Marla Stein is full of energy, wisdom, kindness, impact and smiles. Today she is on the front lines of fighting to protect people and our shared planet from climate change. Her amazing leadership and volunteerism at the Jewish Funders Networks (JFN)’s Green Funders Forum (GFF) helps support and mobilize the Jewish philanthropic community. Rapidly expanding, the GFF is the JFN’s largest peer network, providing the philanthropic community with knowledge, tools, inspiration, and opportunities to act strategically and collaboratively around issues of the environment and climate change.
Marla grew up in Kansas City and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Public Policy (LBJ School, UT). With a true passion for Israel and democracy, she worked in grassroots organizing in 56 congressional districts in six states in the Southwest before making aliya to Israel decades ago. She worked in a variety of nonprofits in Israel and then became a licensed tour guide in 1999. Marla, working in partnership with her husband Gideon Stein, PhD, is a leader on a variety of climate issues, including philanthropy, impact investing and activism. I asked her about her passion, experience and where other people can also make a difference on climate issues.
How did you get interested in working on climate issues?
As a tour guide, I see, feel and explain the country. The issues are palpable from the receding dead sea to trash in our cities to the smoke pouring out of our power plants whose energy sources are overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels. Also, climate is an issue that not only do my children care about but that I feel affects everything in our lives – from the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the water we drink. In fact, I see funding in climate as a kind of insurance policy for everything else. Also, I realized early on that this was a field that had relatively few funders and where our funding could really make a difference.
Is this connected to your Jewish involvement and identity? If so, in what way?
I feel that Israel is central to the Jewish people and to the Jewish world, and that we need to be caretakers of this precious land for all its residents. All the more so because Israel is one of the world’s climate hot spots – we are already at 1.5 degrees and temperatures are rising faster than most other areas. What happens in Israel affects the region and really the world.
Once you knew you wanted to do something on climate issues, where did you go for resources, mentoring or involvement?
I am a networker, so I first sought out other foundation professionals who had expertise in this issue. I was given the opportunity to join a funder collaboration that provides micro-grants to activist groups working on local environmental projects. This has helped me learn the field in terms of issues, NGOs on the ground and foundations who fund in this area.
There are so many ways to help. How did you pick your “lane” and what is it?
Because I have a public policy background, I definitely favor the strategy of impact through policy change as I believe that big change can be made from above. We fund anchor organizations here in Israel that are specifically advocacy or grassroots oriented. These include Adam Teva V’din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense), Green Course, the Sheli Fund, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel and Life and Environment. In addition, in order to increase our impact, I agreed to be the co-chair of the Green Funders’ Forum with the goal of encouraging other individual funders and foundations to enter this field. We also give financial support to the Green Funders’ Forum in order to develop the ecosystem to educate other funders and move them to action.
Another “lane” is that Gideon and I are committed to moving our money for impact. We have to mobilize all of our assets to fight climate and of course we have to do this in a financially savvy way. This shouldn’t replace philanthropy, but it is really important as most people’s investments are far greater than their philanthropic endowments. We have co-founded a Responsible Investment House, Value Squared, whose managed funds not only divest from fossil fuels but also include best in class holdings across sectors for low carbon emissions and high impact. Every single product and service has a carbon footprint and the Value Squared team is uniquely positioned to integrate impact data with financials. The results have been great and have busted the myth that impact investing means concessionary returns. In addition, we are angel investors in Israeli climate tech start ups which are making exciting and important contributions in this field.
Do you have partners?
Partners are crucial! We can only solve climate change — a “wicked” problem – through collaboration. As a relatively small funder, I have been able to boost ideas to bigger foundations and the ecosystem as a whole and together we are making a difference. The staff of the Jewish Funders’ Network starting with Sigal Yaniv Feller, Executive Director, and Gil Yaacov, the Director of JFN’s Green Funders’ Forum (GFF), have been critical along with my co-chair, Cheri Fox and the GFF Steering Committee. In addition to JFN, the Director and Chair of the Forum of Foundations in Israel have been enthusiastic and important partners. I am also a partner in three different funder collaborations in Israel’s environment through the Sheli Fund, Life & Environment and a new fund focusing specifically on climate mitigation. Every single NGO that we support is a true partner as they are the real experts and passionate workers in the field. On the investment side, Noga Levtzion Nadan, Value Squared Managing Director, has been a visionary and leader as are the many startup founders and our co-investors in this arena.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
The growth of the Green Funders’ Forum has been my biggest success. The momentum is really growing and funders – including large foundations — are starting to step up. We went from a forum of fewer than 10 people to a group many times that size. The Green Funders’ Forum has been an important resource — not only providing educational opportunities but more importantly moving funders to action through skill building and through one-on-one consultations. Dozens of funders have had consultations with Gil, and the number of funders in the field has more than doubled. Consultations are especially critical given that many funders are starting to recognize this is a serious issue, but don’t have staff with expertise to get started.
Where should folks who want to help on climate issues begin?
For responsible investing, contact Noga Levtzion Nadan, of Value Squared, at email@example.com. On the philanthropy side, funders can begin by contacting Gil to schedule a consultation (firstname.lastname@example.org). The first consultation is free for members of JFN or funders who qualify to become members of JFN. There is no obligation of any kind – the idea of consulting with Gil is to have a meeting with a savvy staff person who can quickly give a survey of the field and help a funder find points of intersection with what a funder is already doing and/or to help start a thinking process for a new stream of funding. It’s important to begin the process – Climate Change is here and now!