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Bill McKibben’s climate activist ‘has been laid low by a budget crunch, equity fights and union strife’ – ‘Mass layoffs, departures, exhaustion, distrust’

The group that brought down Keystone XL faces agonies of its own
It was the upstart that changed the face of America’s environmental movement. But, founded by the legendary Bill McKibben, has been laid low by a budget crunch, equity fights and union strife.

The group that revived a slumbering environmental movement by focusing on big targets was flying high. It was no longer just a plucky collection of friends from a Vermont college and their luminary founder, Bill McKibben. It was a global force. The $800,000 retreat at a five-star luxury resort in Killarney, Ireland in March 2019 proved it.

The rise for had been meteoric. The crash would be, too.

In the early 2010s, was the environmental movement’s driving force. Led by McKibben, a famed environmentalist and best-selling author, its spectacle-worthy, guerrilla-style protests over causes, including blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, captured the public’s imagination. It brought younger, more diverse activists into the green tent. Starting out with eight founding members in 2008it had grown to 165 full-time employees — not including its many contractors — when staff traveled to Ireland that March.

It was at the Killarney retreat that May Boeve, the executive director and one of’s founders, announced that she’d hiked the organization’s annual budget to $25 million. She told staff to dream big. She revealed plans for nearly 130 new hires to make a splash at global climate strikes that September — part of an envisioned revamp to improve the organization’s diversity and equity. Everyone there was elated.

But had never eclipsed $20 million in revenue in a single year. When it quickly became clear it wouldn’t that year, Boeve said she initially kept the information largely to herself, according to an October 2019 internal email to the staff.

“[W]e decided to go very big this year in anticipation that there would, in fact, be a movement surge. We were right about that. My big mistake was not giving us enough time to bring in the resources prior to expanding our spending,” Boeve wrote in the all-staff memo. “Money certainly has come in, but not at the scale we needed it to. … My other regret is not to have sounded the alarm sooner.”

The fallout would lead to mass layoffs, departures, exhaustion, distrust and a protracted labor battle that exists to this day, according to internal documents, third-party audits and communications obtained by POLITICO — which made an attempt to contact all parties referenced in this story — in addition to interviews with 18 current and former staff members, most of whom were granted anonymity to speak candidly. The organization saw its U.S. program office fall from nearly 50 people in 2019 to nine entering this year.

The hiring spree intended to make look more the part of the global organization it wanted to become by adding staff from more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Its struggles mirror those of many leading environmental organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, which are wrestling with internal dissension at a crucial juncture in the fight against climate change — problems shadowed by the movement’s historical lack of diversity and its urgent need to bring activists of different backgrounds into the fold.

“This exclusion has resulted in failed attempts to pass durable climate policy because policymakers have ignored the very people who have an organized community behind them,” Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, told the House Natural Resources Committee during a Feb. 8 hearing on movement diversity and justice. “My own experience working at a large, white-led NGO was that while there was a focus on diversity in the workforce, there was a lack of retention because of a lack of commitment to justice.”

In detailed responses to POLITICO,’s leaders acknowledged their financial missteps and said that, like many organizations, it must do more to create a more inclusive workplace. It described new financial processes and governance measures, efforts to eliminate pay disparities and initiatives to improve equity in hiring.

“Of course it’s impacted staff,” Boeve said in an interview, referring to the layoffs and financial crisis. “Change processes are very hard. The team leading our U.S. staff have really intentionally focused on rebuilding culture through a justice and equity lens. So that’s been a big focus.”

In a matter of months, many current and former employees say, the group became a shell of its former self. One current staffer said the internal tensions have weakened’s ability to marshal mass protests and events, its historical niche in the environmental movement.

“It’s like the world’s longest Irish wake,” said a former staff member, describing a sense of denial within the organization’s leadership. “It’s really been dead a long time but everybody’s standing around the coffin saying, ‘Doesn’t it look so pretty? They did such a great job with it. It looks so natural.’”


Boldness is in’s DNA. The seven Middlebury College students and McKibben, who started the group in 2008, grabbed global interest with audacious demonstrations drawing attention to an overheating planet. Its tactics belied the group’s wonky but direct name: Exceeding 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere would send the Earth’s climate off-kilter for good.

Even with McKibben’s role minimized, the organization’s power center still ran through white officials at the top who set’s tone, even as the lower ranks were filled with people of color, according to 10 current and former staff members.

The complex dynamic over race, diversity and equity that enveloped — and the quest to empower people of color to make consequential strategic decisions — reflected broader challenges in the environmental movement. White, wealthy liberals have dominated green groups for decades, coloring environmentalism with a reputation for elitism.

Five current and former staffers said was one of the few groups to attempt to rectify those long-standing tensions. It hired a justice and equity manager to the U.S. leadership team and created an internal equity team in 2018. That came as executed a three-year strategy that included hiring more managers and people of color.

Other process changes included implementing an equity hiring toolkit and a formal effort to tie programming back to issues confronting Black, Latino, Asian and Native American communities. It created a “Frontline Fund” to invest resources and programs in Black, Indigenous and other communities of color facing the starkest climate and pollution effects. In hiring, it implemented a requirement that half of all candidates for jobs be people of color before anyone can be made an offer.

The need to quickly transform the staff was a crucial backdrop to Boeve’s decision to raise the organization’s budget in March 2019, as some staffers say she felt pressure to increase the number of positions in order to hire a more diverse group of organizers.

But when ended up in a financial crisis that year — forcing a major downsizing and restructuring — those concerns about diversity once again bubbled to the surface. Some staffers contended that programs managed by people of color were starved of funding, setting them up for failure.

It was also hard to tell just how diverse the staff was.’s reporting on its racial and ethnic makeup has been opaque. The organization said it did not have systems in place for people to identify their race or other demographic information as recently as 2019, and is only just now getting a handle on that information. The organization did not report any racial demographic data on 83 percent of its senior staff and 80 percent of its full-time staff in 2021, according to Green 2.0, a nonprofit that tracks environmental group diversity and equity.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that could be doing a lot better when it comes to diversity,” said Andres Jimenez, who runs Green 2.0. “It’s not enough to have a seat at the table. You have to have a voice.”

While the 2019 hiring spree had brought more workers of color to, some felt the resulting layoffs disproportionately affected those workers, too. A group of staff members wrote to’s global leadership team that implementation of November 2019 layoffs “have perpetuated many of the aspects of white supremacy culture that we are working so hard to combat.”

A June 2020 report by a consultant hired by the organization after the layoffs illuminated those feelings.

“Confidence and trust in the leadership of the organisation – both senior staff and board – was damaged. This has particularly been the case for May” Boeve, said the 2020 report by consultant Hannah Lownsbrough, obtained by POLITICO from staff. “Layoffs in the US have been experienced as disproportionately affecting people of color and with other marginalised identities on the 350 staff team; concerns have been expressed about the emergence of a ‘white supremacy dominance culture.’” leaders say 25 people lost their jobs in the layoffs, and 20 of them were white.

But several staff members, including staffers of color, said the actual layoffs told only part of the story. The cutbacks put new stresses on the remaining workers, leading to more departures, including among some people of color who had joined the staff only recently. acknowledged that the layoffs had “serious impacts on staff morale, and our retention.” said 35 more staff members left their jobs between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020, but did not offer a racial breakdown of those resignations.

In the wake of those layoffs, said, it increased efforts to alleviate pay and equity disparities, including by minimizing gaps between the lowest and highest paid positions. It said justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are at the core of a new multiyear plan and that it is “working within a broad, consultative process to ensure multiple perspectives are brought into the building of our programme strategy.”

Those changes included bringing more voices of color into the organization’s global executive leadership team. Six of its nine U.S. program staff members are people of color, the group said. Four members of the organization’s six-person global executive team are women, while half of that team is either a person of color or from the Global South.

But those changes still don’t seem to be felt by U.S. staffers of color. North America Director Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, who is Black, noted in her December 2020 departing statement that she was leaving behind a “women-led, majority Black and brown leadership team.”

But she says that team no longer exists.

“I hired just about every one of the Black and brown people on that staff and I do not believe any except for one are still there,” said Toles O’Laughlin, who now runs the Environmental Grantmakers Association. “They don’t have any new problems. I wish they were as woke as the movement needs it to be.”

“This combined with an aggressive fundraising goal that was not supported with a lot of data and light touch governance left the organization in a perilous position,” the report said.

The FMA auditors blamed a “cheerleader” board, a concentration of power at the executive director level, lack of strategic budgeting and fundraising that was “very story based and not data driven” for the $25 million budget that was rolled out at the March 2019 global retreat in Ireland — far above the $19 million it had raised the prior year.

Trouble emerged just two months later.

In June 2019, the board cut its stretch income target in half, from $12.5 million to $6 million, as donations foundered. Department heads were warned on July 22 that slow fundraising stressed’s cash position, according to a timeline compiled in the FMA report. They slashed spending by 15 percent. In August, Boeve announced a hiring freeze affecting 46 positions, acknowledging “we began our hiring push even before all the funds had been secured.”

The September 2019 climate strikes on which Boeve pinned her fundraising hopes were just a few weeks away, but it was clear that was hemorrhaging money.

The leadership team called for emergency meetings in early September, but was advised “to not communicate to all staff before implications were fully clear and not to disrupt prior to climate strikes,” according to the FMA report.

As activists and staffers hit the streets the week of September 20, the leadership team met in New York City between September 22 and 24 to “finalize emergency measures” — including the plan for budget cuts and significant layoffs. Boeve announced the layoffs in October.

“Our reading of the landscape proved to be inaccurate, and unfortunately our systems were not fully in place yet for us to have been able to course correct in time,” Boeve said in an email to staff after the climate strikes.

The union helped negotiate voluntary severance packages last fall. said five staff members, as well as two managers, took the severance.

Boeve, however, sees a light at the end of the tunnel — and a more diverse and equable organization in the future.

“Not just our organization — in big green groups, but also in Fortune 500 companies and government agencies — are really trying to grapple with this moment of racial reckoning that is long overdue,” she said. “I hope that that grappling makes us all better. Because of our staff of color pushing inside 350 and a lot of our partners outside 350, I really think that we’ve made some significant changes that I am proud of.”