John Richardson never considered himself an environmentalist. Yet he spent earlier decades traveling for the United Nations, investigating some of the world’s most complex humanitarian relief operations. He has seen firsthand the impact that environmental issues have on people and lands and nations.
He now directs the Blackstone Ranch Institute (BRI), based in Taos, New Mexico, founded by venture capitalist and entrepreneur Pat Black from Erie, Pennsylvania. Black initially had the idea to convene groups together for meaningful action, and he hired Richardson to help make it happen.
“Funders are trying to bring something to life, to get something worthy out there in the world. To do that, we have to be willing to trust, and to make mistakes early on.”
BRI convenes pioneers in environmental sustainability—to exchange ideas and as launching pads for major attempts at change. “Convening people is key for any social change. You’ve got to bring people together early on—either physically or online—to do anything of scale,” says Richardson. “Convenings are a real philanthropic leverage point. A small grant of $50K or $60K can lead to all kinds of activities and attract millions in funding. Small funders can trust in that.”
Trust is important to BRI. They give organizations money early (often the first grant), betting on the fact that they will get future grants from bigger funders. “It’s often harder for organizations to get amounts under $100K early on, and yet, that’s where a lot of the important stuff starts. It gets these networks and coalitions out of the gate and to the next level.”
In one example, BRI gave the first grant to a new regional alliance of large, privately owned ranches pioneering land management practices in the West, including using cattle as part of the landscape growth rather than destroying it. “These ranches wanted to form an alliance and 501(c)(3), and needed $110K to run it for a year. They needed a funder to legitimize and challenge them, and we got them moving. I told them we were on the table for $40K. They had the rest of the money the next morning.”
Richardson believes in getting money out fast—typically within three weeks. “We’ve heard time and again: If you hadn’t given us money at that moment, it wouldn’t have happened,” says Richardson. “We’ve been able to play this catalytic role, where something will be ready to go and others don’t trust it yet.”
Another way BRI lends its trust? They do away with bureaucracy whenever possible.
“We don’t do application forms. I sit and talk with potential grantee partners,” says Richardson, whose interviewing skills come into play. “I listen for an action moment—the bigger context where our injection of funds could have the most leverage. And when I hear it, it’s ‘Ahh, that’s it.’”
“I listen for an action moment—the bigger context where our injection of funds could have the most leverage. And when I hear it, it’s ‘Ahh, that’s it.’”
Once it funds a convening, BRI gets out of the way. “We aren’t interested in reading an enormous donor report with technical jargon. Nor do we want grantees to spend $30K of staff time to produce a report.” BRI asks grantees to send a simple email or letter six months later, saying what they wouldn’t have been able to do without BRI’s support. “They get expressive and much more direct in a letter, and we want that. It’s meaningful.”
“Funders are trying to bring something to life, to get something worthy out there in the world. To do that, we have to be willing to trust, and to make mistakes early on. Too much bureaucracy and metrics in the beginning defeats the spirit of what we are trying to do.”
“If we as funders are willing to detach from preconceived outcomes, at least for the first year or two, we may surprise ourselves at what does happen. It could be better than we imagine.”