What's Behind the Money Behind McKibben?

Bill McKibben, the well-known activist and author, has been working on climate change issues since the late 1980s. He has written a dozen books on the environment, including one of the first global warming books targeted toward the general public. He's also the founder of 350.org, which campaigns to solve the global climate crisis through grassroots organizing, online campaigns, and large public actions. The organization may rely on the actions of individuals, but it depends on established foundations for some of its funding.

Bill McKibben's organization has a high profile but is a modest entity financially. Since 2007, the 350.org team has organized thousands of actions throughout the world. In 2011, though, it brought in only $3 million-plus in revenue. The organization is funded by numerous individual donations and by grants from 50 foundations. Big funders include the Oak Foundation, which gave almost $1 million in 2011, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Family Fund, which have supported both 350.org and its sister organization, 1Sky, for many years (giving about $4 million between 2007 and 2011). In 2012, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave a $225,000 grant to 350.org, while the Scherman Foundation kicked in $80,000. The Overbrook and Compton foundations each gave 350.org $50,000 that same year.

McKibben has never drawn a salary from 350.org. Instead, one main way that McKibben supports his work is through an affiliation with Middlebury College, where he was appointed a Schumann Distinguished Scholar in 2010. There, he oversees the Fellowships in Environmental Journalism program, which was funded by a grant from the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. The Schumann Center — which has long been overseen by Bill Moyers — gave Middlebury College more than $1 million in 2010. The Schumann Center continued to support McKibben with more than $300,000 in grants to 350.org and 1SKy in 2011.

According to some people, 350.org has misled the public by calling itself a grassroots organization while still bringing in the big bucks. Several articles around the web seem to think the organization is playing with substantial amounts of money. McKibben's campaigns, 1Sky and 350.org (the two organizations were formally joined in 2011), received about $10 million from various foundations between 2005 and 2011. Over the course of six years, this is actually not a whole lot of money. The major foundations deal in millions of dollars each year (see IP's profile of the Packard Foundation or Hewlett Foundation), so compared with other climate change programs, 350.org could be considered small change.

Considering that McKibben's programs are global in scope, he's managed to do a lot so far on a relatively small budget. Although 350.org receives the occasional million-dollar grant, the majority of funds are in the five- and six-digit range. Having a large number of donors can mean that no one foundation gets to influence policy. This situation can be healthy for an organization's mission, even if it makes fundraising a little bit harder.