Sarah Brennan, Robertson Foundation

TITLE: Program Officer, Environment Portfolio Lead

FUNDING AREAS: Climate Change, Marine Conservation

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

PROFILE: Robertson Program Officer Sarah Brennan has spent her career of nearly 20 years working on environmental issues, with an almost exclusive focus on climate, energy and sustainability. She’s done it in an impressive way, a one-two punch of business and policy that makes her particularly suited to the philanthropy at Robertson.

The foundation of hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, the funder has assets close to $1 billion, and a big chunk of its funding goes to the environment, one of four program areas. Giving is heavily, explicitly focused on business-like, market-based solutions to climate change, with a capitalist attitude toward philanthropy. But it’s also open to government policy solutions. Brennan is Robertson’s program officer overseeing the environment portfolio, which includes funding for marine conservation, but her career has had a laser focus on climate change.

She did her undergrad at Brown University, graduating with honors with a degree in public policy and history, then went on to spend the next six years as a research associate at the Harvard Business School, while getting a masters of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Brennan’s research involved U.S. banking legislation, and case studies on economic issues involving environmental quality and sustainability, and how they figure into GDP estimates.

She then went on to work at Industrial Economics, a private consulting firm that, in large part, advises companies, governments and nonprofits on market-driven approaches to environmentalism, and restoration following oil spills. At IEc, she advised governments, including the EPA, Health Canada and the United Nations, on environmental policy.

From there, Brennan rounded out her policy and business expertise at Columbia University. The Brooklyn native returned to New York to work at the university’s Earth Institute, a project that brings together research, education and solutions, including 30 research centers and around 850 scientists. Founded in 1995 and directed by Jeffrey Sachs, it’s driven by the idea that we have technological tools at our disposal to handle environmental problems, and that environmental solutions go hand in hand with fighting poverty and sustainable development.

At the Earth Institute, Brennan worked on research concerning carbon capture and sequestration, liquid coal, and an analysis for a major beverage company. Eventually, she would become executive director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, one of the Institute’s research centers. Lenfest’s mission is to develop sustainable energy technology, but it also blends such technology into policy, economics, education and public outreach. As ED of the center, she got into the dollars and cents of climate work, raising funds from grants and private donors to fund its activities. While at Columbia, Brennan also completed her MBA in finance from the Columbia Business School. 

In 2011, she moved to the other side of the funding equation, as a program officer for Robertson, where she now runs the portfolio for environmental giving.

Robertson gives tens of millions a year, as much as $104 million in 2012, making it a large funder, although with priorities spread among the environment, education (it’s a big charter school proponent), medical research and religion. The foundation takes a very results-oriented, targeted approach to giving, with a capitalist attitude toward its decisions, so grantees are few, well-established, and closely screened and monitored by foundation staff.

In the environment portfolio, climate giving goes to just a handful of groups, with long-running commitments and multimillion-dollar sums. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund is the biggest recipient, having received $31 million in recent years for cap-and-trade advocacy, and public outreach. Other major climate grantees include EarthJustice, The Energy Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy. 

Marine conservation giving follows similar patterns, giving large grants to global, established groups like the UK’s Marine Stewardship Council, Oceana and Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program. The funder is particularly interested in global marine reserves. 

Robertson is not easy to approach. They have a website, but it pretty bluntly tells grant seekers to move along, nothing to see here. Getting a seat at the table will require significant networking, and a strong reputation and connections in the environmental establishment.

As far as her own networking, Sarah Brennan is quite active in the sustainability and energy community. She’s a board member at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, as well as the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which establishes recycling and composting programs in New York City. She also recently moderated a panel for the Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law, at a three-day training program for environmental advocates.