Warming Family Dynamics While Cooling the Climate: A Small Foundation Makes a Major Impact

Story in: Client Profiles

The Edwards Mother Earth Foundation (EMEF) of Washington State, founded in 1997 by Robert L. Edwards, didn’t start out with a clear directive to fight climate change through energy efficiency. In fact, the foundation had only a vague mission of supporting “the sustainability of life on the planet.” Founding Director and current President, Sonia Baker (Edwards’ daughter), says that in practice, this meant that the foundation practiced “checkbook philanthropy,” making grants to local organizations that protect the environment and help to build human community.

When Robert L. Edwards died in 2001, the foundation expanded. “My father left all his resources to the foundation at the time of his death and that meant a big influx of resources and assets with just my brother and me on the board,” says Baker. An invitation was issued to the family at large and five family members (generation three) joined the foundation.

The new board didn’t function like the proverbial well-oiled machine. “The early years were spent figuring out where to spend the money,” Sonia says. It was a job made more complex by the family’s dispersed geography and busy lives. And the foundation’s broad mission statement wasn’t exactly facilitating philanthropic or family cohesion. Board members began by funding pet projects in their own communities, which led eventually to disagreements and friction. “Things got to a point where we needed outside help,” Sonia remembers. “We were introduced to Foundation Source, and that’s made all the difference.”

In 2004, EMEF outsourced its back-office administration to Foundation Source, and in 2005, Chief Philanthropic Officer Page Snow facilitated a strategic planning retreat to help the board fine-tune its mission and achieve greater impact with their giving. “Page was wonderful,” says Sonia. “She brought her expertise and without telling people what to do, she opened up possibilities so we could make better decisions.” The board identified three areas of common interest: sustainable building practices, biodiversity, and environmental justice.

For the next two years, the family divided itself into three teams dedicated to these three issues. During that time, they grew to appreciate the efficacy of a more focused mission. They also deepened their appreciation for each other. “The value to the family has been not only in making a difference, but also in deepening familial relationships,” says Sonia.

In February 2007, the day after scientists confirmed that humans were contributing to global climate change, EMEF held a special meeting. They voted to narrow their mission to a single focus and grant $1 million annually for five years on a response to climate change. But what could they do to make a measurable impact on such an enormous issue? They didn’t want to squander their capital on a scattershot approach. Before committing their resources, EMEF wanted to confer with the most knowledgeable experts in the field.

Drawing on Foundation Source’s extensive network of specialists and experts, Snow introduced the possibility of hiring David Gardiner, former Executive Director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton, as an EMEF consultant. “We were so lucky to get David!” Baker says. “I think his decision to work with us might have had to do with family. David also has a large family and a piece of property in Maine that they run like a family foundation. I think the family situation appealed to him.” After several months of research, David Gardiner & Associates (DGA) and the board began to identify areas where EMEF might make the most measureable impact. They reached some surprising conclusions.

“We decided that the cheapest, cleanest, fastest way to make a difference would be to implement energy efficiency policy change within states,” Baker says. “Getting more use out of the power we already generate means we don’t have to build as many new coal-fired power plants—the biggest source of greenhouse gases.” In addition, the cost of delivering energy efficiency is only 25% of the cost of building a new power plant. EMEF had found their leverage point!

The challenge would be to change state rules that govern electricity markets. Traditionally, under those rules, utility companies only make money by selling more power—hence the constant push for more power plants. “We wanted public utilities and utility commissions to start making regulations where energy efficiency is considered a source of alternative energy, just like wind power or solar. We wanted to show that these utilities didn’t have to build more plants to produce more energy—that they could save what they needed through efficiency.”

To begin their efforts, DGA identified several states where electric utilities, advocates, political leaders, or other actors might be receptive to a push for increased energy efficiency. In dialogue, the board decided on Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho. (Additional states were added subsequently.) The EMEF Board then divided into state teams and, together with DGA consultants, met with state leaders and local environmental, legal, and grassroots organizations that might be interested in joining the effort and enlisting additional regional support. Organizations that passed the vetting process received grants to advance energy efficiency in their home state.

At first, some foundation members were a little slow to embrace their mission. “Energy efficiency isn’t something you cuddle up to,” Baker explains. “It’s difficult. Those of us on the board have varying levels of ‘wonkiness!’” However, once the results data started to come in following year three, the foundation’s dramatic success turned those who may have been doubters into enthusiastic proponents.

From 2008 through 2010, EMEF contributed to meaningful successes and significant improvements in energy efficiency, including helping to:

  • Increase utility efficiency investment by more than $160 million—57 times the foundation’s investment.
  • Save at least 3,579,365 Megawatt Hours of energy (the equivalent of shutting down one 500 MW coal plant.)
  • Avoid at least 5,599,361 tons of CO2 emissions (the equivalent of removing over 1 million cars from the road).
  • Save consumers at least $395,489,467 in energy bills.

EMEF has also seen their cause gain political traction. In 2000, only two states had energy efficiency standards. Since 2007, more than 19 states have adopted them. By 2012, according to DGA, at least 26 states accounting for 65% of the United States’ electricity demand had adopted energy efficiency standards. And if there is continued support for energy efficiency programs in the seven EMEF states, the results will be even more dramatic. In those states, EMEF anticipates that by the year 2020, energy efficiency will save 40,548,000 Megawatt Hours of energy, the equivalent of shutting down 7 coal-fired power plants, and will avoid almost 28 million tons of CO2 emissions (the equivalent of removing 5.5 million cars from the road). “Our success has been a real emotional boost for the board,” Baker attests.

The foundation has derived great satisfaction not only from its results, but also from interacting with its grantees. “Another thing we’ve done is we’ve brought representatives from our grantees to several forum retreats. It’s a way for these people to network and work together. It also is helpful to the grantees and the board to see where we’re going. What are the hurdles? What do they see coming down the pike? What solutions might we try? It’s a way of grounding each other in our relationships and it’s a great learning experience for the board.”

In addition to becoming an engine for environmental change, the foundation has also become a training ground for future generations of family leaders. Three second-generation family members recently left the board and were replaced by new members from generations three and four. “We do keep focusing on wanting this foundation to be made up of family as long as we have sufficient interested family members to do it,” Baker reports. “We’ve had great input from board members on the policy and operations handbook. We want new members to know our history and how we got here. Where we go from here is their job and it will be their leadership that has to carry it on.”