As CEO of 1% For the Planet, Kate Williams drives impact giving

Kate Williams, MSM ‘97, was always environmentally oriented and felt like a bit of an outsider when she arrived at MIT Sloan. But her program ingrained in her that an organization’s mission and management are inseparable, and focusing on both is crucial to success. Now, as CEO of 1% For the Planet, she drives impact by accelerating smart environmental giving through a global network of companies, individuals, and nonprofits. 

Kate Williams felt like a “black sheep” when she came to MIT Sloan in 1995. She had always been environmentally oriented, and worked in outdoor education for ten years before deciding to study management in hopes that it would broaden her leadership opportunities. “I thought I needed to operate on ‘the other side’ to get solid in my skills,” she says.  Sustainability wasn’t talked about much during her program, but Williams found an internship with the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands. When she graduated, the internship proved a stepping stone to what has become two decades of environmental advocacy and nonprofit work.

For Williams, MIT Sloan overturned the idea that you focus either on the mission of an organization or on the management of it. “Those absolutely go together,” she says. “The stronger we are as an organization, the better managed we are, the more we can accomplish in the world.”

Now, as CEO of 1% For The Planet, Williams works with companies around the world that give one percent of their sales to environmental nonprofits through certified, direct giving. The Vermont-based organization helps the companies develop a giving plan, which sometimes means identifying a nonprofit partner that aligns with their impact goals. One effect of this matchmaking is that larger companies are giving to small nonprofits they’d never heard of, unleashing powerful partnerships. “Just like in the business world, a lot of the innovation and new approaches are happening in small nonprofits that are really smart and are coming at problems in different ways,” she says. “And they need money.” 1% For The Planet has fostered thousands of company-nonprofit partnerships so far.

But, since not all companies can give a full one percent of their sales, Williams and her team are developing additional ways to accelerate smart environmental giving, including an “impact fund” model. Each fund comprises a curated group of nonprofits that focuses on a specific issue, such as clean water. Anyone, from individuals to businesses, can contribute any amount. “It’s kind of like a mutual fund,” Williams says. “It’s saying, if you put money in here, we’ll balance the risk across a set of nonprofits, and impact will come out - and we’ll send you a report on it.” The goal is to enable more giving, while keeping with the model of smart giving to good environmental organizations.

Williams recently reconnected with MIT Sloan by way of the Sustainability Initiative, and is excited to collaborate on an S-lab project in the coming months. Her advice for MIT Sloan students today? “Step forward and lead,” she says. “Don’t wait until you feel ready and you have everything figured out because regardless of the positions you step into, there’s going to be a lot to learn. Go for it, and ask for help. The world needs you.”