Samuel B. Passmore, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

TITLE: Program Director

FUNDING AREAS: Environmental conservation

CONTACT: spassmore@mott.org, 810-238-5651

IP TAKE: Passmore tends to look for land/water partnerships that, when powers combined, produce the most effective results.

PROFILE: Samuel Passmore is the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's environmental program director. In that position, he oversees an environmental grant-making portfolio that encompasses three areas: North American Freshwater Ecosystems, which supports freshwater conservation across the United States but emphasizes the Great Lakes region and, to a lesser extent, the southeastern states; International Finance for Sustainability, whose grants aim to boost sustainable investments and economic opportunities worldwide; and a bevy of Special Initiatives grants, which primarily focuses on grants for urban revitalization and growth management in Michigan.

Before joining the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in late 2001, Passmore spent nine years as the land use program director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as several other environmental organizations, including Save The Bay, the Environment Liaison Centre International, the Trust for Public Land, and the Humane Society of the United States. Passmore has a bachelor's degree in English and in Environmental Studies from Oberlin College, as well as a master's degree in Public Affairs from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

So Passmore is a well-equipped fit for the work of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

The stated mission of Mott's Freshwater environmental sub-program is to create models of development that protect specific types of ecosystems throughout North America, especially freshwater ecosystems in the Great Lakes region. Mott's funding priorities have clear objectives. It wants to support effective and sustainable groups who are committed to the long-term conservation of freshwater ecosystems. It has a particular interest in building up state and regional groups that can design and effectively implement water quality and quantity policies that advance the conservation of freshwater ecosystems, as well as those organizations capable of providing technical assistance to those groups. It also seeks to help establish public policies in specific states and regions that promote the sustainability of freshwater ecosystems.

And as stated above, the Great Lakes are a huge priority for Passmore. In some years, as many as half the North American Fresh Water Ecosystems grants go out to grantees working on behalf of the Great Lakes. Among his recent Great-Lakes Centered awards are $150,000 to the Michigan Environmental Council for its activism on state water policies; $100,000 to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Initiative, a partnership of city mayors throughout the region all working to protect the lakes and their wildlife; and a sum total of $455,000 in grants to Freshwater Future, an organization that supports small community-level conservation efforts across the Great Lakes region. “Strong, effective, and enduring organizations whose missions are to protect and restore the Great Lakes are essential if the Great Lakes are, in fact, to be protected and restored,” says Passmore. 

Policy-oriented activism is a consistent theme in Passmore’s grant-giving. He directs much of his financial support to organizations that show success at organizing communities and groups into networks that can press lawmakers for long-lasting change.

“The Environment Program as a whole seeks to support the efforts of an engaged citizenry working to create accountable and responsive institutions, sound public policies, and models of sustainable development that protect ecosystems in North America and around the world,” he says. “The grantees tend to be state-level and basin-wide environmental groups engaged in policy reform efforts at the local, state, or regional levels.”

This community-organizing and activism penchant holds true in Passmore’s other conservation niches besides U.S. waterways. He has also given:

  • $200,000 to ActionAid Brasil to monitor and lobby for environmental standards in international commerce, especially commerce among the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
  • $100,000 to MI*Voice, a coalition of more than 120 Michigan-based citizens associations mobilizing their communities around land-use policies and other issues affecting their state
  • $120,000 to the Institute for Conservation Leadership, a technical-assistance organization that builds up environmental nonprofits' capacities through training, consulting, and financing        

And most grants are made to groups who receive requests for proposals from the foundation. It does accept unsolicited grant proposals, as long as the project falls strictly within its guidelines. Its full list of guidelines can be found on the website.

Once you’re in, however, you’re in. According to Passmore, the Environment Program likes to distribute recurring awards to the same crop of grantees year after year. “The Environment Program tends to stick with high-performing grantee organizations over long periods of time,” he says. “Because grantmaking budgets have been quite constrained over a number of years, this means that it is difficult to bring on new grantees even when the proposed work is in line with our stated priorities.”

Of course, new candidates can get in through the door. Passmore welcomes new letters of inquiry, and only advises that the grant seekers first spend some time on Mott’s website to make sure that the project is a close match with the foundation’s goals. He particularly recommends searching the site’s database of grantees and projects to get a clear sense of what he and his colleagues tend to fund.  

If grant seekers do all the research and think they might have a shot, then they can submit a letter of inquiry via the website. If Passmore and company like what they see, then they will ask for a full proposal. But, as Passmore’s list quote above suggests, and the fact that Mott states "funding for unsolicited proposals is limited throughout the program," grant seekers shouldn’t take it personally if Mott turns them down.