Michael Northrop, Rockefeller Brothers Fund

TITLE: Program Director, Sustainable Development

FUNDING AREAS: Climate change, clean energy, energy conservation

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: Northrop takes a notably broad view of how to tackle the challenge of climate change and create sustainable economies, with grantmaking that supports a diverse array of organizations. 

PROFILE: Renewable energy generators, energy-efficient buildings, lower-emission vehicles, and power plants constitute a “low-carbon economy” taking shape across the globe, according to Michael Northrop, and he’s been urging U.S. officials and businesses for the last five years to cash in on it. He’s also been doing his part to spur them along, as the senior director of programs and strategy of the Rockefeller Brothers Institute, through extensive grants for carbon-cutting and energy-saving innovations. 

Northrop’s appreciation for government and businesses’ role in sustainability stems from his business capacity work before joining the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the roles he has served in advisory positions to government since joining the fund. He was executive director of the international development organization Ashoka, whose support for public-private humanitarian ventures is world renowned, and he was an analyst at the New York City-based investment bank First Boston. In addition, he presently serves on New York City’s PlaNYC Sustainability Advisory Board and its Waterfront Advisory Board. Oh, and Northrup does some teaching, too, at Yale University’s Forestry and Environmental Studies School.


Northrop's appreciation for the business and government sectors comes with a challenge; he’s frequently taken the federal government to task for lack of a concerted plan on addressing climate change and promoting sustainable societal consumption of energy and resources. Washington needs to get on the low-carbon ball, and quickly, he argues, by working with the private sector to encourage the energy-saving and carbon-cutting innovations across the board.

Local and state efforts are no less important in his book, though. He praises the actions that individual states, cities, and private businesses have taken up in recent years to grow their economies while simultaneously curbing greenhouse gas emission levels by shutting down coal-fired power plants, raising vehicles’ fuel efficiency, and lowering both commercial and residential buildings’ raw energy usage. A sustainable economy, as Northrop sees it, will need government and business leaders at all levels to work together to bring it about.

“Success will come from hundreds of policies and actions by every level of government and the private sector,” he wrote in another Huffington Post commentary in November 2012. “The federal government does not need to do all of the heavy lifting.”

The key, according to Northrop, is ensuring that businesses and investors will have the incentive to keep investing in cleaner energy production and energy conservation. Not surprisingly, he’s a firm opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and his program has funded efforts to block that project. If the United States wants to create new jobs, it had best opt for offering companies contracts that pay competitive revenues for developing and rolling out sustainable energy sources and products— the initially high investment costs that alternative-energy development often requires can scare investors away and stymie these needed energy innovations.

“The nations that win the battle for this huge market will be the ones that deliberately prepare for it by enacting smart policies to drive market creation,” he wrote in his 2010 commentary.

As the statements above suggest, Northrop places a strong value on public-private collaboration and government policies that work with entrepreneurs rather than over them. And his grant recipients reflect this. His foremost beneficiaries include:

  • Natural Capitalism Solutions, an organization that fosters green business practices. Northrop awarded the group $400,000 in 2010 for its advocacy of “feed-in tariffs”— long-term contracts by municipalities to pay renewable energy providers higher-than-average set rates for their energy— and $600,000 in 2011-2012 for its CLEAN policy project to help U.S. communities deploy renewable energy systems.
  • Center for Climate Strategies, a nonprofit that works with state governments and the governments of China and Mexico on environmental policies and planning action strategies for low-carbon economic development. Northrop's program awarded it a total of $806,000 in grants from 2010-2013.
  • New Venture Fund, a nonprofit charity that sponsors multiple public-interest and conservation projects. Northrop awarded it $800,000 in 2011-2013 for fossil-fuel reduction efforts; $250,000 in 2011-2012 for its PaceNow Project for energy-efficient building construction; $75,000 in 2011 for climate simulation research; and $125,000 in 2010 for its Creation Care Fund, which supports Christian environmental groups.
  • Architecture 2030, an environmental group that works with public and private-sector partners on formulating solutions to global warming, with a focus on the building sector. Northrop awarded the group $600,000 in grants from 2011-2012.
  • Groundswell Inc., a green-business nonprofit that works with individual communities and organizes revenue models by which groups of citizens can pool funds to jumpstart sustainable innovations and new clean-energy markets. Northrop awarded the group $850,000 in grants from 2011-2012.        

“Smart policies that make buildings more efficient, increase the share of locally produced renewable energy, and make transportation more energy efficient will reduce emissions and also keep money in people's wallets and in local communities rather than shipping it somewhere else,” he wrote in his November 2012 commentary. “These dollars benefit local businesses and spur local investment.”

From these quotes alone, you can most likely sense that Northrup approaches the climate change challenge with positivity. Indeed, in a 2014 Huffington Post piece, he bullet points the sign posts and avenues that account for promise and progress, and these points can also serve as a guidepost for those looking to program with Northrop and Rockefeller on their projects. They are: Coal, Buidlings, Vehicles, Renewable Energy, Utility 2.0, States and Cities, Science, Public Opinion, Obama Climate Plan, China, Global Renewables, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the Investment Climate.