Kate Williams, CEO, 1% For The Planet
Kate Williams is CEO of 1% For The Planet, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Vermont that connects dollars with doers. It counts more than 1,200 businesses as members; each business pledges 1% of its annual sales for contributions to high-impact environmental nonprofits.
Kate has also been Board Chair for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Executive Director of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. She has also served as an elected political leader in her community.
What’s the dent you’re trying to make in the universe?
I believe we all have power – to create, to resist, to inspire. The dent I’m trying to make through my work at 1% for the Planet (and really in my whole life) is to help more people seize this power for the good of our planet. It takes courage and it can often be hard to see how to enact our power when external circumstances seem to conspire against us. But we always have the power to act, and that is an amazing force.
What life lessons did you learn from your mother and father?
Through word and example, my parents conveyed the value of working hard and having a purpose. They didn’t hide the challenges of such a life – as an Episcopal priest (my Mom) and a school headmaster (my Dad) they were in the thick of the messiness of human life. But it was a life full of commitment and meaning, and that has absolutely guided me. They also taught me to love language, to value family, and to savor shared meals and conversation. Lastly, they taught me not to be afraid to cry at movies (or songs, or sweet random moments in a day).
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wasn’t a kid who had a clear career north-star from a young age, but in high school I became interested in international relations and decided I wanted to be a diplomat. I liked seeing all sides of an issue and seeking solutions. While I’m not a professional diplomat now that I’ve “grown up,” I do find that the skills that interested me in that career are very much what I use in my role as CEO.
What’s the main difference (or similarity) between being CEO of a 1,200-member organization and being an elected official?
It’s mostly similar in that each role requires a kind of facilitative leadership in which you need to balance clarity around direction and agenda with active openness to input from staff / members / partners / constituents about how we move toward and refine that direction and agenda. The other similarity is that both require head and heart – you need to think deeply and clearly, but also be wholehearted and authentic or it doesn’t work. Interestingly, even though the scale of my two experiences is very different (global nonprofit vs. small rural town), the complexity and 24-7 feel of the work is almost the same (although I don’t typically run into 1% for the Planet members in the grocery store!).
Our world feels especially fraught with danger right now, socially, economically, and environmentally. Any positive news or optimistic thoughts you can share with us?
Absolutely! Back to the dent I want to make in the universe, I think our world is calling on us to step into our power to create, resist, inspire. Not easy and downright scary in some ways, but no one has taken away our power, and in fact I think we are being awakened in some really potent ways to the need for us to step forward.
1% For The Planet has raised more than $150 million for environmental nonprofits. Can you link your efforts to any notable wins for the environment?
Our members and nonprofit partners have made $150 million go a long way. Here are a few specific accomplishments:
• More than 57,000 native Queuña trees planted to restore endangered habitat in Peru
• $2 million+ invested in Canadian freshwater projects
• 62 million square feet of rainforest preserved
These represent the work of just three of our members. Do the math: with more than a thousand companies giving 1% of sales every year to several thousand nonprofits, the impacts are global and huge.
Alongside these impacts, I think our most signature accomplishment is that we have raised global awareness and engagement around the role businesses and individuals can play in making a difference for the planet. From our everyday purchasing choices, to our financial commitments, we can play a material role in supporting the nonprofits that are driving positive impacts on the ground.
You recently launched a new initiative to recruit individuals as 1% members—why?
Our primary purpose as an organization is to accelerate smart environmental giving. For our first 15 years, we drove this through our business member model. Over the last couple of years, we began exploring how we could build the movement and power up the giving: environmental philanthropy in the United States has been stuck at about 3% of total philanthropy for several years and this just isn’t enough. We decided to create an individual opportunity that’s analogous to our business membership. I should add we had people asking how they could get more involved in our model, so there was some positive push as well.
What are your short-term objectives for individual members?
We are aiming for 1,000 individual members in year one. We are still gauging what giving this will generate. The beauty of the program is that it welcomes people of all ages and income levels – you don’t have to be rich to save the world (to paraphrase Prince). So we’re curious to see where we land in terms of the overall profile of members and what the giving tally will be. What we do know is that we will be bringing new giving to our amazing nonprofits, and we will be increasing the energy and momentum in the movement. We couldn’t be more excited.
What’s the number 1 reason an individual should join 1% For The Planet?
An individual should become a 1% for the Planet member because it’s a simple, powerful way to create positive change for the planet. It’s a commitment that fits you – no matter who you are. The benefits are many, starting with your immediate inclusion in an amazing group of people and businesses that are also making this commitment. In addition, our team will support you in choosing the nonprofits for your donations, in providing you with an individual member logo that you can share to convey your commitment and inspire others, and by inviting you to network events and engagement opportunities.
You’re a big fan of collective action. Why?
When one person steps into his or her own power to make change, it’s a great thing. When people start stepping into their power together, with shared purpose, it becomes an unstoppable thing. I truly believe this alchemy of individual courage and collective drive is a renewable energy source like no other, and it’s what is needed to make lasting change. It’s also fun and heartening and human to come together to solve problems, to roll up sleeves, and to celebrate successes.
You’re headquartered in Vermont. What’s your favorite thing about the Green Mountain State?
My almost every day run includes a stretch on the Waitsfield Common Road. When I’m heading north, I have an amazing view of the valley I live in with several mountain ranges limning the horizon. I feel both space and a sense of home every time I breathe in this view. I also really love the scale of Vermont – your vote and your voice are heard here.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Ready for it? Black bean pasta with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili pepper flakes, and brewer’s yeast, and black coffee with maple syrup. I do have good ol’ cereal on some mornings!
What’s your secret vice?
Ice cold Newcastle Brown Ale (as is with small ice crystals in it).
Who inspires you?
My daughter is my current inspiration. She is 17 and about to launch into the world, and she is asking hard questions, stepping into leadership roles, and demonstrating great courage to learn what she doesn’t know.
Any favorite quotes you’d like to share?
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I sometimes forget music, which is so wrong. I would like to remember to listen and learn to create more music.
What are you reading right now?
A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden.
Weaning myself from addictive listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. Loving Heather Masse’s Bird Song.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Situational! Learned my kids’ preferences and then adapted depending on whether they needed a win or a reality check. In a new game I’ll usually lead with rock – I’d prefer to lose by getting covered with paper than getting cut or smashed.
Orange – it’s a warm and happy color that makes the colors around it (blue and purple in particular) more beautiful.
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself – and answer?
You’ve pretty much covered it, but if needed: What is a hidden skill that you have? I’m really good at backing up trailers. Earned cheers from the U-Haul guys in Cambridge when I nailed the slotting of a moving truck into a narrow space on their lot (that they hadn’t been able to nail).
How should people connect with you on social media?