TITLE: Executive Director
FUNDING AREAS: Clean energy and climate change
CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)
IP TAKE: Colwell is an environmental policy advocate looking out for other environmental policy advocates. Organizations seeking to mobilize the public toward action on climate change, energy efficiency, and other pressing issues have his support.
PROFILE: Stephen (Steve) Colwell was once executive director of the Coral Reef Alliance, where he was constantly scrambling for funds. Now he gives out tens of millions of dollars a year to promote clean energy and fight climate change as executive director of the Sea Change Foundation, which is funded by Nathaniel Simons and his wife, Laura Baxter-Simons. No more fundraising, just lots of check writing to some of the top organizations in the environmental world. Big checks, too. And all without dealing with the infamous bureaucracies of the large legacy foundations.
Sea Change dispenses millions of dollars in grants each year to organizations that promote clean energy and work to reduce carbon emissions. Most, but not all, of its grantees are based in the United States.
Colwell studied public policy as an undergrad at Princeton and has three professional degrees: A master's in education, a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a master's in management from Stanford. Notably missing from that education are degrees specifically related to science or the environment, but Colwell has mastered these issues through hands-on work with NGOs. He became concerned about coral reefs in the early 1990s as a diver, and in 1994 he founded the Coral Reef Alliance, or CORAL, to get divers involved in advocacy efforts to protect coral reefs, which face dire threats from climate change, pollution, and aquatic sports.
After building CORAL into a modest-size operation, Colwell left to begin consulting for foundations and high-net-worth individuals, building his own consulting practice based in Berkeley and working with the top environmental funders in the Bay Area, including Moore, Packard, and Hewlett. Eventually he joined forces with Nat Simons, who is the kind of dream benefactor that every environmental activist hopes to meet one day. Nat is the son of James Simons, the multibillionaire founder of Renaissance Technologies, where Nat worked for many years as a portfolio manager.
Simons may have the deepest pockets of any living donor in the environmental world, after Gordon Moore. And perhaps as a result of hanging around big and overstretched foundations for so long, Colwell is super determined to ensure that Sea Change's money has an impact by staying laser focused as a funder. Nearly every grant made by the Sea Change Foundation seeks to promote clean energy in one way or another. This is the foundation's exclusive approach to the climate change challenge, so don't bother Colwell about work outside that area, such as projects to combat deforestation.
The other thing about Simons is that he clearly understands the all-important role of politics and public policy when it comes to energy and climate issues. (Along with his father, Simons is a big-time donor to the Democratic Party.) And so Sea Change gives heavily to progressive groups involved in the policy arena; these organizations include the Center for American Progress and the League of Conservation Voters. The foundation has also given $9.2 million to the Partnership Project and $33 million to the Energy Foundation, in each case for public campaigns on climate and energy
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has received $2.6 million in Sea Change funding for its public outreach on energy efficiency; while the U.S. Climate Action Network gained $2.25 million in funds for its public-information campaigns on global warming.
Do note: The Sea Change Foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals. So how exactly does one get the attention of Colwell and the Sea Change Foundation? That's not so clear, but Colwell funds a wide swath of environmental and energy organizations and is well-connected within the field, so networking could be a way to get an introduction. Or maybe just email him directly.