#97 How Donors Can Give Effectively to Important Campaigns in California and Across the Country, with Michael Mantell Founder of Resource Legacy Fund.

Oct 03, 2022


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The founder of the Resources Legacy Fund joins Sybil. He recounts amazing stories of successful campaigns. Michael advises donors on how to combine their contributions with other donors for maximum impact and to work with donors to fund the issues that matter most to them. He offers essential tips for any donors who want to give to campaigns in the best manner possible. 

Episode Highlights:

  • Pooling funds with other donors.
  • How to fund effective campaigns.
  • What to expect when there is a transition in leadership with the nonprofit organization you’re funding. 

Connect with Michael:

Links Referenced in this Interview:

  • Resources Legacy Fund - resourceslegacyfund.org
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation - https://www.packard.org

If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

 

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Would you like to talk with Sybil directly?

 

Michael, I am so happy you're here today. You are one of my mentors. I have so much appreciation for everything you have done specifically to help donors give money effectively in any number of really important campaigns both in California and across the country and around the world.

And you're the founder of Resources legacy fund, and so, I was really happy to have you on this podcast so we could talk about how you created it and what you thought about in terms of where you wanted to focus. And then, you know, you're transitioning out of... well, not entirely out of, but your role is changing. I'm looking at RLF, and I know a lot of donors are always interested in how people do that well, especially when you're a founder and a leader.

But before we get into all of your wonderful tips for my audience about how they can give money away effectively, you talk to me a little bit about your journey and what led you to start the Resources Legacy Fund.

Sure, Sybil. And it was a privilege to be with you on this and to have been able to work with you over the past more than a decade on so many important things. You know, I should start at the beginning.

I was an undergrad at Berkeley and decided then, at a tumultuous time in this country with Vietnam and civil rights and so forth, to date myself, it's even a more tumultuous time right now, unfortunately, but I wanted to devote myself to the environment, and I thought the best way to do that was to become a lawyer. Because I enjoy nonprofits, I knew that I wasn't going to become a science expert.

So, I went to law school, as you know, at Lewis and Clark, where you went to law school in Portland, which had a great environmental law curriculum at that time and still does. And Oregon was really at the forefront at that time in the country in terms of states moving on the environment, and I was able to post-law school to work for a local government and then work for a big international nonprofit, World Wildlife.

I was lured back to California, where I'm from, to become Under Secretary for Natural Resources for the state of California and had a wonderful time; just an incredible amount of learning working in state government on a host of issues involving natural resources. 

And then I was asked, actually by David Lucile Packard foundation if I'd be interested in helping them develop some new programs with the experience I had in government. But also, it will show me, first of all, the value of government when it can do things right. It's not only how nonprofits and philanthropy can motivate and prod government, but also how they can collaborate with government to make government go further than it ever could. 

And so, the opportunity with the Packard Foundation was compelling to me, and as a result of designing some new programs with them, we decided with their encouragement to create, we looked at a lot of different ways of operationalizing this, including becoming staff of the foundation, including joining an existing NGO, and including creating a new entity. We decided to create a new entity, which became the Resources Legacy Fund.

To be nimble, to be creative, to be entrepreneurial, but also to be well managed and well thought of by philanthropy as a place that could move, help move the needle, but also work collaboratively with a bunch of philanthropy who are interested in a common agenda, we launched the Resources Legacy Fund, or RLF, in 2000. And it's just been a wonderful journey for me, and I do think having government experience is incredibly helpful in terms of really establishing a really broad network but also understanding how government works and what it needs from the outside to make it live up to its potential.

And so is a lot of our work over the years has been formally collaborating, in some cases with governments to use in more collaborative efforts, but also prodding government at the right time and in the right ways to push it to go further than it might otherwise. So, it's this common patient of having our left be able to play what I would call the inside game of working for the collaborative government but also play the outside game of pushing government and then also have the flexibility to run statewide ballot measure campaigns and to be involved in federal legislative efforts to drive federal action as well.

So, there's so much to unpack there, Michael. Thank you for talking about your story.

And I had forgotten you went to Lewis and Clark Law School, my alma mater, too. So that's wonderful, Michael. 

There's so much in our lap that I think a donor could learn from in terms of how you structured it. First, the story about how you formed it while in conversation with the Packard Foundation. Think about how you can create essentially a pooled fund with a bunch of different foundations pooling funds to create a separate institution like ours to move the needle on issues So essentially, it was a bunch of foundations that are interested in campaigns or changing the norm and wanting to move the needle on an issue or environmental issues, for which you were able to raise funds.

And then you're talking about lobbying and ballot measures. So, the way you structured it allowed you to not only do tax-deductible kinds of work, like public education work, but you also had separate institutions that were connected but separate for legal purposes to be able to do some of the lobbying and the other work, which I think is super cool and, like when I was a consultant, I am still a consultant for RF. You know, I have played all those different roles for you, too. I was a lobbyist. I was also working on the IC3 side. So, you have all that flexibility there. Can you talk a little bit more first about why you identified this need to not just work at Packard, but pool funds to be able to push campaigns that one and talk to me a little bit about some of those campaigns that one and why this is a success?

Well, initially I gave a lot of credit to the population, you know, not only for taking a risk on me but for wanting to be creative and entrepreneurial in this new venture. Part of their central thinking was that if they helped create and incubate a new entity, it would make it easier, and they would do what they could to lure other philanthropists to join in with them in common efforts. And at that time, as we're talking about the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about philanthropic collaboration on the environment, but there wasn't much action.

I think it was more talk than action. In a lot of cases, it still needs to go, but within a year of starting, Packard helped get the Hewlett Foundation and the Goldman Foundation involved to re-establish and protect San Francisco Bay, which was really in danger of being overtaken by Phil and that we were working with Senator Feinstein and the state government of California at the time.

The foundations put up $35 million collectively to help the state and the feds acquire 16,000 acres of wetlands from Cargill to be restored scientifically. And the government put up over $150 million for that effort, and that's continued to this day, and in fact, just stay on that for a minute. We successfully pulled together a campaign in 2016, a political campaign in the 9 counties that surrounded San Francisco, that's around San Francisco Bay.

The first time that the same measure appeared on all ballots of the 9 counties to create a parcel tax, we won by over 70, with over 73 percent of the vote collectively to create a $500 million regional funding source for Bay restoration so that the foundation investment over time of 38 would become $38 million. It has now helped bring about a billion dollars in public funding for Bay stewardship and restoration.

And to go deeper on this, what Packard wanted—that's why we ended up creating a whole new entity—was the flexibility to do lobbying to use C $3 appropriately. It is not that they can give, but others could give unrestricted for lobbying purposes, that is, influencing the government and trying to press the government to spend more money. But then we also created a C4 mechanism, the fund for a better future.

This was a feature that allowed us to do political ballot measure campaigns and to lobby Congress directly and state legislation directors on policy matters. There's a little-known exception to the IRS rule that allows foundations to lobby or have their agents lobby on appropriation matters We were able to do so with other unrestricted funds thanks to the creative mechanism we developed with Packard.

So, I mean, there's a lot more, as you said, to impact here. But I think it is incumbent upon donors who want to move the needle to get creative, get entrepreneurial, and find the right people to work with that have the flexibility to, again, in total compliance with the law, move money in a variety of different ways to accomplish their desired outcomes.

Well, I love that story, Michael, and I know RLF has many, many stories like that where you have success in really working nimbly and pooling money to be able to move the needle on key issues. I will also ask you about your experiences with any kind of failure or learning that you have. I'm going to bring that out, but before we go there.

You touched on something really important, and that is that it sounds like you have in the organization that you helped found many staff who are experts in the field that you're working in, whatever the donors care about, they're pooling money, but you're also providing expertise. Can we talk a little bit more about that too?

So, and this has been sometimes hard for some donors to articulate well, and I'll take the blame for that, there are times when we are both grant seekers and grant makers, and there are times when we work with donors to figure out exactly what it is they want to do and then move the money.

There are times when we work with donors who have a general idea of what we want to do, and we develop it further with them and then go with it. And so, it just depends on the particular needs and interests of the donor. But as a result of the position, we occupied early on and as we evolved, we have brought together a unique group of staff who have expertise in lots of different fields in land and climate, oceans, and freshwater in particular, but who also have campaign experience and government experience, in some cases, are just generalists and are simply interested in getting things done. So, it's not about credit to us. We spent a lot of time not only on it. We thought we were more effective if we were behind the scenes. And so, we worked hard to not be out publicly and give more attention to the issues and to the groups that we were working directly with and let them get the credit and let them get the visibility and help increase their capacity. And I think it's helped us achieve more than we might have otherwise It's a wonderful group of dedicated professionals and staff who care about having donors get as far as they possibly can and achieving great wins without any real recognition or visibility.

Yeah, I love that.

And that is a really important point, that you are a grantmaker, and that's, you know, the instigation, the start of the organization was because of foundations, thinking about how to do something creatively. And you are also seeking grants. So, you're in this nice intermediary position, and you have experts in your organization that can help with the wins. Talk to me a little bit about when things didn't go so well and what your learnings were from that because I feel like we can learn just as much from that as we can from all your wonderful successes.

Well, so let me tell you, we ended up running or being intimately involved in statewide ballot measures in California between 2000 and 2020, so 20 years where the state and regional areas that we were involved in approved over $34 billion in bonds for natural resources, for land, for climate resilience, for oceans and freshwater.

Some of those are local park measures. Some of those are broader statewide measures. We also did campaigns on policy issues, including one that was trying to upend the California climate change law we successfully defeated the one campaign that I, in particular, and our team was directly involved in, and we lost. The only one that we lost during that time was a measure in 2010, which was a very down year economically. to create a vehicle registration fee that would help fund California State Parks.

And it was a bad year to be on the ballot, and it was not a well-run campaign as we would have liked We lost, and we were very concerned about the polling firm we were using. We were concerned about the information. We were concerned about the viability of this campaign, and so we, as you said, tried to learn from these experiences.

It was a time when California State Parks, which is a remarkable state park system, was in severe decline. So, we re-examined how we did campaigns and which consultants we used who were more professional.

But then, in 2012, California had a very bad budget year. And there were massive cuts proposed for state parks; it became a scandal. It was disclosed that state parks had over $50 million that they had been hiding from the legislature and even from the California Department of Finance, so there was a whole implosion of state parks.

This is one of these stories about, you know, turning lemons into lemonade. With the defeat of the ballot measure and thinking, "Wow, how are we going to pull state parks back together? And then this major disaster at state parks, we turned to philanthropy, to major foundations, and the state and said, let's develop a partnership between US and philanthropy and the state To redo California State Parks, we came up with this idea of creating a commission that parks in the condition of August people and staffing it to work collaboratively at the state to figure out how to turn state parks around And that Commission issued its recommendations on how to increase trust in state parks so that they can be managed well and efficiently, and that Commission issued its report in 2015. A number of the measures that were recommended have been implemented, and in 2018 the legislature had enough confidence in state parks to put a measure on the California ballot, a $4.1 billion measure.

A lot of the money going to state parks is going to underserved communities in California. My colleague chaired the campaign. We raised money for the campaign, and we got over 60% of the vote for a whole new tranche of money for state parks in our newly created state Parks Department. So there have been failures, yes, but you know, I don't consider them failures. It's totally fine if you learn from them and apply the lessons you've learned to keep moving forward. And so, I think that's a good example where we didn't succeed at first, but we figured out what we had done wrong, and we did it and we moved forward, and now with the surpluses in California funding and all that new federal money, the state parks have billions of dollars coming into it.

And I'll just say, because of that experience in California, we worked, and I was contacted through a mutual colleague by the governor then of Montana, Steve Bullock, who was having trouble with his state parks. We created a similar planning commission in Montana that did great work with Governor Bullock at the time. To me, his biggest long-term agenda item was creating a new funding source for state parks.

Subsequently, we were able to team up with proponents of legalized marijuana. In Montana, we got 50% of the money from a new tax on legalizing marijuana to go for parks and outdoor recreation. And in 2020, when the whole state went very conservative for all its candidates and other issues, we got 55% of the vote for that measure, and now state parks are well funded in Montana. 

I love those stories, and I'm just thinking a lot about an experience I had in a trustee meeting quite a few years ago. And I was in this meeting, and one of the trustees said to me, while I was talking about a campaign that they were funding, "Well, civil, I don't understand. Doesn't this stuff just happen? Wait a minute. Why, what is this? It was eye-opening. I mean, they were in a really good place. They were sort of like I thought things just happened.

It was such an open and honest comment, and what you just described explains how things don't just happen. And as a donor, you can be strategic and work with people like you, Michael and your team at RLF or other organizations like this to help move the needle on something.

So, it's just I'm so happy you're here getting interviewed today because you're just offering us all sorts of great words of wisdom.

Well, let me just say Sybil, just on that. I do think that we all have this tendency when things work well. It's like, of course, they work well because it's the right thing to do, and until you dig deeper, you don't understand all the ins and outs and the frustrations and the challenges and the setbacks.

That is how you work hard with so many different interests to overcome those obstacles and eventually win anything worthwhile. It is not easy, and it takes a team and funders who are truly dedicated, willing to take risks, and willing to stay in it for the long haul.

But it doesn't happen automatically. None of this happens automatically.

Right, exactly.

So, Michael, another thing that I've observed is that you know, you founded this organization and you're not going to say this, but I notice that you're very beloved in the organization. It's like you've created a really good, healthy group of people that are working well on so many issues. And now you've decided to transition out of running the organization. You've decided that you know someone very well. And there's a new person at the helm. I do talk a lot with donors about how they support and think about significant leadership changes. Also, nonprofits struggle with this too, when there's an executive director who's super charismatic and everyone trusts them as they're transitioning out.

So, I'd love you to talk to me a little bit about what went through your thought process when you decided you wanted to transition and change your role at RLF, and you know when you decided the time was right and how you think things are going now in this transition because it's pretty new.

Sure. We got funded to do a strategic plan in 2016, hired an outside consultant, and worked closely with our board and a lot of partners to figure out where we were and where we needed to go. And that plan was a five-year plan through 2021.

And we raised some money to help implement that plan because I didn't want it to be just another plan that sat on the shelf. I took it seriously and I had a great board. It is still a great board. That is just diverse, really broad experience across a lot of different sectors, but they also take their fiduciary responsibilities very seriously, which I valued, and I saw it. And they were not rubber stamp boards. I was never looking for that and we set benchmarks. We had implementation plans, and I held myself and the team accountable every year in terms of the board reviewing what we were and where we needed to be, it started hurting me around 2019 or so that I needed to start planning for my future, but also the organization's future. 

When we first created it with the Packard Foundation, we thought that it would only be needed occasionally. We were never interested in creating an organization that exists in perpetuity. We only wanted a viable organization as long as it played it, as long as it added value and played a unique role.

And it seemed, as we did, as we finished this strategic plan effort, that there was a role for RLF to continue for at least 10 to 20 more years. This intersection between government and philanthropy was really important, and RF served a really valuable purpose in that. So as part of that, I consciously tried to, as part of the planning effort, delegate authority to have a much more decentralized structure.

So, I wasn't the hub, as one person characterized it, moving from the harbor organization where everything came through me. They moved to a networked organization where people had much more autonomy and authority, obviously in a coordinated fashion, and where they developed leadership teams and an executive management team and provided access to coaching to various people so they could continue to grow in their professional attributes and skills.

I never wanted to be one of those CEO founders who stayed too long. We've all run into that. We've all seen how that plays out. I wanted to leave when the organizations were robust and had a future, and when I felt I still had respect and had things to offer.

And these are very dynamic times. Things are changing rapidly. I just concluded before COVID that I would aim for exciting in 2022. That, or possibly 2021. I didn't anticipate COVID and what implications it would have and that I would hire an executive coach to help me who had a lot of experience with whom I think I could work well to help me navigate. I informed my board, but it was all kept very quiet, and they worked hard to build a really solid structure for the time that I would leave. Also, with all of the new dynamics and appropriate focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which have long been the centerpiece of our efforts, we think that some fresh new leadership would be really valuable at this time in the organization's evolution. So, I spent the better part of two years nurturing that with the board and with staff.

I didn't let any of the staff know until 2021 that I had decided to leave at the end of 2021 or early 2022. And then we had a very thoughtful process of moving things further down the organization The board created a search committee, hired a search firm, did a national search, and picked an outstanding individual. And my successor Arby Garbo took the helm They brought me on in early January of this year as a senior advisor to help. During this transition and while working on a couple of projects that are near and dear to my heart, I feel like I can add value.

That's great. What are those projects, Michael? What's still near and dear to your heart?

Well, you know, they all are!

Yeah, I knew that was a trick question once I asked you.

One is an effort we launched with the Pew Foundation on Indigenous LED conservation in Canada, and then Pew asked us to work with them on developing more of a focus on indigenous LED conservation globally, which is important in terms of advancing 21st-century conservation.

And it has great applicability in the United States as well, with tribes and natives. We hosted a project on the Bears' ears, a bears' ear intertribal coalition on that national monument. We worked a lot with tribes throughout the West, and it's something that I feel is important. It's the culture, a lot of creativity, a lot of new thinking, and so it has motivated me to end up staying with another one It has to do with the commitment in California, but also in some other states, and globally by the Biden administration and globally on 30% conservation of land and coastal resources by the year 2030. It's important for climate resilience and climate mitigation, and it's also really important for tribal engagement, equitable access, and the future of biodiversity. So, we hosted a project called the Campaign for Nature, which has built support among 80 countries that have committed to 30 by 30 with the Global Convention on Biodiversity coming up for renewal in Montreal next month; and then in California, we were able to get Governor Newsom to commit to 30 by 30 and have developed a partnership with the state to implement that, and it's well on its way, and also working closely with a lot of partners at the federal level in terms of the federal administration. 

So, there are a lot of other things that I care deeply about, but the 30 by 30 effort and having further indigenous blood conservation are two of the ones that I've stayed closest to since I left the helm.

That's great. And you also, in your volunteer time, are on the boards of various nonprofits as well, right? So, you're staying very actively engaged?

Yeah, I'm sharing the woodland-sided governing council, which I carry a lot of, which is quite involved obviously in 30 by 30 and inequitable access and Native American LED conservation. And then I've also had the privilege of serving on the Monterey Bay Korean board for several years and will continue that given what an incredible institution it is, not only for educational purposes but also for policymakers striving for policy victories. And they were the leaders. In a recent battle not only in California but also nationally and globally, the wind was in California on new standards for plastic reduction, greatly reducing plastic in your environment.

Thanks for all that and thanks for all you do, Michael. And for anyone who's listening to this, the information about resource legacy promises, legacy funds, and the other organizations you mentioned will be in the show notes too, so if folks are listening and they're like, "Oh my gosh. To say I want to keep looking into this”, you can just check out the show notes. 

Michael, thanks again for your time.

Do you have anything else you want to say before we go so that my listeners can think about all the good things you said? Is there any take-home you want to be sure we don't forget?

Well, so well, thanks for this opportunity, and thanks for all you do. I'm only speaking to the donors who are paying attention. Your work is so important. It's so great what you're doing. It's always a privilege to be able to work with people like you.

I just encourage you to be as creative as possible, to think as big as you possibly can, and to work with the right people who care deeply about making things happen but have not only great visionaries but also know how to make things happen One of my favorite quotes is by Nelson Mandela.

It’s used in a much bigger context, but it's something to the effect of "vision without action is merely daydreaming Action without vision is not getting you very far. It's vision and action together that can change the world.

So, I would just encourage you to keep that in mind.

That's so great, Michael. And just to thank you again for being my mentor all these years, and best of luck to you. In your next stage,

Thanks, Sybil. Take care