"I view everyone as a potential leader, regardless of title, and have always seen my role as using my skills and expertise to elevate others."
As a part of our Community Leader Spotlight Series, we spoke with Lauren Weston.
In this candid conversation, Lauren walks us through her journey of being the leader at Acterra, its defining work, opportunities, achievements, and challenges confronting this Bay Area nonprofit.
About Lauren and Acterra
Lauren Weston started with the environmental nonprofit Acterra: Action for a Healthy Planet in June of 2019, assuming the overall management, operations, and development of the organization.
Acterra, a 50-year-old organization based in Palo Alto, CA, addresses global climate change at the local level by making it easier and cheaper for the public to reduce their carbon footprints at home, work, and throughout the community.
CLASS: Welcome Lauren. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your early career, your interest in the nonprofit sector, and your professional journey?
Lauren: It's such a funny question to answer because I feel like so much of my career has started with Acterra. I'm so fulfilled in the work that I do. It's just a different feeling being an executive director. It's something I've always wanted. I feel very fortunate that what brought me here is fund raising because that is a background that I have. I have a masters from New York University in fundraising, and it brings a different perspective to the work, and probably a different level of confidence in my ability to sustain the organization long term.
Because I do talk to donors all the time and I talk about money all the time. I love it, so it's really easy for me to keep having those conversations. And really, that's what's going to help our organization grow. We do really solid programming and then I get to talk about it and ask people to fund it. And it's just the best thing ever. So I'm really excited to be at Acterra and having the background and development that I do.
I actually started my career in political fundraising. I graduated from UC Davis when I was 20 years old, and I started working for a bipartisan political consulting group called Capital Campaigns in Sacramento, California. I was 20 years old and I was running these political campaigns from start to finish: hiring staff, getting office space, getting the computers get set up and functioning, and then running grassroots “Get out the Vote.” I ran supervisor races, school bonds, land use entitlements. I was super green but my employers believed that I could do anything, and I could, and it was awesome. I learned a lot, but the piece that stuck with me was that I loved the fundraising aspect. I loved connecting people, with their hard-earned money, which seems very transactional, to a mission that transformed their donation into impact. That was very powerful for me. Probably the piece of this work I still love the most is connecting people to that thing that sparks joy.
I followed that to my Master’s program and New York. I moved to New York in the middle of January, and I'm a West Coast girl, so I was not prepared for New York weather. I loved my program. It was one of the first times in a very long time that I wasn't working full-time as well. I was a full-time student but also working while I was a student at Davis, and then working full time after graduation. So I did a lot of internships, I did arts education, I did literacy education, and I got to kind of feel out the things that were interests of mine. I also just got to enjoy being a student. I traveled for my last semester while I was working on my thesis, and I wrote my thesis all over the world. I wrote it from New Orleans, I wrote it from Costa Rica, I wrote it from Spain. I just really enjoyed my last semester. To connect that, my undergraduate degree is in International Relations. I always thought I would work for this international NGO and travel the world. Then when I finished my graduate degree, I realized that I wanted to get dogs. You can't really do a lot of traveling when you have dogs, so I became very focused on building my family, and my three dogs are accompanying me in this interview right now.
I've been in San Francisco since 2008. I've been working in nonprofit since I graduated from my Master's program. My first role was working for the YMCA in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. I was a “Y Baby.” I grew up in the Y. Every time we moved, we'd get a Y membership. So it felt like I was coming home in a lot of ways, and it just stuck with me. The youth, family, and wrap around services, providing basic human services to allow people equitable access to things that would make their life better was really important to me. That's what got me started in nonprofit. And I love fundraising and I kept doing it. Then I was super lucky to find Acterra. Actually, I think Acterra probably found me. They were working with recruiter who I knew, and he reached out to me, and here I am.
The Unique Leadership Challenge
CLASS: Wonderful wow, that's been a journey for you then. Thank you for sharing that. While we are still talking about your career and how you ended up being in the nonprofit sector, I believe you've been with Acterra for over two years now. As a new leader for the organization, what have been some of your challenges (particularly at this point in time) and what have been some of those proud moments that you can say about achievements?
Lauren: For one, I never would have expected my first run as executive director to be in climate change because I'm completely new to the work of climate change and the science of climate change. My background is education reform, so it's been a steep learning curve. I'd say that's probably the first thing I encountered as a challenge. I've learned a ton, I am soaking it in, and so I feel like it's been part of why this role has been so fulfilling. I'm just soaking in so much new information, so that's been a really big silver lining for me.
But the other thing is, I don't know anyone who could have planned for a year like this, right? I mean, COVID. Wow. I don't think there's anything bigger that could have happened in our community than what we're experiencing now. I don't think anything could have prepared me to be a leader during something like this, so I feel very fortunate that I have the team that I do. We spent an entire year, my first year on the job, with strategic planning (which [Class Consulting] helped us with, which was amazing, which I know we'll talk about later), reviewing our marketing and operations. I think that helped because we were already on that trajectory for big change. We were changing our programs, we were innovating, we were evolving old programs that had stagnated, so we'd already made the shift to flexibility and being nimble. I think COVID just made it happen much faster. We had no choice but to make change, and because we already had it in our line of sight, it made the turn really easy, but I think the process and transition is hard, right? Moving fully remote was tough. I've hired people fully remote. I'd never shaken their hands and they've joined our team! It's been phenomenal, exciting, and liberating in some ways because we don't have the same constraints for programming.
I think my whole tenure at Acterra has been an amazingly beautiful roller coaster, and I couldn't have planned for that in any sort of way. It's just happened and we're making the best of it.
CLASS: Yeah, I think that's so true for any organization at this point in time. Going on the fly and learning and reimagining every day is a big thing. While we're still talking about COVID, I know you have so many different programs that center around building a healthy planet. How are you coping with that to continue serving the communities that you deal with day in and day out, keeping the programs alive? How is all of that happening?
Lauren: Yeah, that's a great question. I think we, as a team, revisit the answer to that question almost every single day. Part of it is that we are maintaining a really close-knit culture. We have daily meetings that we call “Stand Up” where we all come together every day of every week for 30 minutes just to connect. We do “Would You Rather” questions as Ice Breakers. We talk about programming, we talk about our needs of each other, we talk about how to resource our programs, so we're constantly centered in the work. This has helped the transition a lot. Our team is very flexible and very resilient, which also reflects in our programming. Through the strategic planning process we did, we re-envisioned a lot of our core programs. We did focus groups and interviews and we got a lot of information and feedback from our community. So making the switch as of July 1, which was our fiscal year start, our programming made big shifts. We did that while transitioning into COVID and remote work. Our team is just insanely resilient. I mean, I couldn't have asked for a nimbler team and more flexible team to pull this off.
The other interesting thing about our programming is that we've made the shift to focus on food, plant-forward diets, and food waste. We're moving more towards beneficial electrification for all, making sure that people have access to clean energy. What does that look like in their households? What does that look like in our communities? Really meaningful, impactful work for climate change.
We've also had the pleasure of transitioning one of our core programs operating for the last few years, “Climate Resilient Communities (CRC)” We oversee, as Acterra, organizational fiduciaries. We take in organizations that want to start functioning, but don't yet have their 501C3 status, and act as their umbrella organization. We rolled off CRC, that had been operating under Acterra, into a fiduciary, so that they can expand and serve their communities the way they need to. The most amazing, beautiful part of that is that we get to elevate leadership within the organization! Because that staff person is now going to be, in essence, functioning as their own director of their program, and we're also serving more deeply an area of underserved populations that we weren't going to be able to serve with our resources before. They're going to go thrive in this way that our communities really need. We're acting as the umbrella and providing administrative services for that transition, but we can act as a partner in deeper ways, too.
There's a lot of really exciting things going on with programming and how we're serving the community based on feedback from the community on what they need. We're actually doing the stuff they say they need, which is pretty exciting.
The Key Initiatives
CLASS: Wonderful, that's great to know. While we are still talking about that, one of the things that I was curious to learn was that the strategic vision for 2021 to 2023focuses on climate-friendly food and rapid electrification of homes and businesses, right? Tell usa little bit about that vision, and what's happening to achieve that.
Lauren: Sure, part of our strategic planning process was thinking about the foundation of our work, wanting it to be very credible and have the greatest impact possible. When we started gathering feedback and hearing from the communities what they needed, we centered it in the science and we aligned our work with Project Drawdown.
We looked at the key things that were happening around climate change, and the things that had the greatest levers, so we could see the most immediate impact. Food is a big one in the Bay Area. 20% of our carbon emissions come from our food systems. So we knew that if we could start impacting food, we could actually move the needle on reducing emissions quicker than we could have with some other programming. Transportation is a big one, which follows our “Karl Knapp GoEV” program. We're looking at increasing the adoption of electric vehicles, which has a huge impact on carbon emissions in our local communities, and then, more broadly, Beneficial Electrification for All which I mentioned earlier.
Much of California is leading the way on clean energy. Silicon Valley and the peninsula in particular are moving the needle on clean energy. So many cities have now have passed reach codes, so we're expecting to expand the electrification of new construction. We're starting to dig into what rehab construction would look like, and moving towards all electric appliances and households and commercial properties. It's really exciting to think about not needing to take fossil fuels from our planet. How beautiful is that, right? Why wouldn't we want to be doing that work? It's the thing that has the most impact. If we can just stop taking fossil fuels from the earth, we're doing more than we've ever done before.
I think Acterra being able to focus on these core principles, and be laser focused on how we create that impact, is only going to see increased success. So that's why we're focused. We have the plan behind us, and we're already digging into that work and we're looking forward to what can come.
CLASS: Wonderful, that's great actually. That will be a new era, right? For people to sort of have a new way of life. I spoke to somebody else who is also within a similar organization that is into native gardens, plants, and environment. One of the things that always cuts into me is you want to bring about a change, but change often starts with the youth, right? So as an organization, what is your perspective on that? Are you bringing youth into the programs or developing something to involve them in this process?
Lauren: I get so joyful thinking about the answer to this question because my background is in youth services. I've spent most of my career making sure that youth had equitable access to educational resources. Climate change curriculum is not consistent throughout the state of California. There's no consistent curriculum in each classroom that you'll find around sea level rise or climate change or emissions. It's just not part of curriculum in state schools yet, so there's definitely a gap for what our youth are learning. The youth know it, they're taking charge, they're figuring out the answer for themselves. You'll see this with all the youth activism happening right now around climate strikes. At Acterra, we've been around for 50 years. We've always had youth involved in our programs. We had a program called “Grassroots Ecology” that became a fiduciary and then rolled off into its own nonprofit. They were extremely good at activating youth because they got their hands dirty. They got to go plant native trees and pull weeds that were invasive. It was really hands on and tactile, which is so amazing for youth.
So Acterra, having kind of moved away from youth programming, is just now starting to bring that back because of our strategic plan. What you'll notice from our website is a new program called “Youth be the Change.” We used to run a program called “Be the Change,” which was a professional development program for people interested in sustainability careers. This was for adults, so we've re-envisioned it as an education accreditation program for students. Middle school students can go through this 12-hour curricula, they graduate, and they receive a certificate of completion. Then upon that certificate of completion, they get a toolkit to start their own green teams on their campus. Then we would seed-fund their first event on that campus, so they can get their own green teams up and running.
We also created a youth ambassador program. We had amazing interns over the summer from a local high school come and design what we're calling “ASAP” (Acterra Student Ambassador program). They're called “The Saplings.” I think that's so adorable. These youths now are creating their own opportunities to become leaders. Once they graduate from the middle school programming, there's this high school programming available for youth ambassadors where they can then go into their communities and extend their learning, so that they can graduate from one program to the next.
We also created last year a “Young Professionals Council” that is supporting professional development. That's a brand-new program, and we're creating this curriculum across stages, so youth have one thing to graduate from to the next. We want people to join Acterra and be with us for a lifetime, right? We want them to become part of the family. Knowing that we’re 50 years old, knowing we have to start getting some younger people into the organization that can grow with us over time, is really exciting. And it's all science-standard-based curriculum, which is even more thrilling. Stanford helped us design the curriculum that we're using, and we've open-sourced it. During COVID another change that we had to make was that we expected to be in schools. We can't be in schools, so we're using Google Classroom now. We've made these huge pivots, but we're doing it so that students have access to curricula that is important to them, but also necessary for their learning. We are actively engaging youth because we know we have to. We can't leave them behind. In fact, if we don't include them, they're going to leave us in the dirt: They're going to be our leaders eventually, so we need to have a place for them in Acterra. I'm personally really excited about our youth programming.
CLASS: When you say curriculum, are you partnering with schools and universities to take these into the virtual classrooms?
Lauren: Yeah, part of open sourcing that curriculum is that we're not so attached to the district or the classroom anymore. Our original expectation was that we would be thrilled if we had two classrooms in a school that would go through the curriculum and then create a green team for their campus. Now our expectation is not only to pair with districts and teachers, but also to allow the curriculum to be downloaded by students who are just interested in the content. We're partnering with other educational organizations that have complementary curriculum to fill out interesting things that our curriculum excludes. We always want to be finding those organizations doing things better than we are, but it's also a way to increase our reach. Partnering with organizations who have curriculum that we don't expands our reach into the student access in a way that we didn't have before. Our whole thing right now is just to get the content out, see where it resonates, start learning from it, and having this feedback loop about how to make it better. We're expecting different things to come from it being open source than being solely in the classroom.
CLASS: I was curious about workplace sustainability as I was looking up and researching your organization. Now that we are all at home, is workplace sustainability still very much part of your core?
Lauren: It used to be two specific programs. It used to be our “Business Environmental Awards” program (which is over 30 years old) and it used to be our “Silicon Valley Green Team” network. It is now under the bucket of “Workplace Sustainability” because we have re-envisioned our award ceremony. One: because we needed to align with our new strategic initiatives. Two: because of COVID, companies are not engaging in the same way or have the same level of resources for an award ceremony as rigorous as ours was. You had to apply an early fall, you get selected for finalists, you do site visits. It's a many months long process.
Now the one bucket is “Workplace Sustainability,” and workplaces are not going away. I think the interesting thing for us is now workplaces are in the home, so it connects to our other programs in a way it hasn't before. We can tie in plant-based diets because people are eating more at home. We can tie in electric appliances because people are working from home. And what are they using? They're using gas appliances in their homes. The workplace has expanded which means we have a lot more capacity to make change and affect change because the definition of workplace is now so ambiguous and gray. We can move into that gray area and start functioning in programming. It's actually been a really positive change for us. And I read all the time that there was a huge company that just expanded office space. So who knows what's going to happen? There's always going to be workplaces, they're not going away, it's just going to look different.
The Proud Moments
CLASS: What has been something that has made you feel really proud of the team for achieving, or something that will keep you going for the next two years?
Lauren: There's probably a couple of correct answers to this. The first is the strategic planning process was very thorough. I'm really proud of our entire team for that process. The board, staff, and our community engaged deeply and took it very seriously. We would not have the plan we have now, and the laser focus that we have now, without having gone successfully through that process. I think that was probably my initial win, where it felt like we concluded this, it feels good, and it feels right.
I think now I am just so enthralled and in awe of my team and their ability to get the work done. Also acknowledging how hard it is. Half of our staff have kids at home that they're trying to safely educate and so they've been full-time parents while working. That's a big deal. Or this other very heavy weight that's going on with the “Black Lives Matter” movement it just puts extra weight on the work our staff do every day. They're resilient, they're dedicated, they're persistent, and they're smart. They believe in doing good work, and I just I'm so proud of how they have handled COVID, the pandemic, and every repercussion of those things. They're being good, careful, and thoughtful but team members. I'm just unendingly proud of our team and how they've pivoted at this time, because not all teams are doing that.
The Partnership with CLASS Consulting Group
CLASS: You recently had a needs assessment workshop with CLASS. Can you explain your experience with us and how it helped you get a better reign on things within your organization?
Lauren: I think when we started envisioning a partnership with CLASS, we were going through a lot of questions internally with our strategic planning process. What do we need to really hone in on? What do we need to investigate more? What are questions we have about our operations? A lot of the work that your team did kind of unveiled those answers. It was a really deep process. Your team asked amazing questions and really challenged us on a couple of things around our operations, which was really insightful. So, yes, it was absolutely helpful. It was also really in depth, right? I mean, you guys were asking for a lot of materials, and you were going over all those materials, and asking really great questions. In a lot of ways, with me being a new executive director, it helped set the framework for how I could continue to ask questions of the organization. It was incredibly helpful.
About The CLASS Consulting Group
The CLASS Consulting Group is a trusted advisor to the board of directors and senior leadership of the Bay Area nonprofit organizations. It is a boutique management consulting firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area that provides consulting services to senior management and board of directors of nonprofit organizations and offers community leadership opportunities to professionals.
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