Mott alters Environment Program to focus more funding on the Great Lakes, energy access in Africa

The shoreline of Lake Michigan near Arcadia Dunes.
The coast of Lake Michigan, near Arcadia Dunes, in northern Michigan. Photo: Adam Stoltman

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation recently shifted priorities in its Environment Program, making changes that will increase grantmaking in two areas: addressing freshwater issues in the Great Lakes region and increasing access to clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa. The decision to discontinue some grantmaking and focus resources on other priorities is all about maximizing impact. In this Q&A, Environment Program Director Sam Passmore explains the changes.

Mott: What do you hope to achieve with these changes?

Environment Program Director Sam Passmore's headshot.
Sam Passmore. Photo: Cristina Wright

Sam Passmore: In general, our Trustees and senior management are looking for greater impact — the proverbial “bang for the buck.” To achieve this, we are implementing a series of changes in 2018 that will produce the greatest benefits from the funding Mott provides.

Mott: How will the grantmaking change?

Passmore: We are winding down our work on freshwater issues in the southeastern United States and shifting funding for that work to groups working on Great Lakes issues. Mott’s grantmaking around climate change solutions, which initially focused on increasing energy access in developing countries and boosting the use of renewable energy in Michigan, will now focus solely on the international work.

Mott: What prompted these changes? Let’s start with funding for freshwater issues.

Passmore: Over the past two decades, Mott has provided about $35 million to groups working to restore rivers, enhance water conservation and improve water policies in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana. We supported the work of more than 20 grantees during that time, and our funding has made a real difference.

Mott: What has changed because of Mott’s funding?

Passmore: River groups across the region are stronger than when we started. State water policies have been improved, particularly when it comes to protecting the natural flow of rivers. And many rivers across the region are healthier, due to such measures as changing the way large dams are operated.

Mott: Does that mean the work there is finished?

Passmore: No. This kind of work is never really done, but we felt it was time to bring the work Mott supports to a close, so we could focus more on Great Lakes issues. Our current grantees, most of them in Georgia, will receive tie-off grants through 2018 to help them with the transition away from Mott funding. This will free up an additional $1 million per year in Mott funds for important work in the Great Lakes.

Mott: Why focus more funding on Great Lakes issues?

Passmore: Protecting this vast ecosystem has always been a cornerstone of Mott’s Environment Program. The Great Lakes are one of the world’s most valuable freshwater systems, both ecologically and economically. The lakes contain 20% of all surface freshwater on Earth, provide drinking water for 48 million people and support the world’s third-largest regional economy. They also face many substantial threats, and we see a need to support more of the work we have always funded — protecting and restoring the ecological health of the region’s lakes, rivers and wetlands.

Mott: Did the Flint water crisis play a role in this decision?

Passmore: Absolutely. We learned a lot from the Flint water crisis, and that newfound knowledge revealed the need for changes in our grantmaking. For instance, we learned that the community of environmental organizations we’ve supported for years — and we, ourselves — knew very little about the treatment and delivery of drinking water, or the associated infrastructure and community issues. That’s a problem we are correcting through new grantmaking.

Mott: Let’s talk climate and energy. Why the change in Mott’s grantmaking around climate change solutions?

Passmore: One of the goals of the climate change solutions program we approved in 2015 was to accelerate Michigan’s clean energy transition. The Foundation helped support that transition by providing a total of $3 million to more than 10 grantees working on clean energy solutions at the community level. However, it also became clear over the last three years that Michigan’s clean energy transition is very much underway, due to powerful economic and policy forces.

Mott: Did the Foundation’s funding make a difference?

Passmore: I believe it has. Our grants helped increase the use of renewable energy and energy conservation technologies. We are very proud of the work we’ve supported in our home state, but feel our limited resources can have a more profound impact on the international side of the program. To ease the transition, we have made tie-off grants that will support our clean energy grantees in Michigan through the end of 2018.

Tanzanian carpenter working in his workshop.
Solar power provides electricity for this woodworking operation in Tanzania.
Photo: Energy 4 Impact

Mott: How will the Foundation allocate the additional funding now available for clean energy work internationally?

Passmore: We will have another $1 million annually to support grantees working on energy access issues, and our focus for those funds will be in Tanzania. Our grantees are developing clean energy microgrids in rural villages that collect and distribute electricity generated by solar power systems.

Mott: Why are microgrids important?

Passmore: The first generation of solar power development in East Africa, particularly Kenya, focused on home lighting and cell phone charging — important, to be sure, but somewhat limited in impact. Microgrids have the potential to transform lives and create economic opportunity at the community level. The conventional alternative, extending the power grid with centralized energy supply, would take much longer, cost far more and increase emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Mott: Why focus on Tanzania?

Passmore: We see three reasons why Tanzania is a good place to help develop and demonstrate the benefits of microgrids powered by renewable energy: there’s a great need; groups are in place to meet the challenge; and the policy environment is quite favorable. If successful, the work Mott supports in Tanzania would serve as a model for much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Mott: What excites you about this new work?

Passmore: I go back to the “bang for the buck” idea. By concentrating our resources, we have an opportunity to make a bigger difference in the world. Great Lakes protection and clean energy access are, in some ways, far apart. For us, however, they are similar in that we have the resources, the knowledge and partnerships in place to help transform the delivery of both — clean water in the Great Lakes and clean energy in East Africa.