April 9, 2013

Why Tom Steyer Is Tackling Environmental Issues

Steyer’s video interviews with Bridgespan shed light on the reason behind his passion for energy issues.

By: The Bridgespan Group
Tom SteyerTom Steyer, speaking of his October 2012 retirement from Farallon Capital Management, the global investment firm he founded, said “I want my life to revolve around service in one form or another, including continuing participation in our community bank, in encouraging the advanced energy economy, and in specific policy initiatives here in California.”

Steyer’s video interviews with Bridgespan shed light on the reason behind his passion for energy issues; he asks: “Are we screwing up the world? Are we doing things that in a hundred years they’re going to be paying for in a very painful way that we…refuse to acknowledge?” It’s this perspective, and focus, that has led Steyer to some controversial and decidedly different giving choices.

Take, for example, Steyer’s interest in the Massachusetts Senate race. Why Massachusetts? One of the candidates for Massachusetts’ special Senate election (to replace new Secretary of State John Kerry), Stephen Lynch, supports the Keystone XL pipeline. Seeking to squash the Keystone project and elevate the issue of climate change, Steyer has invested money to defeat Lynch.

Steyer shares: “Kathryn [his wife] and I do not think like a traditional foundation…our attitude has been, we want to push along the ideals that we believe in, and we want to do it in the most effective way and sometimes that means…a very specific program in a community where you can literally see the personal impact, and sometimes it means pushing on policy goals that would, if enacted, impact people broadly.” 

See a complete archive of Tom Steyer's videos.

Efforts like Steyer’s focus on Massachusetts—and the multiple California environmentally focused ballot propositions Steyer has funded—are controversial to be sure, but they are reflective of donors who take an expansive view of the problems they want to solve, rather than limiting their giving to what is tax deductible.

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Steyer reflects on the challenges that giving in the realm of politics raise, saying, “It’s like a game. There’s a winner and a loser. In a [ballot] proposition, you either win or lose and if you lose by one vote, you have completely lost, and that breeds a mentality that is much tougher…than anything that I’ve ever seen in business.”

Tom Steyer's Key messages for Philanthropists


  • Bloomberg News, Saijel Kishan & Katherine Burton, “Farallon’s Steyer to Step Down as Spokes Named Manager,” 10/22/12; accessed 4/7/13.
  • Politico, “Anti-Keystone billionaire rattles Democrats,” 4/3/13, Andrew Restuccia and Kenneth P. Vogel, accessed 4/7/13.
  • Tom Steyer's video interviews with Bridgespan.
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