July 21, 2015

Mark Ruffalo picked up a big ally when Leonardo DiCaprio joined his clean energy campaign this summer. But Ruffalo’s the Solutions Project already had quite a list of funders and investors behind it.

Oscar-nominated actor and Incredible Hulk Mark Ruffalo has built a name for himself as the rare “actor-vist” (I just made that up) who is much more than a spokesperson. Ruffalo was in the trenches during the successful campaign to ban fracking in New York State and he also has a keen eye on moving real money to his causes.

His nonprofit, the Solutions Project—cofounded by leaders in the media, research, nonprofit, and business worlds—is stepping up its game this summer, with the launch of the 100% campaign, in pursuit of a country powered entirely by clean energy.

Ruffalo, who is the celebrity face of the organization, unveiled the national campaign alongside new backer and fellow leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s celebrity and deep pockets are good to have on your side for sure, and his foundation recently announced the Solutions Project as a 2015 grantee. But Leo is actually small-time compared to some of the group’s other backers, especially in the philanthropic and investment worlds.

Consider some of the powerful names funding the Solutions Project:

  • The Elon Musk Foundation, run by that guy who is trying to save humanity in like four or five different ways. (Musk is often compared to Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark, which I can’t help but point out, because Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk are both Avengers and total buds.)
  • The 11th Hour Project, a philanthropy of Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy.
  • The Sara and Ev Williams Foundation, started in 2011 by the billionaire cofounder of Twitter and Medium and wife Sara.
  • Skoll Global Threats Fund, the main climate giving platform for Jeffrey Skoll, multi-billionaire former president of eBay.

The project has also attracted some of the more adventurous members of the environmental funding community. The Park Foundation, a scrappy funder that’s been one of the biggest players in the fracking fight, is funding the Solutions Project this year. So is the Compton Foundation, a unique, storytelling-focused funder we profiled not long ago. Another progressive climate funder, the Wallace Global Fund, is also on board.

With that kind of roster, the Solutions Project is on pace to give 350.org a run for its money as the new golden child of the climate and energy movement. What’s driving the interest?

Star power aside, it’s a strong campaign. The organization was conceived by Ruffalo, clean energy investor Marco Krapels, Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox, and Stanford environmental engineer Mark Jacobson.

Jacobson previously drew attention, including from Ruffalo, for writing an article that proposed the feasibility of a country 100 percent powered by renewable energy. The 100% campaign takes that a step further, presenting a state-by-state road map for all 50 of them to make this transition. It’s an audacious, but reality-based approach that gives it strong appeal.

But the biggest draw here that I see is its intent to change the discussion on clean energy. Storytelling and media are heavily emphasized in the campaign, including elevating the stories of a diverse set of individuals working for clean energy.

The climate change discussion is currently one plagued by big concepts, epic timelines, and impersonal politics. 100% is going after that, trying to frame clean energy as something that’s for everyone to take part in, and something that’s even hip.

In this sense, while the audience is different, the 100% campaign’s closest analog is the Risky Business project, another hot hand when it comes to landing partners and supporters. That project of Tom Steyer, Mike Bloomberg, and Hank Paulson is an effort to make climate change a financial issue among the business community, and knock it out of the wonky, hyper-political context.

With top-down policy work proving to be a total non-starter, it looks like some of the big names funding climate change work are seeing the value in changing hearts and minds.

All this jibes with the advice of communications guru David Fenton, who argued in a recent opinion piece that funders need to invest much more in the message side of the climate fight:

Foundations and nonprofits have spent enough on developing public policy. It is time to create policy demand by convincing target audiences of the truth: We face a crisis, and time is running out.