This week, ClientEarth, a small environmental nonprofit and the first public interest law firm in the European Union, won a huge victory in the EU courts that will drastically reduce air pollution in the UK. ClientEarth is the brain child of Rachel’s Network Founder Winsome McIntosh, who established the organization in 2008 with assistance from the Rachel’s Network Fiscal Sponsorship Fund. Coutts recently talked with Winsome about her tireless work to protect the environment through her philanthropy. An excerpt of this conversation is below (read the full interview here).
How and when did your philanthropy begin?
My husband’s family were part of the largest retailer in the world at the time – the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P – and they established the McIntosh Foundation in 1949, right after the foundation laws were established in the US. When my mother-in-law passed away in 1971, she left a portion of her estate to the Foundation as an endowment.
All of a sudden the children were faced with a Foundation with a fair amount of money in it, but with no direction at all. My husband was working at the family business and decided to leave the business world so we could work together to build a legacy and develop the Foundation ourselves, rather than hire professionals. So that is how it started. I was 24 at the time and my husband was 35. We were very young and didn’t know what we were doing at all.
What became the focus of your philanthropy?
We discovered that my mother-in-law had been supporting Charles Evers [the brother of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was assassinated] in his endeavor to become the first black man to be elected to office in Mississippi. So we chose to do two things: fund the civil rights movement, and support the emerging modern environmental movement – a field that was considered controversial and where there was very little money at the time.
Five years later, we realized that the civil rights movement was already well funded, so we withdrew from that. We chose instead to focus on the environmental movement and to work within the system rather than as advocates from outside. What this translated into was a focus on enabling long-term systemic change and the law – what became known as public interest law. Public interest law came out of the civil rights movement, so we used the civil rights model and translated it into something that could be applied to the environment.
One of our early grants involved a $400,000 match with the Ford Foundation to found the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and to employ six young lawyers to execute a lot of the first environmental lawsuits in the US. We funded the organization for around 40 years and it now has an annual budget of around $120m.
Philanthropy is about investing in people, because it’s the people that make things happen. So one of our criteria became finding skilled and charismatic leaders. We also want to use our money in a business-like way to achieve the greatest value for the greatest number of people. It takes a lot of work and time to do that. It isn’t a short-term way of doing philanthropy at all and does not involve ‘feel-good’ check writing. It may take 10-15 years to get to the point when you can see that systemic change has occurred. That for me is the difference between charity and philanthropy. Philanthropy involves taking on the tough questions that no one else can. And you should not be afraid of failure as you won’t win them all.
You have been involved in founding a lot of organizations, why is that?
We choose to be entrepreneurial and we are not afraid of taking risks or filling voids. After 45 years’ experience of developing public interest law in the US, we discovered that there was no public interest law in the UK. That surprised us and offered an opportunity to introduce public interest law to the UK.
We knew a US attorney who worked at NRDC and moved to the UK. We guaranteed his salary for three years and agreed if it did not work the initiative would be shut down. But it [ClientEarth] is working brilliantly. My hope is that it will serve as a model and that other public interest law firms will pop up and begin to thrive across Europe, and that other NGOs will begin to develop legal departments within their own institutions to achieve long-term change.
Having founded so many organizations that are still thriving, is there a particular initiative that you feel especially proud of?
Yes. I founded an initiative called Rachel’s Network, which brings together women of wealth from around the US who are giving back to society through their philanthropy. I knew there were all these women out there that shared similar interests, but I didn’t have the chance to meet them. And as we women are poor at networking, I thought I would put together a good-old girls network. I am especially proud of this hugely successful network of around 100 women, who between them represent about $8bn in assets and in 2012 gave away about $175m. It has given women a peer network where they can learn from each others’ successes and failures.
I serve on a lot of boards and usually find that I am the only woman – there’s a lot that needs to be done to grow the number of women in leadership roles. Through Rachel’s Network I was determined to get more women on local and national boards and promote women’s leadership. At last count I had put about 50 women on boards. In total, of the 100 women we have, 93% of them are now serving on boards. Many of these women started by joining local boards and are now joining boards of national organizations.
What has been your biggest lesson learned?
Patience – particularly if you are looking for long-term systemic change. I am really happy with our decision many years ago to adopt our strategic approach to philanthropy that focuses on structural change rather than specific issues such as oceans or biodiversity. Campaigning can only go so far: what I have seen is that the campaigners do a great job of getting laws passed or discouraged, but then they think their job is done. When you have a good law on the books, it has to be enforced, and if it’s not enforced then what good is it?
Have other philanthropists thought your approach to be ‘edgy’?
A lot of our work has focused on the law. At one point the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) didn’t want NGOs lobbying as much as they were, so the IRS was going to pass a regulation that said foundations cannot give to organizations that lobby. Since the whole of the environmental community was lobbying, this risked everyone pulling their money from the environmental sector. So we told the IRS we would take it to court and sought a private ruling that allowed us to continue to support NRDC and the organizations we helped establish. Once we had the McIntosh Ruling in place, which is still there today, the foundation sector sat back and relaxed. That was another seminal moment of dramatic change.
What are your plans for your philanthropy going forward?
We are supporting a number of networks, because they are an important source of support and collaboration. In the UK we are helping the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) look at how it might become more sustainable. Such networks are few and far between. We have supported many organizations that support the development of philanthropy. We founded the Association of Small Foundations because family foundations weren’t adequately represented. The Association is now hugely successful and the largest of all associations in the US.
What do you think the key challenges are for philanthropy in the US?
The biggest challenge for us right now, with the financial crisis, is that foundations have lost 25%-35% of their endowment. We still have strict IRS rules that require us to give away 5% a year of either our income or – if the income is not enough – from the endowment. So now we aren’t making the 10/15/20% we were, but we still have to give away 5%. That’s a real challenge, especially if you are a foundation established in perpetuity and are obliged to grow the foundation for the next generation. So we struggle with that.
What advice would you give to a philanthropist who is at the beginning of their philanthropy journey?
I think the first thing I would advise them is to join networks of philanthropists. That way you can talk to your peers and learn from each other. I would also advise that they develop a focus and maintain an inner discipline to stick to it – and if it doesn’t work then move onto something else. You have to give change time.
Rachel’s Network Founder Winsome McIntosh has served on the board of the McIntosh Foundation since 1972. She has founded several other initiatives besides Rachel’s Network, including the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, Florida; ClientEarth, UK and EU; and the Association of Small Foundations.