The Garfield Foundation kicked off the project in 2004 with a year-long exercise to map Midwest energy issues. Twelve nonprofits and seven foundations participated, all greeing to align their programs or grantmaking if the maps generated new insights. Importantly, grantmakers and activists were invited to participate as equals, because both had important roles to play in changing the system. Activists could mobilize their organizations to implement programs and advocate for new policies. Funders could provide the resources needed and leverage their reputations, knowledge, and networks. “The systems are complex enough that you have to understand the interrelationship of the issues and all the players,” says consultant Rick Reed. “You can’t achieve long-term progress without that.”
The process was slow going at first, and not everyone thought it was a good idea. “There was some initial hesitation about RE-AMP,” concedes Chris Deisinger, a consultant who works for the Energy Foundation, a long-time funder of environmental issues in the Midwest. “Was it necessary? Did we need a new model? Would it augment what was already happening, or was it a diversion from current work?” Additionally, he said some people found the process too laborious: “I think to a lot of people with a practical Midwestern mindset this seemed too fuzzy and hand-waving.”
Indeed, the year-long systems mapping did require significant time, effort, and patience. However, the resulting map—and the conversations it sparked—enabled participants to begin to understand the multiple forces animating regional energy systems. It also helped the group build trust, generate meaningful insights, and ultimately align on a single overarching goal: they decided they would try to reduce pollution from the electric sector 80 percent by 2030. This “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” became RE-AMP’s overarching target, against which all future actions could be aligned and then evaluated.
Through reflection on the map, and subsequent discussions, participants identified four key levers critical to reaching the group’s larger goal. They would have to stop the building of all new pulverized coal-#red power plants; retire most of the region’s existing coal plants; replace coal-generated electricity with renewable power; and reduce overall electric consumption through increased efficiency. And they would need to do these four things not sequentially, but at the same time. The group realized that “unless they coordinated to work on those four levers simultaneously, they wouldn’t make progress,” says consultant Ruth Rominger, an expert on social networks and complexity theory. “The interconnectedness of the issues, and the danger of potentially working against other advocates, was really the biggest ‘aha’ of it all.”