Ruth Hennig is leading the John Merck Fund in an unusual philanthropic approach for foundations: spending down. The Fund will award its last grants in 2021 and close its doors in 2022, in order to accelerate progress on environmental issues. On a teleconference call with Rachel’s Network, Ruth explained why the Fund made the decision to spend down, the progress they’ve made so far, and the impact she hopes this strategy will have over the next decade.

What is the biggest environmental issue we face today?

Our use of fossil fuels for energy and products (30% of fossil fuels are used to make chemicals) is irrevocably altering our climate and the viability of life on Earth.

If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this issue, what would it be?

The corrupting effect that corporate money is having on politics and policymaking.

How have your priorities changed since you began the Fund’s spend-out?

We are more focused on achieving measurable impacts than we were as a perpetual grantmaker.

What are you most proud of?

JMF’s role in making New England a coal-free region and JMF’s role in protecting health by reducing exposures to harmful chemicals.

What woman environmentalist inspires your work?

Frances Beinecke at NRDC. Frances has always been an inspiration for me on both professional and personal levels, and on the intersection between the two. She led women’s rise to leadership in the national environmental movement when she became the first woman CEO of a major organization, joining the until-then male only “Green Group.” Part of her impact at NRDC, and by extension the larger movement, has been to make environmental issues much more politically salient than they had been. As the executive director of a much smaller operation (a foundation), I was inspired by her career path.

On a personal level, Frances and I both experienced the same health crisis at the same time about 15 years ago. Her determination to continue in her position at NRDC motivated me to do the same. And we shared with each other that our work had so much personal meaning for us that, despite getting a wakeup call, we were as committed as ever, if not more so, to continue our efforts to protect the environment and human health. Frances has always been something of a beacon for me, as I’m sure she has been for many others.

Ruth Hennig is the executive director of The John Merck Fund, which she joined as the foundation’s first staff member in 1988, the year that climate change began to get sustained media attention. In addition to management responsibilities, she functions as the director of the Environment Program. Prior to joining the foundation, Ruth was on the Conservation Law Foundation’s senior staff. Ruth chairs the board of SmartPower, which is attempting to build markets for clean energy across the country, and was a founding advisory committee member of the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. She was instrumental in creating both organizations.

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