Jon Scott is President and Director of Singing Field Foundation and Director of Corporate Relations and Legacy Gifts at Clean Water Action. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Jon about mission-aligned investing, reforming philanthropy, making our work fun, and more:
Interview with Jon Scott (edited transcript)
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
This is more from my [past] work of organizing and campaigning, where at the base of the food chain is door-to-door canvassing. That’s a pursuit that no one wants to do, and everyone thinks is horrible, but everyone agrees is important. It’s kind of like getting excited about telemarketing. All you’re going to be doing is being out in the 90 degree heat and people are going to be slamming their doors in your face, and no one wants to be visited.
What you find when you do that is quite a few people appreciate the opportunity for one-on-one human interaction. They appreciate learning more about a problem that they care about but may not have known the specifics about, and how they can make a difference. We think that people don’t like asking for money or being asked for money, but when you’ve had a meaningful conversation with someone, and it includes asking for money and an action, without fail the conversation ends with the person you have just visited saying, "Thank You."
The reason the old-fashioned, door-to-door model works is that people really crave human, unexpected interaction. People do care about the stuff that we care about. They don’t know that they’re waiting for someone to engage with them, and ask them to get involved, and show them how to do it. But when it does happen, and it happens over and over again thousands or tens of thousands of times a day, it creates community and connection.
There are tens of thousands of people doing organizing on a full spectrum of causes: environment, economy, politics. The other most rewarding part of my job is getting together with large numbers of people, especially from different places and background, and discovering how much we have in common in terms of hopes, vision, experiences…and having fun together.
I remember visiting a guy in the suburbs of Washington, DC, who didn’t seem particularly interested in environmental issues and wrote me a token check of $50. And I asked "What do you really care about?" because that’s a lot of money to give to a total stranger. And he said his church, which I later checked out, and became affiliated with. I think what’s powerful about that isn’t the religious part. He had no idea I would be affected that way, yet that put in motion a whole chain of things that changed my life in a significant way. And he might tell some other story about how my interaction with him initiated a whole series of other actions.
There are actions that we take for granted. I was helping prepare a meal for a group of young college volunteers who were biking across the country, stopping at communities along the way and doing one-to-two-day sort of Habitat for Humanity, weatherization-type projects (Bike & Build is the group’s name). I decided to talk to this group about a national clean water campaign that I’m working on. I didn’t think of them as environmentalists. Helping improve people’s lives was their main focus–they seemed more concerned with helping people with quality of life issues. They all responded incredibly enthusiastically. They all wanted to stay in touch–this is a group of 50 kids–and all of them wanted to have long, deep conversations about environmental and social justice issues.
My hope is that my interaction with that group touches them in way that I’ll never know. So, it’s sort of "paying it back." It makes me quite optimistic about the future, because it’s going to their future, not mine!
What is most alive in your work right now?
This represents an intersection of different parts of my life and work. Part of what I call my "day job" is finding and building partnerships between my non-profit employer and businesses. Ideally, there’s some kind of synergy between the social mission of the businesses, and/or the philanthropic desires of the employees, or the customers, and some compatibility with the mission and programs of my organization, which are environmental.
On the philanthropy side, at the foundation that I run, we’re very interested in making sure that the companies we own aren’t doing things that contradict our philanthropic mission, so we’ve divested from fossil fuel companies and are diligently working to invest in things that are on the solution side of the ledger.
What’s exciting is finding things that are at the intersection of the two [business and philanthropy]. One of the things I’m excited about is building community solar. Most people in the US don’t have the right alignment of economics, and home ownership, and just the physical home to have rooftop solar, so they’re excluded from the so-called solar revolution. Community solar lets people participate without having a panel on their roof or in their yard. It lets them participate simply by taking a part of what they’re already spending on electricity, and saying this piece is going to go for a slice of solar system that will be shared, not necessarily in my community, but in the state or utility district where I live.
There are companies doing this that want to partner with nonprofits to find small, medium, or large investors in communities where people want to shift their dollars away from dirty energy and toward solar. On the foundation and philanthropy side, that’s one of the things we want to support with our investment dollars and maybe our grant dollars. Finding stuff like that is one of the more exciting things right now. And finding more enthusiasm on the business side, companies that want to do community solar or finance it. On the flip side, on the customer side, finding people who are eager to participate, but don’t have the finances or a house that faces the right direction. To me, finding more solutions of that type is something that I’m excited about and want to be part of.
[For example,] Connecticut is an interesting case, because a consumer can choose from some 20 different companies. In that marketplace there is a lot of fraud, I guess I would say. There’s no trusted source of information. There’s a vacuum there. Some of what you have an opportunity to buy as a consumer is from wind farms from Texas that have already been built. So your decision to spend more on your electric bill isn’t creating anything new, it’s just moving stuff around. Or this product that you might be asked to buy is a 5% division of a 95% horrible power provider.
There are a few specific companies that actually have a different model. Ethical Electric is a Benefit Corporation, and set up specifically to support progressive nonprofits, and to give consumers a clean option that actually develops power in the place where they live. Another company called Community Energy, based in PA, is launching a new thing: more of a shared solar option. A consumer has the choice of either paying what they’re paying on their current electrical bill or some portion of it in exchange for having a set, predictable rate for 25 years, or paying a little more upfront and having a little lower set electrical rate for 25 years.
It means you don’t have to lease a system or buy a $30,000 solar panel in order to participate. You get both the satisfaction benefits of participating on the solution side and the economic benefits of having a locked-in electrical rate that going to be the same for 25 years.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
Because you said a five-year time-frame, this will stray into the realm of fantasy…
Because of what I’ve done deliberately, together with others, both in philanthropy and in the nonprofit community, the nonprofit community is healthier and has more resources, and is on closer-to-equal footing with the philanthropic community that supports them. Narrowly, we’re talking about just environmental groups, but a fairly broad definition of what that means.
This has happened because of the investments my foundation and others have made in community enterprises, and in alternatives to coal and [other] fossil fuels, and in companies with a social benefit mission. And also, innovating in philanthropy so there are more ways for people to participate, both on the giving and receiving side, has made, as George Bush said, "the pie higher."
So there’s a more vibrant environmental nonprofit community with more members and more donors of all types, and more resource-generating mechanisms. I think, by definition, [this is] revitalizing civil society and the political process, so that not only are people participating, they are participating in ways that are more closely aligned with their values and the things that they care about.
One of the most important things, and it comes back to a comment I made earlier, is that within the new economy and more broadly in the environmental movement, philanthropy is calling the shots, and there’s an unhealthy power relationship between the NGO community and philanthropy. The only way to fix that is to change the way philanthropy operates and the mechanism by which money is raised and sought and received, and who participates in all that.
Embodied in all that is more members, healthier nonprofits, more money flowing into the nonprofit sector, more empowerment of NGOs in relation to the philanthropy sector. And coming with that, a shift from top-down to grassroots philanthropy. That’s a tall order for five years, but that’s the direction in which I’d like to see some incremental progress. Five years is a time frame that I can handle–longer term than that is difficult.
[In terms of] Philanthropic models: on the formal grantmaking side, there are some very robust grant-making institutions that are helping to grow movements. One is the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, which does have new economy pieces. There’s the Global Green Grants Fund, which does similar kinds of things on an international scale. And there’s the Gulf Coast Fund. What all of these have in common is that funding decisions are made collaboratively by activist/grantee representatives and funders, which in turn shapes the kinds of activities, leaders, and organizations that get resources. There are other examples, I’ve just picked three.
Sadly, philanthropy, even progressive philanthropy, is incredibly conservative and difficult to change. One of the reasons I’m involved, as a relative newcomer, is to try to change that, and to do some good along the way. What I mean is that many philanthropy professionals–and who knows, maybe I fit in this category too–view their role as sort of gatekeepers and winnowers and distributors of resources or directors of resources. There are very few collaborative partnerships between funders and the NGO community.
There’s another interesting paradox: some of the people who ended up funding this way, are also the people who most crave what the NGOs have, and most aspire to be organizers on the advocacy or community-building side. Which suggests to me there is some opportunity there with people who are professional foundation program staff, who may through their work perpetuate an unhealthy dynamic or model. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is some of them wanting to do the work that the grantees do….
b) Imagine that the emergence of the new economy and community resilience movements in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
Here are some thoughts about what I did in 2014 as part of a larger community of people doing similar things…
One is that I met a community foundation colleague at a conference, and we decided to convene a pretty big regional meeting of grant-makers and donors to talk about divestment. Most community foundations–and there’s a lot of wealth in community foundations and people who support community foundations–have done almost nothing in the realm of screened investments, and none have seriously considered any divestment strategy.
And because of that one change, others have followed that example.
At the same conference, I met a large NGO, who my foundation funds, who has a large endowment, and invests all of it conventionally. Even though the money came to form peace churches, they owned firearms and tobacco and alcohol and Monsanto. And because I met their CEO and had a conversation with her and followed up with her, it helped equip her to begin to change how the trustees and investment professionals think about these things. And they started getting their investments aligned with their mission of helping communities around the world.
The reason I picked these things is that they came out of one-on-one conversations that could have gone nowhere, and it was up to me to make them go somewhere. And I could in confidence move that stuff along, because I didn’t have to do it alone. And also it’s more fun to be doing that with other people.
We’re all too serious in this business–that’s just another observation. That’s especially true in the environmental sector. That’s another concern or hope–we’ll do the things we do in a way that we’re having fun, and other people observe that, and want to join us.