Building long-term organisational resilience at 350

By: Olivia Langhoff, Managing Director @ 350.org

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash

350.org was founded 12 years ago with the aim of building and supporting a global movement to tackle the climate crisis. With passion, dedication and commitment, a small group of young people set out to do the impossible: take on the fossil fuel industry, some of the most powerful corporations in the world.

It can be hard to see change as it’s happening, but after a decade of demanding something that seemed impossible to some at the time, we saw something remarkable this month. The International Energy Agency, a traditional and conservative organisation, that has consistently propped up the oil and gas industry and undermined renewable energy as a viable alternative, released a report echoing what 350 and the climate movement have been saying for the past decade: the only way to avert the worst of the climate crisis is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Of course, there’s still much work to do to ensure politicians take real action and actually commit to what needs to be done, but it’s thanks to the climate movement, made up of activists, frontline communities, donors and volunteers who have been working with us over the past 12 years for something we knew was inevitable from the beginning.

In those early years we had no idea what our future as an organisation would look like, but we did know that we wanted to focus on supporting the movement for climate justice. Because of that, our external work always took precedence over building organisational structures, we didn’t have the time to build processes or systems or policies, that would only create bureaucracy. And so, while the world was watching the climate strikes in September 2019 — the biggest climate mobilisation to date — we faced the biggest organisational challenge in our young existence.

In 2019, 350 hit a serious setback, our ambitious plans for growth resulted in a financial crisis. In the period of reflection that followed the crisis and its effects, 350 reviewed not only the way in which we could avoid similar situations in the future, but also how we can truly live our values by being a better employer: one that centres justice in all we do, internally and externally.

Transformative change is hard. Especially on the heels of a financial setback, which was soon followed by a global pandemic. But despite all of that we embarked on a difficult path to become a more resilient organisation. We still have a lot of work to do but we are grateful to our staff, partners and funders who supported 350.org throughout — and who help us in our learning and ambition.

Effective Governance

After 350’s financial crisis we realized that the organisation wasn’t set up to spot problems before they escalated. We commissioned an external governance review that highlighted some gaps in the way our Board was structured. Some of the fault lines highlighted were that, by design, the Board was quite hands-off, as an activist organisation that thrived on being nimble and independent, staff didn’t want the Board to interfere too much. Given 350’s US roots, most Board members were American which did not reflect the global nature of what 350 has become, with staff in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. And most importantly, many of the board members were activists themselves and didn’t have experience in governance, fundraising or finance.

As a result of these findings, we recruited five new Board members adding a variety of diverse skills, experience and geographical spread. Three new Board committees were also created: Governance, Fundraising, and Finance. With a more robust governance structure, we next moved to thinking about how we can build financial resilience, not only to avoid future financial setbacks but also to ensure stability, so that staff can focus on our mission: stopping the fossil fuel industry.

Financial Resilience

On a path to financial sustainability, 350 needed to ensure core support functions, like Finance and Fundraising, were set up for success and met sector-wide standards. To get a better picture of predicting income, we implemented robust tools that assess the probability of fundraising revenue. We now do a monthly review of the actual-to-budget variance with the Leadership Team and the Finance Committee as well as a quarterly financial review with the full Board.

We now have the ability to more precisely forecast revenue, expenditure and cash flow, have more accurate accounting, timely financial reporting and an improved budgeting process. Having better processes and clearer reporting also helped improve staff’s understanding of 350’s financial health and supported better annual budgeting across teams.

Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI)

Since 350 is working to build a diverse climate movement that centres justice, we realized that we needed to make sure we were building a diverse, inclusive and equitable organisation too. This is challenging, long-term work that we know has no end point in our learning, individually and as an organisation. We also acknowledge that the learning has to start with senior leadership. We hired a consultant to help us develop a global JEDI road map, conducted training with senior leadership at 350 and then worked with our teams around the world to understand their nuanced JEDI training needs.

JEDI work is long-term and will never be ‘complete’ but we are starting to see progress:

  • Improved decision-making amongst senior leaders using JEDI as a filter in decision-making
  • JEDI competencies have been made essential requirements for all senior managers and are part of their job descriptions
  • JEDI is known across the organisation as an identifiable priority
  • Created a framework and work plan for a global JEDI process
  • Ability to respond quickly to intersectional issues (ie. unrest in US sparked by police violence against Black communities)
  • Created an Equity Team in the US
  • Created a Global Strategy Council made up of regional department leads to decentralize decision-making and increase participation from leaders in the Global South
  • Hired a Global Senior JEDI Specialist to coordinate and oversee the implementation of global JEDI plans

With the new JEDI Specialist we aim to create a working group to support the creation of JEDI and anti-oppression strategies and determine how to operationalize these strategies throughout 350.

Building a Diverse Leadership Team and a Strong Structure

As an organisation with roots in the United States, 350 has a history of majority white leadership. As we were rebuilding after the financial crisis, and following the departure of some of our leadership staff, we decided to re-examine how 350 was structured, who we wanted to lead the organisation in this next phase, and what competencies and experiences they needed to bring. By setting a clear intention for a Leadership Team that can steward 350 into the next phase of tackling the climate crisis, we established an executive team that brings together a wide range of lived and learned experience from grassroots activism to international coalition building and reflects a shift from an originally America-based white leadership body to one that includes leaders from Asia, Europe, Middle East, Pacific and US.

In parallel, with the new Leadership Team in place, 350 undertook a consultative organisational restructure to ensure that staff are set up to deliver to our three-year strategy, and that there is equity between roles, teams and countries.

Strategic Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (SPMEL)

Solid strategy enables a stronger culture. We realized that in 350 being so nimble, it was sometimes too short-term focused. We planned year-to-year and our theory of change hadn’t been updated since the organisation started. In 2019 we embarked on an ambitious process to create a three-year strategy and a revised theory of change. It was our most consultative strategic planning process ever and helped ground our staff in the ‘why’ of our work, a powerful reminder to everyone about our mission and the road ahead.

But what good is strategy if you can’t measure progress? As part of our new structure we hired a Director of Strategy and Integrated Learning who led the organisation through the creation of an indicator framework based on our multi-year strategy, and identified Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). From these KPIs we have developed a quarterly reporting process to highlight successes and organisational gaps. These quarterly reports are an important milestone for 350 because they remind us to celebrate the victories along the way and point to where we still need to improve as an organisation.

These changes have not been easy and the bulk of them started shortly before the global pandemic, when 350 staff were not only adapting to a shifting organisation but also a shifting world. The work feels incomplete as I write this, but in fact it never will be complete; tackling the fossil fuel industry is no small feat, and to do it we need to remain nimble, strategic and financially stable. These changes will certainly create the conditions to fulfill our mission, but really it’s the people who are the heart and soul of 350 that will be the reason we’ll achieve our mission.

350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.