Skip to content

National climate funder Lois DeBacker to retire after 33 years in environmental philanthropy


The Kresge Foundation announced today that Lois R. DeBacker, managing director of the Environment Program, will retire effective September 27, 2024, after serving more than 16 years with the foundation and 33 years total in philanthropy.

Since joining Kresge in 2008, DeBacker has led the foundation’s environmental grantmaking, which helps cities combat and adapt to climate change while advancing racial and economic justice. In 2007, Kresge identified climate change as a funding priority. DeBacker was hired to build and lead a team that would develop and execute a U.S.-focused grantmaking strategy to reduce the pollution that causes climate change (mitigation) and prepare for the impacts of climate change that can no longer be avoided (adaptation).


2008: Lois R. DeBacker, in pink, sits for a photo with the Kresge program officer team.

“It was an honor and a wonderful opportunity to be selected by Rip Rapson to build out Kresge’s climate change grantmaking strategy. He encouraged our small staff team to address both mitigation and adaptation and gave us considerable latitude in shaping the program’s direction,” DeBacker said.

40+ years of advocating for environmental protection

DeBacker can trace her passion for sustainability issues back to 1973 as a “card-carrying environmentalist” and the co-organizer of a daylong environmental teach-in at her high school.

“I came to appreciate as a teenager how critical public policy was to environmental protection,” DeBacker said. That realization led to my decision to major in political science in college and ultimately pursue a career in environmental policy, followed by environmental philanthropy.”

Lois DeBacker, managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program, is featured in this photo from 1973 with members of the Groves High School Ecology Club loading donated newspapers for a recycling drive.

DeBacker received her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in public affairs from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Her graduate work focused on urban and domestic policy.

Early in her career, DeBacker worked in Michigan state government in policy development and program management capacities. Before joining Kresge, she spent more than 16 years at the C. S. Mott Foundation in a series of positions of progressive responsibility, including the role of Associate Vice President of Programs.

“When we contemplated building out an environmental program at the Kresge Foundation some 16 years ago, one name immediately moved to the top of my list: Lois. I had long admired Lois’ work at the Mott Foundation,” said Rip Rapson, Kresge’s president and CEO. “Not only did she enjoy a reputation within philanthropy for her thoughtful, thorough, and deeply passionate work on behalf of the environment, she was seen as the consummate philanthropic colleague: generous with her time, supportive of others, and utterly without ego. As rewarding as her work with Mott had been, we were blessed by good timing. Lois was ready to be closer to family and was intrigued at being asked to create what would, in effect, be an environmental start-up. Asking her to join Kresge was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my time at the foundation. She has built one of the most effective, ambitious, and impactful environmental philanthropies in the country. We are deeply in her debt and will miss her deeply.”

From conservation grants to adopting a climate change strategy focused on mitigation, adaptation and equity

Prior to DeBacker’s tenure, Kresge’s environmental grantmaking largely focused on capital challenge grants and a companion program, the Green Building Initiative, which supported the adoption of sustainable building practices by nonprofit organizations.

A group of people pose in front of a sign that reads The Kresge Foundation CREWS.
Environment Program team members attend a CREWS grantee convening. L-R: Jill Johnson, program team assistant; Jessica Boehland, senior program officer; Lois DeBacker, managing director; Jalonne White-Newsome, former senior program officer; and Shamar Bibbins, senior program officer.

Under DeBacker’s leadership, the Environment Program came to focus on urban climate action, consistent with Kresge’s commitment to expand equity and opportunity in America’s cities. The foundation also advanced the notion that achieving climate resilience requires that communities aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prepare for climate impacts, and build social cohesion – as all three elements are necessary for communities to be as safe and vital as possible in the face of climate change.

“In 2014, the foundation began to explicitly address the inequitable impacts of climate change on low-wealth communities and communities of color,” DeBacker said. “We began to prioritize ensuring organizations that authentically represent the needs, interests, and knowledge of such communities have access to and influence in decision-making venues related to climate change.”

“Lois has made unparalleled contributions to the field of environmental grantmaking,” said Benjamin Kennedy, vice president of programs at Kresge. “Her decades-long commitment to our planet and the fight against climate change are a gift and a service to us all. That said, so many of us who were lucky enough to work with Lois know her principally as a deeply kind, caring, thoughtful and generous colleague and friend. Therein lies the essence of Lois’ leadership. She brings unwavering strategic focus combined with gracious humanity to every room she is in. We celebrate Lois…and we will miss her immensely.”

Equity-focused initiatives set the tone for grantmaking to advance justice

DeBacker led the design of Kresge’s Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity (CRUO) initiative, a five-year, $29 million effort launched in 2014 that supported the capacity of advocates and organizers in urban communities to advance climate-resilience work of importance to them.

A large group photo of Kresge's Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity (CRUO) initiative seen in front of a gazebo and lush gardens and trees.
Members of the Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity (CRUO) initiative gather for a convening in 2018. The initiative, which concluded in 2019, focused on strengthening the climate-resilience field by supporting new models and approaches to policy and planning that directly benefit low-income communities.

The initiative’s design was strongly influenced by input from environmental justice leaders across the country, including individuals who participated in the Kresge-sponsored Pathways to Resilience dialogues led by the Movement Strategy Center.

“Lois took a leap of faith when we launched CRUO. She was committed to bridging between on-the-ground racial justice and climate groups in new ways, and she held space for emergent design in a large-scale national initiative in an unprecedented manner,” said Marian Urquilla, principal of Strategy Lift, a national consulting practice focused on coaching, strategy development and large-scale community change. “Lois opened up the national initiative to sector and movement leaders, listening deeply and sharing decision-making in a gracious and steadfast manner. It has been one of the joys of my career to work with her because she brings an extraordinary mix of creativity, humility, and savvy. Her leadership changes what’s possible.”

Urquilla coached DeBacker with the design of the CRUO initiative, worked closely with the team during its implementation, and consulted with the team in other strategy refinement efforts.

DeBacker was also a strong proponent of establishing Kresge’s Climate Change, Health & Equity (CCHE) initiative, launched in 2019 to mobilize equitable climate mitigation and adaptation action by healthcare institutions, health practitioners and community advocates. This initiative is managed jointly by the Environment and Health teams.

“Lois was that exceptional partner who was willing to put aside boundaries, turf, and even ego in pursuit of exploring the emerging frontier between health and the environment, between climate change and health equity,” said David Fukuzawa, former managing director of Kresge’s Health Program who served at the foundation for 20 years before retiring in 2020. “CCHE became possible because she was willing to invest in pioneering efforts to define the intersection between climate change, health and racial equity. Before CCHE, it was hard to find any environmental grantmakers who supported work in this intersection.”

DeBacker has been acknowledged by climate justice grantees as being a leader in the movement who listens deeply and leads with grace and humility.

During DeBacker’s tenure, the foundation has also managed strong and strategic grantmaking aimed at energy efficiency, building decarbonization, and resilient power, with the dual goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring that low-wealth communities and communities of color benefit from the nation’s transition to clean energy sources.

That work has grown to include a strong partnership between Kresge’s Environment team and Social Investment Practice to build a pipeline of clean energy projects in low-wealth communities and communities of color that will be positioned to compete for federal Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund dollars.

While Kresge is known for being an early funder of climate adaptation in the U.S. and is proud of that work, DeBacker has always emphasized the importance of funding climate mitigation as well.

“We know that every tenth of a degree by which climate change can be limited matters for the wellbeing of all life on Earth, now and into the future. Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent priority,” DeBacker said.

A description of the entire set of giving priorities can be found on the Environment Program website page.

Leading climate change strategies grounded in racial and economic justice and bringing climate work home

During DeBacker’s tenure, the Environment Program deepened its commitment to racial and economic justice and to directing a growing share of its grants to organizations that center equity in their climate work.

“Lois built something special at Kresge. She brought on a stellar group of people who have literally led the charge on climate adaptation and resilience-building as the first major foundation to do so,” said Jacqui Patterson, founder and executive director of the Chisholm Legacy Project. “Lois and her team have done all of this with such a deeply thoughtful, strategic, yet frontline-rooted agenda and set of grantee partners. Lois deserves to watch the deep roots she has planted flourish while she enjoys some rest and fun with family and friends.”

“On a personal note, I am thankful to Lois for being such a strong advocate who has fiercely supported our work, and for being an encouraging presence in my life,” Patterson said. “She asks the right questions to help me consider another perspective on what I’m experiencing; she is a celebrater of my joys and a sympathizer to my loss and pain. She has been such an amazing blessing, and I am deeply grateful. Even as she passes the Kresge Environment Program torch that started as a flicker and has become an illuminating and warming bonfire, I pray that this is not goodbye and that I’m counted among the friends with whom she will stay in touch.”

In February 2021, Kresge was among the first climate change funders to take the Climate Funders Justice Pledge launched by the Donors of Color Network. The pledge called on funders to commit at least 30% of their climate change grantmaking dollars to Black, Indigenous, and other people-of-color (BIPOC)-led organizations and to publicly report progress toward that goal on an annual basis.

A graphic with the text: #TakeThePledge Climate Funders Justice Pledge, and the photos and titles of: Lois DeBacker, The Kresge Foundation, Environment Program; and Jacqueline Patterson, NAACP Environment & Climate Justice Program“Kresge took the pledge because the foundation firmly believes that the nation – and the world – will not be successful in efforts to combat and adapt to climate change unless a powerful and diverse movement of community leaders demands action and is resourced to lead,” DeBacker noted.

Ten years ago, less than 10% of Kresge’s climate grant funds went to BIPOC-led organizations. Under DeBacker’s leadership, Kresge deliberately worked to increase funding support for such groups to nearly 40%, as of 2022.

DeBacker has also championed deepening the uptake of climate change in all dimensions of the Foundation’s work. Just as the Biden Administration adopted a “whole-of-government” approach to climate change in 2021, DeBacker urged Rapson to establish climate change as an organization-wide priority at Kresge. In 2022, Rapson did exactly that.

“Kresge has made a commitment to continually deepen and fortify how the organization seeks to mitigate the effects of climate change, both in our programmatic work and in our internal operations,” Rapson said. “We are also committed to articulating and implementing a framework for our endowment’s long-term investment in efforts to usher in and accelerate a transition economy that focuses on the widespread adoption of alternative energy and the mitigation of carbon emissions through other mechanisms. We’ve seen tremendous progress in the organization’s prioritization of climate change policies, practices, and investments, thanks to Lois and her phenomenal team.”

DeBacker was recently named a 2024 Notable Leader in Sustainability by Crain’s Detroit Business. She is a member of the Gulf Health and Resilience Board, an advisory board to the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She serves on the external advisory board of the University of Michigan’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and is a member of her community’s Ad Hoc Environmental Sustainability Committee. She is also the secretary of the board of directors of the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.

DeBacker is a past board president of the Biodiversity Funders Group and has served on a number of philanthropy-serving organization and nonprofit boards in a variety of capacities. She is the recipient of the 2015 Nicholas P. Bollman Award from The Funders Network.

DeBacker offered the following departing thoughts: “I’m so grateful for my time at Kresge. I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from the work of dedicated, courageous, and brilliant nonprofit leaders working locally, regionally and nationally. Their efforts inspire me and give me hope. It also has been a joy to work for Rip and Benjy and with a stellar set of colleagues across Kresge’s program teams and operational departments. Their dedication to mission and commitment to Kresge’s work is palpable. My decision to retire was made easier by the fact that Kresge’s Environment team is an amazing group of people, who I admire, love, and respect; I know that I will be leaving the program in extraordinarily good hands. I’m proud of the work I’ve done at Kresge, and I plan to do as much good as I can before my departure on September 27.”

Before retiring in September, DeBacker will assist in the leadership transition of the Environment Program to a new managing director effective September 30.

A group photo of nine people of the Kresge Environment Program team standing in front of a green plant “living wall.”
The Environment Program team in 2024 (left to right): Senior Program Officer Jessica Boehland, Program Team Assistant Jill Johnson, Strategic Learning and Evaluation Officer Chikako Yamauchi, Managing Director Lois DeBacker, Associate Program Officer Alejandra Hernandez, Grants management Associate Sonita Martin, Program Officer Yeou-Rong Jih, Communications Officer Kaniqua Welch, Social Investment Officer Joe Evans.