can genuinely make them go faster, and have civil society organizations that will make the real difference.

And in terms of philanthropy, even though the environment is still a very small percentage of the overall giving. You know, what I see in a climate space in particular, is that new people are coming in, new people are waking up and saying, I need to be involved as a philanthropist here. Some of them are ultra rich, and some of them very ordinary people. And that’s very encouraging. So when you put those elements together, problem to solve ways to solve it, and people coming forward to fund it. I am very, very confident that we can save civilization if we do this all together.

Pam Davis 16:26
That’s very exciting, James, I wonder, just in a kind of final word, word. Would any of this have been possible without philanthropy?

James Thornton 16:35
No. In one word.

Pam Davis 16:39
Thank you James, I think your your observations and your experience that has been really helpful and I hope will inspire lots of people to get involved in philanthropy and getting involved in environmental philanthropy. We thank you for your time today.

James Thornton 16:53
Thank you very much. Pleasure.