NEEF: Cultivating Lifelong Environmental Education

Friday, March 21, 2014 - 10:20

The Editor interviews Diane Wood, President of NEEF (the National Environmental Education Foundation).

Editor: Please give us a brief overview of the National Environmental Education Foundation’s mission and core programs.

Wood: A bipartisan congressional committee established the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) in 1990. It was the leadership of the late Senator John Chafee and Senator George Mitchell in partnership with former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, who felt that the country would benefit if there was a private, not-for-profit foundation focusing on environmental education that could complement the work of the EPA. The big vision behind this was that if more Americans had access to the environmental information they needed in their daily lives, they would be more inclined to make environmentally responsible choices, and there would, over time, be less of a need for high-powered regulations and legislations. We are an independent 501(c)(3); however, our board is appointed by the EPA administrator.

Editor: Is NEEF exclusively focused on education, or does the organization also play a role in policy change?

Wood: We are exclusively focused on environmental education. My staff is very aware of a few key words in terms of the information that we disseminate: trusted, objective, scientific and credible. We provide the information that we hope will help people make wise decisions, and that keeps us from moving into world of opinions and policy-change. The field of environmental education is extremely important to the way we view the environment. It is very important to NEEF’s mission that environmental education is presented as a lifelong education. Many people think environmental education means K through 12, but we are engaged with all age groups and all communities and provide each with the knowledge they need to make environmentally wise decisions. 

Editor: Please tell our readers about the two studies NEEF has conducted on corporate sustainability. What are the key takeaways from these studies?

Wood: As an environmental education foundation, we were curious about the corporations that had identified sustainability as a priority. We were curious as to whether or not this self-selected group would find environmental education curricula helpful to accelerating their sustainability goals. We are big on due diligence, so before offering or developing programs, we interviewed a number of Fortune 500 companies that were involved in sustainability, and we got a resounding “no, please don’t give us a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We each have our own corporate cultures, our own learning styles and our own ways of conducting business.” What we learned on further discussion was that in the area of sustainability education, companies are really eager to share and learn from one another. In response to this desire to share, we created a roundtable, a safe space for major corporations to share with one another what they were doing, what worked and what challenged them. Then, with their permission, we recorded the best practices in “The Engaged Organization.” We found that it was better to share best practices than to offer one approach to carrying out environmental education inside companies. I was just stunned at the creativity going on under the roofs of these corporations. It’s sort of an untold story, and it was very exciting for us to look at, for example, Timberland, Walmart, Johnson Controls and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and discover that they have bottom-up, grassroots, new employee movements. They have senior executives engaged, and they have cross-cutting teams. It is just amazing what companies are doing to try to integrate sustainability into their everyday operations. One of the most interesting outcomes of “The Engaged Organization” was the real eagerness of industries to share with one another.

Editor: As you see corporate sustainability programs maturing, do you think we are going to see corporations getting more competitive about what they are willing to share in this area?

Wood: I would assume so – it’s just basic human nature – but we have not experienced that yet. Right now, there is still enough pioneering work happening that companies are eager to share.

Editor: So, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work, but have you found a common thread in sustainability programs that do work?

Wood: We found that some of the best programs result from cross-sector teams, which are not always easy to build. In fact, we found that often some of your strongest advocates in the corporate culture end up being the human resources folks, whom you would not necessarily have thought of to begin with. It makes sense, though, because these are the people who are tasked with attracting millenials, many of whom have an interest in the environment. We found candidates are asking HR simple questions like, “Do you have a bike rack?” or “Do you have a volunteer day?” Then HR asks up the chain for responses to these questions. As a result, companies are making these changes in order to attract and retain top candidates. The best programs seem to develop out of a combination of CEO endorsement, bottom-up engagement and cross-sector teams. Many companies are finding that there are correlations between employee satisfaction (and retention) and being engaged with a company’s sustainability practices.

Editor: NEEF has substantial support from corporations around the country. Toyota is one corporation that has lent a lot of support to NEEF, and this year, Jacqueline Thomas, VP of corporate responsibility at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., joined the board of directors. What expertise will Ms. Thomas bring to NEEF’s board and to fulfilling its mission?

Wood: We enjoy a 15-year relationship with Toyota that keeps growing, and we love to hold it up as a signature partnership and a model relationship. When we are talking to other corporations, we often describe the elements in this relationship that have made it work. It's not simply a philanthropic partnership; it's a joint venture about issues we care about. Having Jacqueline join our board is wonderful. She brings experience working with cross-sector teams, and we are excited about the input on team building that she’ll bring to our board. Other assets that Jacqueline brings are her financial expertise, her background in sustainability, and her understanding of corporate and social responsibility. She is filling three or four different functions that are really attractive to us.

Editor: NEEF’s “Toward Engagement 2.0” described a need to begin sustainability education in high school and in undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) curricula. Please tell our readers how NEEF’s Environmental Education (EE) Week works toward achieving that goal.

Wood: National Environmental Education Week is the week leading up to Earth Day. It was created with the vision that the country could benefit from a focus on environmental education more than one day a year. We have a corporate sponsorship from Samsung North America, which has been fabulous. Two years ago, we decided that we could provide the best service by focusing on “greening” STEM. It’s important to us that STEM specialists don’t get the sense that we are adding a new letter to STEM – adding an “E” for environment – but rather that the whole focus and publicity around EE Week points to the environment as a portal for the STEM topics. So, each year we are making one of the STEM fields the focal point. For instance, last year, we focused on technology and how to use technology to get kids outdoors. Many people say technology is the culprit for what is called “nature deficit disorder,” so we wanted to show people how you can work with kids’ interest in technology to draw them outdoors. We reached them through their tablets, through their GPS systems and through all kinds of fascinating apps that we made available to teachers and students to engage kids in the outdoors with technology.

This year we are looking at how engineering will help solve today’s and tomorrow’s environmental problems. We’re hosting some wonderful webinars that I hope your readers will register for. We will be working with NASA and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who will speak to students about how STEM was important to her and her career. There is evidence that kids learn and retain more when they look at these topics through real-world situations in their own communities. Whether you are in an urban park or a rural community, you can teach STEM using the environment as your classroom.

Editor: What other roles do NEEF’s corporate partnerships play in Greening STEM education?

Wood: We are working with PricewaterhouseCoopers right now. They have done some wonderful pro bono work for us on helping “friends of public lands” groups to understand financial management. These are small community groups that are trying to steward their public lands in collaboration with public officials, but they have very little experience balancing a checkbook, and when we wanted to send them grants, we discovered that they were sending us photocopies of checkbooks or balance sheets. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) stepped in and spent months of pro bono service designing teaching modules for small nonprofits on how to fill out 990s, how to be compliant with 501(c)(3) regulations, and how to set up balance sheets. Now PwC is looking at different ways that they may be able to expand that pro bono volunteerism into mentoring schools that are Greening STEM. PwC has a great desire to do good in their communities, and this is just the beginning of a relationship that we are very excited about.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the program “My Earth Changing Moments” and the impact social media can have on real environmental change.

Wood: The whole capacity to go viral is very exciting. Social media, for us, has been nothing but a positive way to rapidly engage the majority of our population. We created “My Earth Changing Moments” as a social, storytelling sharing site because we wanted to inspire people anywhere in the country to feel they have a place in caring for the environment. There is a concern that environmentalism and caring for the environment is elite and exclusive, and that you have to look and act a certain way, own certain things, care about certain things. We are very committed to expanding the conversation. We want to give people a sense that right where they are, they can start doing things, within the lifestyle they are currently living, that collectively will help the environment. “My Earth Changing Moments” is an opportunity to tell a personal story, through essays, videos or photographs, about why you care about the environment. Our overall objective is to collect enough diverse stories of people talking from the heart that other people will see and feel inspired to do the same. We are inviting stories that we hope will be shared in ways that build communities.

We have also just launched “Take A Second” – a campaign that has a lot of relevance to corporations. We are using the EPA’s scientific data to look at water, energy, waste and air through the lens of people’s individual actions. We begin this campaign with a video that asks, “Do you know there are about eighty thousand seconds in a day? Where do they all go?” The video illustrates what people are doing in their daily lives, and then it pivots to a little girl stretching tall to turn off a light switch, saying, “Surely we have a few seconds for the environment.” And then the video shows possibilities of all the things you can do for the environment and closes with the little girl asking, “What will you do with your seconds?” We plan to collect viewer responses, and then we will translate these individual actions into the collective impact of a hundred million Americans engaging in these actions. We want to show what these actions really mean in terms of the economy and, for instance, water savings. This is something companies can work with us on through a form of employee engagement. We hope that they use the video to inspire “Take A Second” actions in their own companies: take a second to set your printer to default, double-sided copy; take a second to use those reusable bags that you left in the trunk of your car. Through these small actions, we hope to show that individuals can effect collective environmental progress.

Editor: Will you be offering corporations guidance on how, perhaps, to start their own Take A Second campaigns?

Wood: That is something we would like to do. In fact, we have already found some fellow nonprofits using “My Earth Changing Moments” as a team-building exercise. And we know that while corporations are hesitant to proactively send messages home, these messages are coming home through enthusiasm, excitement and pride and are indeed having an impact on households. Energy bills are looked at differently; more families are getting outdoors. It has a positive spillover effect.

Editor: How can a corporation help NEEF to accomplish its mission?

Wood: The easiest answer is philanthropy. Funds are essential to keeping us going, but we have found that we achieve the most when we establish ongoing relationships with corporations. Forming a relationship at multiple touch points within a company results in the best return on investment. A company should first ask a few questions: Is there a shared mission? What assets can we bring to the table? What are my needs, and what are your assets? And then together we can work towards a common goal. NEEF can accept sponsorships and grants and do good things together with a company, similar to what we do with Toyota or with Samsung. We can regrant, or receive funds, and then put them towards a shared cause with a company. There are also ways to collaborate that do not involve funds. We can identify opportunities and matchmake employees for environmental education mentoring service, offer technical assistance through pro bono contributions, and we can offer nationwide service opportunities and volunteerism opportunities through existing programs. We can also tailor-make programs for companies.

Editor: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wood: I feel very optimistic about our partnerships. Our relationships with the corporate community have been very energizing for me personally. To see the caring, the motivation, the eagerness, the pride, and the desire to be understood and to do something good – that has been really exciting for us.

Please email David Lanham at dlanham@neefusa.org with questions about this interview.