The Oakland-based nonprofit GRID Alternatives doesn’t just talk a big game; they also walk the walk. Their mission is to create behavior change in the energy space while developing paths for growth and success at scale, by making renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities. They partnered with us to develop and launch OneStopShop, a new statewide effort that will provide households in California access to clean energy equity programs like clean transportation and solar power — innovations that combat both the climate crisis and economic inequality.

Zach Franklin, GRID’s Chief Strategy Officer, launched and leads the organization’s expanding clean mobility work. Blue State’s Laura Kunkel, Creative Director, and Kate Swann, Chief Operating Officer, recently sat down with Zach to talk about what organizations of all stripes can learn from GRID’s approach.

What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation with Zach.

You’ve been at GRID for a while — what’s your role there, and how has it changed over time?

I’ve been with the organization for nearly 14 years. I’ve been there since it was three of us in a one-room office in downtown Oakland, so I’ve seen the growth of the organization from a small, nonprofit startup doing a handful of local kind of projects brick by brick, to a nascent national organization that’s a leader in the energy equity space. 

For my first decade at GRID, I led fund development and communications work. A couple of years ago, I became our Chief Strategy Officer. I quickly identified the clean mobility space as a tremendous opportunity for us to use the infrastructure, relationships, and assets that we had built to expand our impact and align it with major policy pushes around transportation, which has become the largest source of gas emissions in the country. In some ways, transportation is a harder nut to crack than energy use, where you can just tell the utilities where to buy their power from instead of requiring social change in consumers’ lives. 

What do you think would surprise people about your role at GRID?

Some people, particularly folks who may work in more traditional hierarchical organizations, might be surprised at how much autonomy and leadership I’ve had despite not being at the top of the org chart. Obviously, it’s done in a very structured way that has deep accountability — financial accountability and mission accountability and operational accountability. But as long as I operate within that framework, I’ve really had the opportunity to be an “internal entrepreneur” on this stuff. 

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More broadly, there’s a lot of misconceptions about not-for-profit work and the folks who work in that sector. It isn’t that different from the business world — people have this idea that it’s somehow easier, but it’s basically inherently more challenging. Not only do we still need to generate all the revenue that we need, but then we need to hit our impact numbers, too. To some extent, the profit motive is a crutch: An organization can coordinate all its efforts just to meet that one number. 

How does the current political climate affect GRID’s strategy and your messaging around economic inequality and climate crisis policy?

There are actually multiple political climates, right? The markets we serve in California have a different political climate than the state as a whole does, which is very different from the political climate at the federal level.

So what does that mean? Most of our work to date has been very driven by state-level policy. The biggest issue that we’re having right now with the national political landscape is missed opportunity. Almost everything we do is done with limited support at the federal level. We work with the people who want to work with us, and we maximize those opportunities.

What’s exciting is that, at whatever point the pendulum swings in the opposite direction nationally, we’re going to be incredibly well positioned for dramatic growth. Because we’ve been doing and learning a ton about the things we’re advocating for, we’re already learning from our mistakes, which is invaluable. For example, if and when we have a national Green New Deal, we already have a tremendous amount of field wisdom in something that people will say will be hard to implement.

What are some of those learnings?

The secret sauce for GRID’s work and community is to do a single project that checks multiple boxes. We go into a community, putting in a solar electric system for a low-income family and doing it with a barn-raising model, where we’re training folks in the community to get job skills at the same time. It’s basically a single project that puts points on the board for economic inequality, climate change, and jobs. 

For us, it’s about outsized impact but also about cost efficiency. When you’re a nonprofit, you’re cost-constrained, and if you can give your philanthropic public sector investors the maximum bang for their buck as possible, it allows you to be a little bit better resourced than most nonprofits, which are often times scraping to make payroll.

GRID Alternatives has a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and a valuable tool set (and partners) for making progress. Can you tell us more about that?

Our organization has gone through a huge evolution internally in terms of who we are and our culture, particularly around equity. This organization was started by two white folks, often times doing work in communities that look different than the ones the founders and I came out of. We also are re-envisioning our organization to create an infrastructure for communities to build their own power. Similar to how a lot of organizations like Blue State have been looking at themselves, that work has to start internally: Who do we hire, and how do we change how power works in this organization?  

Equity and inclusion and diversity has become fully recognized as a field of expertise, just like any other field of expertise. If you don’t have that expertise, you have to do a lot of training with experts. We’ve invested in a Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity, and we’re investing in a roadmap to make sure we’re putting our money where our mouth is. 

But we also are doing it in a way that’s consistent with culture change. A lot of organizations just want to solve the problem and check the box. Organizations that take that approach usually fail, because this is fundamentally about culture — it’s not just about changing numbers. People need to get used to the fact that this work will go on for pretty much forever — it’s not something where you’re eventually “done” and we can all have beers afterward and say, “We did it!” 

It’s part of the work, just like learning how to operate computers is part of the work. Culture changed when technology took over the workplace — a lot of folks really struggled with that. But they got used to it, and now everyone uses a computer and they barely think about it. 

A lot of organizations just want to solve the [diversity and inclusion] problem and check the box. Organizations that take that approach usually fail, because this is fundamentally about culture — it’s not just about changing numbers.

In terms of messaging and communications, what’s been effective in bringing people into your community — both in terms of people who are going to be directly impacted but also people who are indirectly participating or impacted?

Everything we do sits on a foundation of building trust. Whether we’re looking for philanthropic funding, or reaching out to folks in communities who don’t trust the government or technology or all sorts of other kinds of things — for very substantive reasons — you have to build that trust. 

One of the big things that we emphasize — almost unintentionally, just due to who we are and how we work — is transparency. We live in a society full of communications and advertising designed to be persuasive — almost manipulative — and people are always on their guard as a result of that, as they probably should be. Being transparent is one of many ways you can build trust. It’s hard work; sometimes part of why organizations aren’t transparent is because they’ve got a lot of internal contradictions that they don’t want the outside world to see. And so it forces us to reconcile those things in a way that’s healthy — but not easy.

GRID Alternatives has a unique approach to community outreach and engagement. How are you working with grassroots organizations and channels to reach people more effectively?

If you’re deciding whom to work with to do outreach for a given program, and you have to choose between issue-area expertise and trustworthiness, you’re going to choose trust every time. It doesn’t make a difference how much you know about an issue if people don’t trust you. You can provide information to a trusted messenger, but you can’t flip the script and magically make an expert trustworthy. 

Our GRID regional affiliate network in California has built relationships around outreach for solar and electric vehicles; we’re also working with a group called Liberty Hill Foundation, which is a longstanding environment and social justice organization in Los Angeles that’s done a lot of capacity-building work with grassroots community-based organizations.

The newest piece for us is working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest labor union in the country, with over 2 million members nationally and over 750,000 in California alone. Many of these service workers would be eligible for our programs, but others serve people who may be eligible for these programs — think about health care workers, or people who are serving lower-income communities in schools. There’s an existing infrastructure from labor unions that have already built relationships and just need us to provide resources. 

The last group that we’re working with is tribal communities and tribal governments. California has over 100 federally recognized Native American tribes and many more non-federally recognized tribal groups. In many ways, they have the most barriers to accessing our programs, But particularly when it comes to electric vehicles, people living in remote communities could see the most opportunity for upside, since they have to drive 45 minutes just to get a gallon of milk! We’ve done work with tribes with our solar program, but now we’re creating resources so that tribal governments can leverage their existing role as, essentially, sovereign nations to make sure that their citizens have access to these resources. If you can create access for the folks with the most barriers, the strategies that you develop for that are going to create opportunity and greater access for other folks along the way — it’s a universal design principle. 

You can provide information to a trusted messenger, but you can’t flip the script and magically make an expert trustworthy.

Given your work activating and engaging tribal communities and the SEIU union members, what innovations do you think will transform how you build those partnerships as this initiative scales?

We’re trying to create behavior change at scale, but we’re also trying to think more about how we can be more effective at deploying public policy. A lot of these programs aren’t just about behavior change, they’re also about money. We want to give people $5,000 in down payments for a new car. Yes, people will change their behavior based on financial incentives, but how do you scale that? What is the right incentive level? A higher incentive level means more benefits to each household and increases adoption, but it probably means that the total number of people whose behavior changes is lower. If you lower the incentive, you can theoretically serve more people, but you might be cutting off your nose to spite your face if it’s not paired with thoughtful deployment strategies. 

What will be crucial, as this project goes from the laboratory and the beta stage to being out in the wild, is just making sure we “deliver the mail.” It’s sort of the opposite of innovation: Innovation is the sexy part, and sometimes just keeping things working isn’t new and shiny. In a space where there’s so much unmet need from a social perspective, just executing on that and being highly visible and highly effective when we do that is going to have a huge snowball effect. If we do our job right, all these programs are going to be overwhelmed with demand, because once you break down all these barriers, they’re huge financial windfalls for these communities. That would be a good problem to have.

What do you think that brands can learn from nonprofits like GRID?

It depends what they’re trying to do. One of the things that brands and for-profit companies can learn from the work that we do is that there’s a business advantage in having a deeper message. There are a lot of people thinking about “sustainable business,” but I think there is enough data out there that shows that no company should think they can’t combine growth, financial success, and impact in a self-reinforcing way. Impact can go beyond donating some of the profits to charity at the end of the year. 

Before the ’80s, it was normal for businesses to think not only that their shareholders were important, but so were their employees and the community they work in. If folks can realize that the for-profit and nonprofit sector aren’t as different as they might think, they might gain a lot more insights about how their business could have a deeper social impact. If you’re doing pro bono volunteer work with nonprofits, sometimes that learning can actually go both ways.

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