The RLF Story:

Innovating to Meet the Moment

Scroll down icon

A great need met by bold vision, deep trust, strategic acumen, generous funding, and a willingness to take risks—that is the alchemy that created Resources Legacy Fund (RLF), and it continues to guide the organization’s evolution and impact. What began as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s ambition to protect “To accomplish big things, we needed new approaches and we needed to be nimble. RLF is continually adapting to meet the next challenge.”Michael Mantell, RLF President land in a new way in California has become an independent organization working with a diversity of funders, partners, and leaders across the country and internationally to advance bold environmental outcomes. In 20 years, RLF has helped to conserve over five million acres, advance new environmental approaches and policies, and generate more than $30 billion in new public funding for water, land, and ocean conservation while advancing social equity and climate change resilience.

Mapping a vision

RLF was launched in 2000, but its roots were established in the 1990’s when Jeanne Sedgwick , Conservation Program director at the Packard Foundation, approached Michael Mantell , Undersecretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, to identify and prioritize California Central Coast lands for protection.

At the time, accelerating, largescale development was threatening California’s ocean bluffs, rolling hills, mountain forests, and rich valley farmland. Much-needed efforts to protect these lands had been stymied by diminished government budgets, counterproductive environmental regulations, siloed non-profit organizations, and pro-growth business interests. Meanwhile, the West Coast philanthropic sector had yet to assert a catalytic role in conservation.

“Michael and his team always had an important ability to listen deeply and find a path forward. That went far in earning trust with the Foundation and continues to be vital in RLF’s work with all partners."Jeanne Sedgwick, former Conservation Director, David and Lucile Packard Foundation In 1996, with an infusion of assets from David Packard’s multi-billion-dollar bequest, the Packard Foundation started thinking bigger about California land protection. Jeanne soon convinced Michael to leave his post in state government to consult for the Foundation, planning what would become one of the largest privately funded conservation initiatives in the United States. In consultation with myriad experts, they took a multifaceted approach to mapping out a vision of California defined by large, protected landscapes that people would enjoy for generations. The effort was launched in 1998 as the Conserving California Landscapes Initiative (CCLI) , a five-year endeavor to protect 250,000 acres, design new statewide policies, create new public funding, and build local organizational capacity.

Realizing the conservation goals of CCLI required more than creativity, vision, and an unprecedented financial gift. Trust was at the heart of it. Jeanne and Michael secured the Foundation’s confidence to develop and implement the strategy. And to successfully coalesce stakeholders—especially those at odds with one another—they had to establish and nurture trust among funders, policymakers, the nonprofit and business sectors, and leaders in urban and rural communities. “Michael and his team always had an important ability to listen deeply and find a path forward. That went far in earning trust with the Foundation and continues to be vital in RLF’s work with all partners,” says Jeanne.

New Approach to Philanthropy

CCLI opened doors to a new kind of environmental philanthropy that could achieve more through strategic collaboration.

Delivering on the Packard Foundation’s vision, Jeanne pushed to create a platform for philanthropists to pool funds and advocate for policies that would have much bigger impact than private money alone could. Meanwhile, Michael was seeking strategies to work across existing boundaries of government, philanthropy, environmental nonprofits, business, and advocacy/lobbying firms.

“No one had seen anything like this, utilizing multiple strategies to work around obstacles to get the right thing done for conservation.” Doug Varley, consulting attorney The result, in 2000, was the creation of two independent, but coordinated entities to institutionalize a new environmental model—Resources Legacy Fund, a 501(c)(3) capable of receiving philanthropic donations and making grants, and Resources Law Group, a law firm capable of leading political campaigns and engaging in select lobbying on behalf of foundations. Working closely with Jeanne, consulting attorney Doug Varley designed the unique two-entity structure, which allowed an emerging team to work quickly and strategically to create opportunities, take risks, change course, and accelerate progress faster than traditional environmental organizations.

“No one had seen anything like this,” says Doug, “utilizing multiple strategies to work around obstacles to get the right thing done for conservation.” He recalls a presentation Michael gave to a conference of funders in the early 2000s about RLF’s success leveraging philanthropic investments to advance new policy and public funding: “At the end of his talk, the whole room wanted to know how they could do that in their sector.”

RLF would end up helping the Packard Foundation take a landscape-level approach to protecting over 500,000 acres—more than double the original CCLI goal—leveraging their $175 million investment to generate almost $800 million in private and public funding, in addition to spurring a host of new statewide environmental policies and funding and enhancing the capacity of several regional and local organizations.

It was the beginning of a new era of philanthropy and public-private partnerships. RLF was both the glue and the grease—building alliances and accelerating change.

Investing in communities for enduring change

RLF learned early on that in order to achieve enduring environmental outcomes, it needed to build broader support for conservation and listen to community needs. Through some of its early projects—such as the Children and Urban River Parkways program and aspects of CCLI and the Preserving Wild California program—RLF and its funders began building relationships in communities underserved by parks and access to safe outdoor spaces. These communities—often low-income and/or consisting predominantly of people of color—also experience the worst air and water quality impacts as a result of California’s development patterns and are routinely excluded from public policy and funding decisions affecting them.

“We learned how important it is to start with the end in mind and keep building a bigger table for those who would continue to lead after we left.” Mary Scoonover, former RLF Executive Vice President RLF invested time and money to establish trust, creating accessible opportunities for community members to share their priorities, establish relationships with decision makers, and co-design outcomes. “We learned how important it is to start with the end in mind and keep building a bigger table for those who would continue to lead after we left,” says Mary Scoonover, RLF Executive Vice President of 18 years. “Without community support to sustain political pressure and steward environmental outcomes, success can be fleeting.”

As RLF works to create a more just and resilient future for people and nature, it has been shifting its measure of success beyond acres and square miles of land and ocean protected to community-driven initiatives. Through programs like California Conservation Innovations, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Open Rivers Fund, Land-Sea Connection, and many others, RLF and its funding partners are building capacity among diverse, new leaders and deepening partnerships with Indigenous Peoples who are driving conservation solutions to today’s intersecting issues of climate change, community health, and social equity.

NEW ISSUES DEMAND NEW STRATEGIES

After 20 years, RLF remains committed to the breakthrough strategies that led to its founding and achievements. This creativity positions RLF to refine and redesign its aspirations, partnerships, and strategies as it adapts to new challenges and opportunities, while leveraging the relationships and skills the organization has honed over time. Early RLF partner and former CEO of The Nature Conservancy Steve McCormick says, “RLF continues to RLF itself. Innovation is in the organization’s DNA.”

Seeing the threat of anti-democratic influences growing in American politics, RLF and its partners recognized it was no longer possible to think about the environment—or any issue of importance—apart from a healthy democracy. “RLF continues to RLF itself. Innovation is in the organization’s DNA.” Steve McCormick, former CEO of the
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
In response, RLF helped launch a partner 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the Fund for a Better Future, as a vehicle for donors to invest quickly in causes that uphold democratic values, protect the environment, improve health, and advance social equity. Supporting the new entity, RLF also launched a separate nonprofit 501(c)(3), Shared Ascent Fund, as an avenue for funders to invest directly in efforts that bolster democracy and advance economic, racial, and gender equity.

In 2016, several RLF funding partners were seeking an organization to sponsor and incubate high-impact initiatives that lack and do not seek 501(c)(3) status. The professionalism and integrity of RLF’s program management and administration attracted funders. RLF quickly adapted to provide back office support to important donor projects in need of fiscal sponsorship and to add programmatic value where useful and desired.

These new funds and services continue to add significant flexibility and strategic opportunity to the philanthropic platform that RLF created 20 years ago—giving donors a broad array of tools to effect change amid the enormous challenges facing communities and ecosystems around the world—while expanding the range of partners, talent, and knowledge that RLF engages.

Looking Forward

What began as an ambitious environmental vision by a respected foundation has evolved into an organization of more than 100 well-networked professionals with expertise in environmental policy making, coalition building, natural resource protection, climate change resilience, and administrative excellence, working with dozens of funding partners and hundreds of organizations and leaders.

As RLF looks toward the future, it keeps its founding principles in focus—thinking big, earning trust, listening to the needs and knowledge of donors and partners—while forming fresh alliances, empowering new leaders, and co-designing solutions that advance a just and resilient world for people and nature.

Historic Moments & Milestones

Scroll through our timeline below.

timelinephoto
1996

David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company and innovating conservationist, dies at age 83 and leaves his family foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a multi-billion-dollar bequest. Jeanne Sedgwick and Michael Mantell begin mapping out a strategy to conserve large areas of California’s Central Coast.

timelinephoto
1997

Michael Mantell leaves his job as Undersecretary for the California Natural Resources Agency mid-year to provide legal consulting expertise on a number of environmental projects, including work with the Packard Foundation.

timelinephoto
1998

The Packard Foundation launches the Conserving California Landscapes Initiative, a five-year, $175 million program to conserve at least 250,000 acres in three California regions—the Central Coast, the Central Valley, and the Sierra Nevada—build supportive public policies, and capacity and expand public funding for the environment. Led by Jeanne Sedgwick and Michael Mantell, it was one of the largest private land conservation programs ever created. Ultimately, the program would protect nearly 500,000 acres and leverage almost $800 million in additional public and private funds.

timelinephoto
2000

Jeanne Sedgwick and Doug Varley create Resources Law Group and Resources Legacy Fund for Michael Mantell to lead. Steve McCormick joins Michael as partner in the law group, before leaving to accept the position of President of The Nature Conservancy. Mary Scoonover joins RLF the following year and helps lead the organization for 18 years.

timelinephoto
2001

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein asks RLF to facilitate a deal among federal and state governments and philanthropy to purchase, protect, and restore 16,500 acres of salt ponds around the San Francisco Bay. RLF finalizes the $100 million transaction in 2003—with state and federal funding and contributions from the Goldman Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—transferring ownership of the Cargill Salt Company lands to the federal and state authorities. Over time, the philanthropies provide a total of $38 million for acquisition, planning, stewardship and restoration. RLF helps lead several successful campaigns that create over $700 million (as of 2021) in new federal, state and regional funds for SF Bay restoration.

timelinephoto
2002

RLF launches the Sustainable Fisheries Fund to support fisheries around the world move to more sustainable, credentialed practices. Led by the Packard Foundation and joined later by the Walton Family Foundation, it remains active and to date has supported 50-plus commercial fisheries worldwide in achieving sustainability certification. Bringing in diverse interests, RLF also leads the successful $2.6 billion bond—Proposition 40—for land, water and coastal conservation in California.

timelinephoto
2003

RLF launches Preserving Wild California Program with a $150 million, five-year effort to preserve wildlands in California. It helps achieve protection for 1 million acres of new Wilderness and other federal designations, acquire over 210,000 acres of land, and it supports over 170 organizations. At this time, RLF also expands its to work to include select parts of the Western US and on key federal policy issues.

timelinephoto
2004

RLF signs a formal agreement with the State of California to advance a phased strategy and public-private partnership for implementing California’s Marine Life Protection Act on behalf of several foundations. The rigorous process results in a statewide network of 124 marine protected areas, completed in 2012, that covers almost 17 percent of state waters including 9.5 percent in no-take protection. This becomes the first network of marine protected areas in the US and is now a recognized global model for ocean conservation.

timelinephoto
2006

With support from the David and Lucile Packard, Irvine, and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. foundations, RLF launches the Children and Urban River Parkways program, to help underserved communities and community organizations in Los Angeles, San Diego, the San Joaquin Valley engage in public decisions about funding, design, and implementation of local river parkway projects. RLF leads the effort to secure over $10 billion dollars for water, ocean, parks and land conservation in California through two successful ballot measures: Proposition 84 and 1E.

timelinephoto
2008

With support from the Marisla, Packard and Sandler Foundations, RLF launches the Northwest Mexico Program to protect priority coastal areas on the Baja California Peninsula. Through 2020, this program has protected more than 3.5 million acres.

timelinephoto
2010

RLF creates the Renewable Energy Working Group to guide federal policy to break the gridlock between renewable energy, utilities, developers and conservationists. The working group’s recommendations guide the Department of the Interior’s decisions to site tens of thousands of megawatts of clean energy production across the Southwest in harmony with land and habitat protection priorities. RLF helps lead the campaign in California to uphold its precedent setting climate change law.

timelinephoto
2011

RLF begins incubating the Water Foundation, an effort that was critical to the passage of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The organization becomes an independent entity in 2017.

timelinephoto
2015

With support from the Packard Foundation and building on prior experience, RLF launches the California Conservation Innovations program, as a new approach to conservation that centers on the strategy of building new conservation constituencies more reflective of the state’s increasingly diverse population and developing a cohort of young and diverse new leaders advocating for conservation funding and policies that meet their communities’ needs.

timelinephoto
2016

With a $50 million investment from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, RLF launches the Open Rivers Fund, which supports local communities to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the American West. The Fund works closely with Tribes to restore ancestral fishing practices and helps bring together groups with often polarized opinions to find win-win solutions.

timelinephoto
2016

RLF helps launch Fund for a Better Future (FBF), a 501(c)4 platform for donors who want to invest quickly in activities that strengthen democratic institutions as a mechanism to secure enduring progress on issues related to conservation, equity, and climate. Between 2016 and 2020, FBF invests more than $80 million supporting efforts that advance voting rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, access to healthcare, and environmental protection across the country while advancing successful ballot measures to increase public funding for parks, outdoors access, safe drinking water, climate resilience, and ocean conservation.

timelinephoto
2016

RLF begins fiscally sponsoring high-impact initiatives that lack 501(c)(3) status. Initial projects include the Center for Western Priorities and the Western Energy Project. This area of work quickly expands to include the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and several international projects, including the Argentine Protected Areas, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Campaign for Nature, and South American Conservation Fund.

timelinephoto
2018

RLF leads a coalition of partners to design, pass, and implement the $4 billion safe parks and clean water bond, Proposition 68, that California voters passed on the June 2018 ballot. It dedicates at least 40 percent of funding to urban and disadvantaged communities, more than any previous statewide natural resource bond. Fund for a Better Future chaired the campaign to pass the bond.

timelinephoto
2019

RLF helps launch the Shared Ascent Fund (SAF), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) designed to provide sustained support for efforts to confront the growing threat to American democracy. SAF invests in initiatives that advance a vision of shared prosperity, women’s equality, racial equity, and a healthy democracy.

timelinephoto
2020

Building on its success in formal public-private partnerships in California and Montana, RLF enters into a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Community Foundation to help Hawai’i achieve its commitment to marine managed areas. RLF also helps gain broader state funding for land conservation and public access in Montana by building a diverse coalition and working with FBF to invest in a successful ballot measure.

timelinephoto
2021

RLF builds new synergies in its fight against the climate crisis by formally partnering with the state of California to meet its 2030 biodiversity goals and working to build new capabilities to advance strong climate policies. RLF also sponsors Climate Power, a strategic communications organization building political will and public support for climate action. These efforts complement other climate-targeted RLF projects and programs, including the Campaign for Nature, a global 30×30 initiative; the Hawai’i marine 30×30 effort; and Indigenous-led conservation efforts like International Boreal Conservation Campaign.