Activating Civic Leadership

Activating Civic Leadership

Boston’s “Green Ribbon Commission” is helping the city meet ambitious goals to fight climate change.

In the fall of 2015, the Boston Medical Center announced its plan to become the city’s “greenest” hospital. As the Boston Globe reported, the hospital set aggressive goals for reducing its emissions by investing in energy efficiency, while also improving its bottom line. Today, Boston Medical, which is New England’s largest trauma center focused on caring for the city’s most vulnerable populations, has put itself on a path to reduce emissions at least 50 percent by 2018 and to reduce its average annual energy costs by $8 million to 11 million dollars. “Every dollar spent on energy is a dollar not spent on our mission,” Bob Biggio, the hospital’s vice president of facilities and support services told the Globe. “It is really helping us fulfill our mission.”

Boston Medical’s effort, while ambitious, is not unique. In fact, the hospital is one of 20 Boston-area hospitals and health systems that are working together to reduce their carbon emissions and energy consumption as part of Boston’s “Green Ribbon Commission,” a groundbreaking effort created and supported by the Barr Foundation, the City of Boston, and other philanthropic partners to catalyze the fight against climate change on a broad scale.

Made up of Boston’s leading business, institutional, and civic leaders, the Commission was originally conceived as a watchdog group that would hold the City accountable for making progress on its Climate Action Plan. Yet, it quickly evolved into a center for action as well. Commission members have shown remarkable leadership in their own sectors to reduce emissions, by investing in energy efficiency and clean energy. And they have also become actively engaged in important policy debates related to energy, transportation, and climate resiliency.

As part of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission's Health Care Working Group, Boston Medical Center is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2018.

Initially convened by one of Barr’s founding trustees and Boston’s former mayor, the Commission is now sustained by funding from seven local foundations – many of which (Barr included) also provide support for nonprofits that coordinate working groups on specific sectors, such as Health Care (coordinated by Health Care Without Harm), or Commercial Real Estate (A Better City).

Strategies like these are effective because sometimes the most powerful tool in the philanthropy toolkit isn’t a grant.

Most of the challenges philanthropy seeks to address are bigger than any one foundation. And they are bigger than any collection of nonprofits we can support with our grantmaking. Climate change is a prime example. In 2010, the Barr Foundation joined a growing cadre of foundations that recognized climate change as a defining issue of our time, with the potential to overwhelm everything else we care about. At that point, Barr had been supporting a range of environmental work for over a decade, principally in Boston. With an initial five-year, $50 million pledge, we focused on the goal of helping Boston and Massachusetts meet or exceed their targets for driving down greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, Barr has expanded its geographic scope and recently launched a revised set of strategies aimed at advancing solutions for clean energy, mobility, and resilient communities. In 2016 alone, we expect to make new grant commitments related to climate change in excess of $20 million.

Yet, even with this growth, and despite Barr now being among the nation’s largest funders of local and regional climate efforts, we know there is simply no way to succeed without engagement and leadership from other sectors, like business, government, health care, and academia. Each represent huge portions of our economy. And each has enormous potential to contribute to positive change.

But because grantmaking alone can’t solve a challenge as broad as climate change, the solution we often come to is the role of convener. In our climate program, playing this role led to the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, which has become highly influential in spurring climate action.

In addition to the Commission’s Health Care Working Group, of which Boston Medical is a part, other hospitals in this group are making impressive strides as well. From 2010-2015, Massachusetts General Hospital reduced its emissions 35 percent from a 2005 baseline. Moreover, Working Group members are exploring common challenges, effective practices, and lessons learned.  And these efforts are drawing attention from and influencing practice at hospitals across the country. As Paul Lipke, a senior advisor for Health Care Without Harm, told the Daily Free Press: “The healthcare sector is on the front line of climate change. Hospitals are not only where people go for help in emergency situations, but they are also huge energy users, and they have sworn to do no harm. Through no fault of their own, they are part of a system that uses greenhouse gas energy to meet the needs of their patients and researchers.  More than any other sector, they have a mission-related reason to [become more energy efficient]. Every penny they spend on energy is a penny they can’t spend on patients or prevention.”


Another effort organized by the Commission was a Renewable Energy Leadership Prize, designed to spur local institutions to pursue large scale renewable energy purchases. The Prize brought several of Boston’s major institutions to the table and attracted three applicants who devoted considerable time and effort to solving the puzzle of buying offsite renewable electricity. This is something they had already begun to work on, and The Prize helped push them on to the finish line. It also helped draw attention to these exciting, tangible examples of institutions and companies engaging in renewable energy purchases. If all three deals go ahead as planned, it could result in as much as 82 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity.

While I have focused here on the Green Ribbon Commission’s impact within the health care sector, and on pilot projects related to clean energy, the group has also been highly engaged in advancing Boston’s efforts related to climate preparedness (partnering with the City to lead its “Climate Ready Boston” planning effort), in addition to planning to modernize the region’s transportation network via the “GoBoston2030” project.

At the Barr Foundation, our mission centers on a commitment to serve as both stewards and catalysts. As catalysts, we seek to play a role in cultivating and advancing new ideas and solutions that will shape our collective future.  By convening a group of leaders, with a range of perspectives, resources, and networks to bring to bear on common challenges such as climate change, we can help to bring about the transformational change we need.

Mariella Puerto is Senior Program Officer for Climate at the Barr Foundation.


Boston Green Ribbon Commission


Barr Foundation