This Spotlight is crafted in partnership with GOOD and authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly as part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector.
The Henry David Thoreau (HDT) Foundation, first established in 1998, has spent the last 17 years handing out funds to some of the most delightful—and unpredictable—people imaginable. HDT’s grant recipients are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. They’re also passionate about the environment, offering dozens of innovative strategies each year to prevent further damage to the oceans and the air, the rivers and the soil. And they want to get started on all of it, right now.
Who is this elusive group of Thoreau Scholars? High school seniors—who are often thought of as capricious teenagers rather than the changemakers, social entrepreneurs, scientists and world leaders that they will soon be.
Dr. Jennifer Galvin, the HDT’s director, likens the foundation’s investments to a very smart wager. “We are making big bets on individuals and institutions – more of a social venture,” she says. The foundation provides funding to faculty members and to individual students. Their Thoreau Scholars arm has provided up to $30,000 to eight to ten Massachusetts high school seniors every year for college tuition. For this limited number of slots, the foundation receives about 1,000 student applications. Students apply online and supply letters of recommendation to support their proposals. The applicant pool is always so impressive that, Galvin jokes, “They’re either making it up or they’re the next Bill Gates! We definitely have to cross-check their credentials.”
“Each of the Case Foundation’s five principles are markers for us,” she adds. “Our Faculty Grant Program allows us to take risks on programs that might never get off the ground otherwise. We want longevity, not one hit wonders. We want to incentivize people to stick with environmental work… so that our scholars and faculty members can take the risks they want in the environmental arena—and whatever problems they want to solve, I want to support them.”
While all the Thoreau Scholars selected are bright and creative, 65 percent of them are also drawn from public high schools. That includes Christopher Golden, who today is a Harvard graduate, as well as the director of a nonprofit in Madagascar. His team, according to HDT’s website, has “developed a ‘recipe book’ of remedies based on local plants, which has been distributed to numerous villages to preserve and promote indigenous remedies in an area where hospitals are distant and expensive.” Golden believes that kind of optimism is precisely why Thoreau Scholars stand out.
“The program is designed to reward people based on their passions, to foster their belief that they might just be the person with the solution,” he says. “My fellow scholars are all hyper-intelligent, but the point of the scholars program isn’t test scores or academic accolades. It’s about passion and leadership.”
Galvin says the question at the heart of the HDT program is, “’How do you build resilient, energetic, environmental leaders?’… I want them to think of themselves as fearless leaders now, whether interested in policy or education or bench science, whatever drives them the most. They all have incredible stories about why they care so much.”
Galvin also does much more than write a check and await a report, treasuring the close personal relationships she fosters with—and among—her scholars and faculty members. “I email. I’m on the phone. Some are now my closest friends and colleagues, and they are in the four corners of the world. It’s like herding cats, but I love that!”
The first class of Thoreau Scholars graduated in 2003, and some of them have already gone on to start energy companies or become college faculty members in their respective fields. Galvin measures the impact of their work in different ways, she explains, whether it’s about honing scholars’ critical thinking abilities, their individual connections or their leadership skills. “Some are easy to measure in the short-term and some take longer to play out.”
“I saw the connections at a very young age between environmental health and our physical health,” she says. “I was always really good at zooming in and out, and seeing how the dots are connected.” That might be why the foundation casts such a wide net and looks for those who are taking risks, experimenting and forming unique collaborations—offering support to biologists and botanists alongside those pursuing public health, law and chemistry. “I want to cross-fertilize different sectors to reframe the narrative and shift thinking,” says Galvin. “Environmental problems don’t fit neatly into boxes and their solutions don’t either.”
Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.