Welcoming Karen Laughlin, Climate Program Director

Posted on November 16, 2021

We are excited to welcome Karen Laughlin to our team as our first Climate Program Director. She joined the team on September 27th to build upon our climate and clean energy strategy and deepen relationships with our grantees and partners. We know her experience as a grantmaker and policy advisor will provide significant value to our work and our broader team. Karen brings a strategic lens and national context to our work, to better inform and identify new investments. She is deeply respected in the field and has worked across sectors to advocate for strong systems and equitable funding.

Karen has been engaged in climate and clean energy policy for the past 15 years in government, think tank, and philanthropic roles. Prior to joining SFF, Karen served the Heising-Simons Foundation as a program officer for climate and clean energy, leading on transportation and federal policy strategies and integrating equity into those strategies. As a senior analyst at Climate Policy Initiative, she jointly led the U.S. Program to analyze and recommend policies to lower the costs of low-carbon economy transition. She has served as a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, focusing on biofuels regulation and later leading the office’s international transportation team and strategy. Karen also co-founded a non-profit organization to address the challenges faced by chronically and terminally ill people in accessing compassionate use of experimental medical treatments. She earned a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and policy from Duke University. She currently sits on the board of Forth.

Karen spent her formative years in many U.S. cities and in Australia. She spent the summer of 2021 in Seattle with her young son, Fenn, and three of her four siblings who live here. Karen and Fenn are looking forward to welcoming a daughter and sister to their family in 2022. I hope you will join us in welcoming Karen to our team and to the Pacific Northwest!

  • Now, more than ever, it is critical that we work across sectors to advance climate justice and clean energy solutions. What have you learned that keeps you hopeful? What encourages me is in many of the sectors that have received too little funding and attention over the climate movement's history (e.g., transportation, building electrification, industry, and agriculture) there have been smaller communities of determined, deeply expert people who are organizing, analyzing, advocating, and surgically winning for years. They provide us a base of people and experience from which we can grow our action. We have to act together, decisively, and quickly in and across many sectors over the next few years to have a chance at fighting the worst of climate change. It is on funders and the greater community to turn our funding and political power—that until recently has largely focused on the power sector—to bolster these small groups with the capacity and influencing power needed to accelerate progress in those fields. What's more, as we grow efforts in and across more sectors, climate, consumer, equity-centered, labor, and business advocates have the opportunity to learn from the tensions of past climate efforts, to welcome and work with new partners, and forge new pathways to work together on win-win-win-win solutions. This is challenging work, but hopeful.

    The immense uptick of conversation and learning about racial justice and climate justice in the climate community means that we have new opportunities to do a much better job at tackling climate. By welcoming more diverse experiences and voices to solution-building, organizing, and advocating tables we invite a set of more durable and broadly benefiting solutions to climate change, especially for BIPOC people who have been most harmed in the past by environmental and climate impacts and stand to continue enduring those losses on our current trajectory. However, that is dependent on those of us in the traditional climate community learning quickly to turn our conversations about open partnerships with equity-centered advocates into deeper core practices in our work. I am hopeful that the conversation since the death of George Floyd in many of the climate circles I've been part of has encouraged us to talk about our mistakes. I'm even more hopeful that when I've made some mistakes (and I very much have) in working with equity-centered grantees, I have been given a chance to own up to those mistakes and do better. Those second chances give us a chance to do things right -- but if we stretch that to 15th chances, that opportunity might be lost to the harm of many. So, my hope is tempered with the challenge of moving from words to practices that will address both the time-bomb climate crisis and the justice crisis that deserves rapid attention after centuries of harm.
  • What climate champions do you turn to for inspiration and why? I most admire and draw my motivation from leaders, colleagues, and grantee partners with whom I've worked closely in the climate space over the past 15 years. These government civil servants, analysts, organizers, grass-top advocates, and funder staff have worked for large chunks of their careers and lives from behind the scenes (usually without recognition beyond small circles) to do the work to fire the machinery of our movement and mission. They have been the teachers, confidants, devil's advocate, and fun that consistently make me want to work in this field and remind me how to get things done well for the greater good.
  • What are you looking forward to most in your work with SFF? I love getting to know new people and the challenge of learning new advocacy and political ecosystems as well as technical issues, so it's already been great to dive in. I'm excited to work with Chris—it's great to again work with a funder who is serious about understanding the political and technical issues underlying the climate challenge—as well as the whole SFF team, who have been so welcoming. I'm looking forward to better understanding the strategies that are being pursued in WA, OR, and MI while also helping the foundation think about new frontiers we might address.
  • Why Seattle at this stage of your life and career? Family! I have a young son and a daughter on the way. Three of my brothers and their families live in the Seattle area, and I've waited a long time to find the right opportunity to join them. I'm so excited that my kids will get to grow up with cousins. As for career, I earnestly think there is important climate work to do in every part of the country, and I'm looking forward to endeavoring to do so here in Seattle.
  • In the spirit of building healthy organizations, what lessons from past partner organizations across the country do you bring with you to this role? Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned working with so many different partners in different stages of growth and with different missions and cultures is that there is no one type of “healthy organization.” You can’t understand the cultural, structural, and financial health of an organization without spending time with an organization’s staff and leadership as they engage in their work. That takes time, and it is not always easy to achieve, especially given the number of organizations a program director or officer is trying to help support. But it is important. I find real satisfaction when I’ve built enough relationship and trust with a partner that we are able to step away from the programmatic work and discuss opportunities to grow their organizational effectiveness and health—and then identify ways that I can support those opportunities in my role.
  • What do you turn to to brighten your day or prepare for a weekend offline? Taking a surfboard into not-very-big waves...and mostly falling off that board...is the number one way to bring me pure bliss. I'm terrible, and I love every second of it. New parenthood and distance from ocean waves makes surfing a little tricky these days, but spending time with friends and family or listening to an audiobook while cooking (whether to a luxuriously frivolous fantasy novel or plowing through Caro's LBJ biography) is guaranteed to relax me and bring me easy joy. Chocolate also helps.
  • Favorite aspect about the Seattle region thus far? No doubt, the #1 thing I love so far is the people. I'm over the moon to be near so much family as well as many beloved friends from all stages of my life, but I've already been floored by how welcoming people here have been despite the challenges covid times present to opening arms to a newcomer. And I love how green it is. Makes me smile, a lot.