Making a Difference on Earth Day and Every Day: Carol Phelps on Small-Scale Philanthropy Toward “Resilient Communities”

Earth Day may find people wondering what they can do to help combat climate change and support sustainability efforts—particularly when most are still staying home to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But effective strategies can come from small starts. As GoFundMe, Indiegogo, and Facebook fundraisers have shown us, giving is not only for the rich—and philanthropy can come from unexpected places.

Carol and Andy Phelps on roof in front of new solar panels
Carol and Andy Phelps on their roof with the solar panels  they installed in July 2019

Earth Day may find people wondering what they can do to help combat climate change and support sustainability efforts—particularly when most are still staying home to help slow the spread of COVID-19. But effective strategies can come from small starts. As GoFundMe, Indiegogo, and Facebook fundraisers have shown us, giving is not only for the rich—and philanthropy can come from unexpected places.

Carol Phelps and her husband Andy are “small-scale” philanthropists living outside of Madison, WI; the parents of two soon-to-be librarians; and climate activists. Carol, a “semi-retired” teacher, and Andy, a Google hardware engineer, are the funders behind the American Library Association (ALA) Resilient Communities: Libraries Respond to Climate Change initiative. The pilot project will enable public and academic libraries to become conversation and action hubs around the climate crisis by funding film screenings, community dialogues, and related events based on local interest in 25 libraries, with programming beginning this fall. It will also fund the creation of free climate crisis programming resources that will be made available to libraries everywhere, and provide support for participating libraries to become designated Climate Resilience Hubs. Libraries will be selected through an application process managed by ALA’s Public Programs Office.

LJ recently caught up with Carol to find out more about her work as a funder, climate change activist, and library advocate.

LJ : You don’t fit the profile many people think of when they hear the word “philanthropist.” How did you get involved in philanthropic giving?

Carol Phelps: That's been going on at least since my husband and I were married. We're Christians and we take seriously the idea that it's important to share, and it's important to help others, no matter how much or little you have. It's part of our calling, part of our mission in life, to spread it around.

I was a full-time teacher—for a while I was a reading and math specialist. I've also been a classroom teacher, and currently teach after school tutoring and summer classes. [Andy] is also inching toward retirement. He's made it down to 60 percent time. This is our first cause connected with libraries, besides belonging to the Friends of a couple of our local libraries. We patronize book sales, and that sort of thing. But nothing big like this before.

How did you get involved in climate change activism?

The tipping point came this last spring when my husband and I attended a Wholistic Missions Conference. This was basically a Protestant evangelical kind of conference. It was held in Kansas City, and was a whole week of seminars and speakers and workshops about how we can help people around the world. I think my husband and I were about the only people there from the philanthropy side. We were thinking in terms of what projects should we support, and how should we support them? You'd think it would be very easy to give away money, but it's really not easy at all if you really want to do good with it.

We came away with this idea that instead of sending money across the world to do some project, maybe what we really needed to do was spend some money here in the United States. Honestly, the United States is doing more to cause climate change than any country besides China right now, and China has only topped us for the last couple of years. We thought that maybe we better put some money and attention into getting America switched over to renewable energy.

And we became really aware of what Greta [Thunberg] has been doing, and that took away our last excuses because up to that point I had thought, It's just me—I'm not a scientist, I'm not a politician, I'm not the CEO of a company—what can I do to change something that's so huge? I can switch to LED lightbulbs, but that's not going to be a big enough change, and it's not going to be fast enough. Yet here this girl who started out at the age of 15 and has basically turned the world on its head. So, looking at Greta and people like her, we thought, OK, if she can do something, surely we can do something ourselves.

Climate changes have become so dramatic and so obvious—they've definitely started impacting where we live. We had tremendously bad flooding in August 2018. According to the news we got 14 inches. And that's just us. Around the world—the wildfires in California, in Australia, heat waves in Alaska. It's become so obvious I don't think it's possible for anybody to ignore it.

Every single day we wait on this, and we don't take enough action, the problem gets worse. It's not like we can wait 20, 30 years.

Why did you decide to go through libraries?

When we thought in terms of what we could do to help this situation, [we realized] our money is not going to go very far—probably all our money combined isn't enough to put in a big wind turbine or something. Yes, we can help with some solar panel projects, and we have, but those have been really small.

We looked at each other said, What's the big stumbling block? To have the world switch over to renewable energy, that's awareness and education, and this has become such a partisan political issue. Where is it that people in the community get together that's not partisan, [where] people are seeking information, people are meeting to talk together, and that’s sort of continuing education for adults—and we all looked at each other and said, It's the library!

Why did you choose to work with ALA on this?

To begin with, we were thinking of something relatively small, of a way we could do grants to libraries so that they have more money available for buying books and videos on climate change, or so they can bring in a speaker. We thought it would make sense to [work with] more than the dozen libraries in the Madison area, and we thought ALA would know how to get it out.

Then they came up with a more complete program: Let's get materials to go with these documentaries, let's get performance rights, let's pick libraries and make this a pilot project and have them do more than one event, and have the libraries report back on what they did and what worked. They had the idea of making this a package.

How much input did you have?

So far it's been 50-50. That's one of the exciting things. Often we've just given money to UNICEF and said, Go do something good with it, and it disappears and we never hear about it again. But in this case since we were giving money to a particular project, as [ALA] fleshed out the idea and thought of what they could do, and how they could do it, they've been in regular communication with us. It's been very much a two-way collaboration.

We first started having videoconferences with them in November [2019]. It was basically worked out in November and December, and since then they've been pulling together the advertisements and promotional materials and press releases, and the information has been gradually going out since then.

What would you like to see happen with this initiative going forward, after the pilot year is up?

Hopefully we can spread good ideas and best practices. Our older daughter, Heather, arranged an independent study class this semester, and she is talking to all the directors of library systems in Wisconsin about what libraries are doing for sustainability. She's looking at sustainable buildings, programming, and collections about sustainability and climate change. She's talking to people and then following up with individual libraries. Eventually this will all be written up as a document about what libraries are currently doing.

[ALA is] also soliciting further donations. This is reaching out to 25 libraries, but if they got more, it's an incremental cost—we've already paid for the staffing and promotion, and we’re talking to the people who have made documentaries about allowing them to be used in libraries. So the cost of adding an extra library isn't that much. If further donations come in, they could easily expand it.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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