John Doerr is well known in Silicon Valley circles, having been an early investor in Google, DoorDash, and Slack, not to mention Amazon, located in Seattle. The chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins has also been a pioneer in Silicon Valley’s cleantech movement to study and fund entrepreneurs specializing in climate change solutions.
With so much already invested in the region and the sector, it made sense that Doerr recently donated $1.1 billion to Stanford University to fund a school that focuses on climate change and sustainability.
Doerr and his wife, Ann, announced the donation in early May. It is the largest-ever gift to a university for the establishment of a new school and the second-largest gift of any kind to an academic institution, trailing only Mike Bloomberg’s 2018 donation of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University.
With the Stanford donation, the Doerrs will play a leading role in funding climate change research and scholarship. The gift also puts Stanford front and center in the fight to reverse climate change and reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“Climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science,” said John Doerr. “This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.”
The school will be known as the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and house traditional academic departments that focus on planetary science, energy technology, food-and-water security, and other topics. It will also be home to several interdisciplinary institutes and a center that aims to develop practical policy and technology solutions to climate change and global warming.
“The school will absolutely focus on policy issues and on asking what would it take to move the world toward more sustainable practices and better behaviors,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told the NYT.
Doerr’s donation comes at an opportune time for climate research, which is still struggling to attract philanthropic dollars. As recently as 2019, less than 2% of global philanthropic spending was dedicated to climate change mitigation, according to the ClimateWorks Foundation.
In an updated annual report released last fall, ClimateWorks found that climate change mitigation philanthropy experienced “meaningful growth” over 2020. Even so, it remained below 2% of total philanthropic giving worldwide – “not nearly sufficient to meet the rapidly growing intensity of the climate crisis,” the foundation stated.
There have been positive developments, and many involve ultra-wealthy donors such as Doerr.
As The Business Download reported earlier this year, a fund established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to combat climate change announced a new round of grants to fund work on nature conservation and restoration, tracking climate goals, and supporting underserved communities’ efforts to protect the environment. The Bezos Earth Fund launched in February 2020 with a $10 billion commitment from Bezos to fund grants for scientists, activists, and others who work to protect the environment and advance economic opportunities.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, announced three years ago that he would spend $500 million to help close coal-fired power plants. Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates has already put billions into various environmental/climate technologies and causes through his Breakthrough Energy investment firm and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Doerr told The New York Times that his inspiration to address climate change came in 2006 after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s film. The following year, Gore joined Kleiner Perkins, which has gone on to make several major investments in clean energy companies
Doerr and his wife are also signatories to The Giving Pledge, an initiative co-founded by Gates, his ex-wife Melinda French Gates, and Warren Buffett. The idea behind The Giving Pledge is to persuade ultra-wealthy people to give away most of their fortunes either during their lifetimes or in their wills.
In terms of his family’s charitable giving, Doerr said climate and sustainability rank as the most important of their causes.