The Strategic Philanthropist

Boston Scientific co-founder John Abele talks about why he supports RMI in its efforts to transform Fort Collins’ energy system

Abele is a strategic philanthropist who demands benchmark and real-world results. Image copyright Rocky Mountain Institute by Caleb Kenna.

As the cofounder of Boston Scientific, John Abele helped build a $7 billion worldwide company that pioneered new medical devices and techniques, opening up the field of “less-invasive medicine” and saving countless patients’ lives in the process. It’s an approach he calls “for-profit philanthropy,” explaining that he “happens to have been involved in a for-profit company whose total mission was basically improving the quality of healthcare and reducing its cost.”

From his support for the next generation of engineers, to biomass, to energy-efficient LED ventures, to the nearly-10,000-panel solar array on his farm, Abele’s philanthropy and investments have been no less strategic. He’s a savvy supporter of many environmental and social causes who demands benchmarks and real-world results.

That call for setting targets and delivering promised impact has played an important role in the evolution of RMI. A supporter since 2003 and board member since 2008 — along with his daughter, Jeneye, president and CEO of the Abele family’s Argosy Foundation and an RMI supporter since 2007 — he’s seen RMI grow and mature, for the first time establishing and publicly committing to bold goals and commitments to impact.

We spoke with Abele to talk about why he’s believed in RMI for more than a decade, the challenges of community energy system transformation, and why he’s so excited about RMI’s work in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado. There we’re helping the city realize its vision for a net-zero-energy district (FortZED) that generates as much clean energy locally as it uses and showed the city how it could accelerate its 80-percent emissions reduction climate target two decades from 2050 to 2030.

Image courtesy of Caleb Kenna.

On social challenges

The whole concept of a large net-zero energy project has been floating out there for a while, including in Fort Collins, Colorado. But defining a goal is one thing — that’s the easy part. How you get there is another.

It’s primarily a social challenge of avoiding the tragedy of the commons. How do you get many different interest groups to give up something in the short term for everyone to gain a lot collectively in the long term? It’s especially difficult getting everyone on board when you’re trying to bring many parties together, some of whom don’t inherently trust one another. It is a very complex problem that can look simple from the outside.

On collaboration and why RMI

There will always be skeptics. One of the tasks is winning them over one by one. It all comes down to building trust in the process. If you want me on the landing, include me on the takeoff. Helping build that trust is one of RMI’s strong suits. We convene people and create an environment in which collaboration is supported. You’re trying to build a sense of trust among people by building confidence in the process.

RMI also thinks long term when others don’t. How do you get everyone on board in a place like Fort Collins when you don’t know how you’re going to get there? RMI can be an honest broker in helping the community clarify goals, identify barriers, and strategize a practical plan to achieve those goals.

On creating models of success

Our national government, as we’re acutely aware, is stalemated and almost proud of it. Meanwhile, cities are taking on — and they have for some time — the whole issue of energy use. The symbolism of a reasonably good-sized community like Fort Collins pulling this off with RMI’s help is huge, especially if you can do it thoughtfully, in a way that keeps people on board. That gets me excited as a donor: the extent to which we can learn from this process and make it valuable for others.

On raising all boats

It’s not uncommon to see nonprofit and for-profit organizations come together on social challenges such as this. You might have an institute that advances the field with research that it shares broadly, protecting the commons by making information and even services available that expand everyone’s horizons. This raises all boats.

Tesla is a good example, with the company’s announcement of making its patents available to competitors. That might sound like giving things away, but it comes from enlightened self-interest. If we want more charging stations and cheaper batteries to grow the electric vehicle market, Tesla can’t do that alone. It wants — and needs — outside help. In my mind, that’s a great way to behave.

It comes down, as Amory and RMI love to say, to systems thinking, systems design, and looking at the big picture. That is the fascinating thing about RMI … the way it works across for-profit and nonprofit collaborators and applies systems thinking. Whether it’s Walmart or the military, if they want more-efficient trucks that creates enough demand that you can build an entire industry around it, and everyone else benefits, too.

On Fort Collins and the future

The same can be true in Fort Collins. The Fort Collins process is really a learning laboratory, one where sharing data will be critical, including admitting mistakes and understanding how to prevent them next time. Some people don’t like to hear it expressed that way, but I’d argue that it’s an honor. It’s a great privilege to be a very early leader. Every resident can add value and have a sense of pride and ownership in the result.

Efforts that have broad community participation are more likely to last. Everybody has to buy into the change: residents, businesses, local politicians. You can’t force that change from the outside, it must come from within the community and RMI has to know just how lightly or heavily to help that process. Along the way we’ve got to figure out solutions, but that’s what RMI is good at.

Story by John Abele as told to Peter Bronski.

This article is from the Summer 2014 issue of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solution Journal. To read more from back issues of Solutions Journal, please visit the RMI website.

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