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RE-AMP: Networking climate advocates across eight states to cut carbon emissions

The RE-AMP Network

A significant challenge that a network can take on is shifting a fragmented group of organizations into a more coordinated effort that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For over a decade, that has been the goal of the RE-AMP network’s effort to coordinate the organizations fighting to cut carbon emissions across the Midwest. Since its founding in 2004, it has expanded to link the efforts of over 165 nonprofits and funders working across eight states, and can boast both significant policy wins and a strong infrastructure for driving the work forward.

Not only does RE-AMP have an impressive track record, but there is much to learn from how it evolved, from one modestly endowed foundation gathering a founding group of twelve nonprofits and seven funders into a powerful network for social impact. This story sketch explores how the sustained efforts of one funder successfully coordinated intent and aligned action across a diverse group of actors throughout an ecosystem, seeding a network that grew across a region.


The work that led to RE-AMP began when the Garfield Foundation staff began working with their trustees to re-evaluate their grantmaking around environmental sustainability. They were troubled to see two kinds of fragmentation that appeared counterproductive for the field. First, a host of nonprofits working toward the same overall goal but with solutions that didn’t complement each other. And second, a host of funders working on the same issue but who supported very different approaches.

They realized that one way to address this fragmentation was to engage leaders in direct and thoughtful dialogue focused on both the nature of the problems they were each trying to address and to align perspectives on what solutions might be effective. The reason for this tactic was to help leaders see the bigger picture they operated in and how the actions of each contributed (or inhibited) a more informed collective goal. “We initially started with, how can we get our grantees to have deeper conversations? And work together in a way that is informed by systems thinking?” said Jennie Curtis, Executive Director of the Garfield Foundation. The foundation decided to re-organize their grantmaking to test two big ideas: (a) that large-scale, highly complex problems are best approached through systems thinking and (b) that alignment between and among nonprofits and foundations is necessary for significant change to take place. With its ability to invest around $1 million in such an effort in addition to grant dollars, supporting a better dialogue looked like a more promising way to contribute than funding programs alone.



The Garfield Foundation’s grantmakers took a deliberate, and decidedly unique, approach to finding the right opportunity to deploy the kind of systems-thinking dialogue they had in mind. They were intent on finding both a region and a sustainability-related issue where current efforts were coming up short and there was hunger for new solutions.

Reforming electricity generation in the Midwest surfaced as the ideal opportunity because they realized that while there was some collaboration among the relevant actors, their efforts lacked a robust common agenda. Furthermore, other key components were in place: a committed regional funder cohort and the appetite for having a systems-thinking dialogue that would engage both the funders and advocates. As one member of the founding group recalls: “We were sick of losing on this issue. We thought that if we had a better game plan, then we might win more.” The opportunity was also particularly attractive to Garfield since seven other funders had agreed to participate. Curtis recalls putting careful thought into the invitation: “We didn’t ask them to come to the table committing money. We said: please share your wisdom, be open to the possibility that you might learn something that will inform your grant making, and if that’s the case, be willing to allocate or align dollars. We weren’t asking for much more than their time and their experience.”



Having gathered seven funders and twelve nonprofits from six states as participants, the Garfield Foundation kicked off the dialogue in 2003, committing $2.5 million over the following five years. The first year consisted of several in-person, consultant-facilitated dialogues that helped the group take a step back and crystallize exactly what opportunities existed to construct a clean energy economy in the Midwest. By bringing together insight into the causes and effects at play throughout the relevant systems from a diverse set of participants, those conversations were able to produce a detailed map showing how to approach a single audacious question: How could you secure an 80% drop in greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector by 2030 across these six Midwestern states?

While the time invested to generate this shared understanding might have been hard for some to understand initially, by the end of the first year the group had agreed on a set of four interventions that needed to happen in parallel to drive systemic impact: prevent the building of new coal-fired power plants, shut down existing plants, make renewable power a viable alternative and increase energy efficiency.

Careful to maintain its role as the supporter of the process rather than the driver of the outcome, Garfield asked the group what they wanted to do next. The scope of the work required was daunting, but for those twenty participants, the path forward was promising, and every one of them agreed that business as usual was not an option. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that simply working independently wouldn’t be enough to make progress, particularly given the interdependent nature of the four interventions. The participants formed working groups around each of these four “leverage points,” the funders committed an additional $2 million to kickstart the work to retire coal plants, and with that the RE-AMP network emerged.



With the emergence of the network, the Garfield Foundation saw the opportunity to create a structure that would model a shift from the typical relationships between funders and grantees. Garfield asked the participants: how could strategy for the network incorporate insights from both advocates and funders, rather than the funders alone? Having funders engage as equal partners, Garfield believed, was far more likely to produce the systemic impact that both the funders and the advocates were aiming for. What the group arrived at was a system where foundations could join the Funder Working Group, run for four dedicated foundation elected seats on the thirteen-person steering committee, and also had the option to join one or more of the four working groups focused on the systemic leverage points.

With many ways to contribute, Garfield and the rest of the funders each had to decide how much engagement they could provide. Garfield allocated roughly a quarter of Curtis’ time to the work, augmenting her involvement with the full-time efforts of a consultant, Rick Reed, who acted as a coordinator and network weaver, as well as additional short-term consultants to provide technical and process assistance. Curtis candidly acknowledges that it was difficult to anticipate what level of effort would be required, but now feels that this arrangement served the network well. Other funders made their own choices; four joined the steering committee, all joined the Funder Working Group, and some joined one or more of the four leverage-point working groups as well.



RE-AMP’s initial structure of coordinated working groups has proven resilient over the eleven years of work that followed. Early on, it established an online “commons” to aid information-sharing, a network-wide coordinated messaging strategy and media outreach center, a steering committee to guide vision and strategy, and it helped members strategically align efforts to successfully defeat the construction of many new coal plants. (For more details on how the network was built, see the Monitor Institute case study from 2010, and Madeleine Taylor’s recent description of RE-AMP’s financial growth.)

Today the network is now comprised of over 165 participating organizations. Funders continue to hold a minority of seats on the steering committee, each participates in the Funder Working Group, and some contribute to a pooled fund (allocated by the members of the steering committee and contributing funders) that reached $2.5 million in 2014. While each working group is still led by a RE-AMP member who has been elected by peers, those leaders now have part-time support based in their organizations.  Backbone support is also provided by four full-time staff who are housed together in a newly centralized office (a CEO, network coordinator, community manager, knowledge manager, and administrative assistant) as well as two Organizing Hub co-directors at member organizations and a half-time youth caucus coordinator. With this structure, RE-AMP has developed a hybrid decentralized and centralized staffing which has successfully spread philanthropic dollars across the region.

The network’s participants can point to a wide range of recent accomplishments: their work has contributed to the closing of many more highly-polluting coal plants, passing new mandates for energy disclosure in the metro areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, and contributing regional data on carbon pollution reduction potential to the Environmental Protection Agency as it developed its ambitious new greenhouse gas regulations.

It is now clear that the funders’ engagement as equals with other participants has been a crucial enabler of the network’s ability to strategically align action against these goals. “RE-AMP is breaking down the stereotypical division of grantees asking for money and funders deciding what makes sense,” said Keith Reopelle, senior policy director at Clean Wisconsin. “That makes it easier for foundations because they have more information, and it has made it easier for the environmental community to know what is going to be funded.” When it comes to fighting climate change in the Midwest, the network provides funders and nonprofits alike with clear options for both contributing to the work and leading it.



In the section What network design would be most useful? we introduce a simple framework for comparing the ‘design’ of a network — eight basic variables that define its shape and size. See below for our estimation of RE-AMP’s design (in teal) versus that of the other networks we profile (in white):

04 RE Amp-01


Sources: Transformer: How to Build a Network to Change a System (2010), Monitor Institute interview with Jennie Curtis (2014), the RE-AMP website (2014), and Investing in Networks Grows Impact (2015).