RapidBlog: Celebrating Ellen Satterlee's career as The Wege Foundation's quiet leader

As Ellen Satterlee steps down from The Wege Foundation, she leaves a legacy of quiet leadership. In a special conversation with WMEAC's Rachel Hood, she reflects on philanthropy, legacy, and changes in the environmental movement over the last 25 years. 
Celebrating Ellen Satterlee’s Career as the Wege Foundation’s Quiet Leader
An Interview with Rachel Hood, Executive Director, West Michigan Environmental Action Council
Every successful career is colored by the people with whom we work. This is doubly true in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors where passion, purpose and people seamlessly meet. Innovation for change takes a special brand of person – a person armed for adventure, strong enough to push boulders up mountains and graceful enough to convince people that change is, in fact, good for the system. In this sector when you find your perfect team mate, you hold on tight and nurture that relationship as intently as one does for family. And so went the career of Ellen Satterlee and her 25-plus year partnership with Peter Wege. A partnership between two people who changed the world together.

As Ellen Satterlee closes out her professional career and passes the Wege Foundation torch to the incoming CEO, and long-time friend of the foundation, Mark VanPutten, I had the honor of sitting down with her and talking about the magic of the Foundation and how it was made.

Q: You had a rare opportunity to work with a leader and visionary, Mr. Wege, who was a game changer in business and philanthropy for the environment. What were his three strategies for positive change?

Ellen: I’m not sure they were strategies, necessarily… this is what he lived by: 1. A quote from Peter, “Make sure all of your giving is from the heart and not to make an impression.” He was really living his belief in his working life and in his philanthropic life. Whatever he did, he did with love, compassion and understanding. 2. An almost constant thread was about reaching people while they are young, teaching them to love and care for the planet and to educate, educate, educate. 3. Finding the very best minds that you can for collaboration. He believed in collaborating for solutions. 4. Peter wanted Grand Rapids to be the best mid-sized city in the world and Aquinas to be the best small liberal arts college in the world and so on. He wanted the best.

Q: When you get up close and personal with the Wege Foundation, it becomes very clear that Mr. Wege invested in people as much, or even more, than projects or passions. You could see at the events that he hosted that he had deep relationships with people who were doing good work. What types of people captured his attention and why?

Ellen: When I thought about that, he always looked for people who were entrepreneurial, holistic, innovators embracing of new technologies… good thinkers. But most importantly, he liked good listeners. Peter was attracted to quiet leaders, people who worked tirelessly on the ground getting work done incrementally. He really had a skill for finding good leaders. I think of his relationship with Dan Jansen working in Costa Rica… Peter loved that Dan was on the ground in Costa Rica with a fire in his belly to make incremental gains over time. I think about Jonathan Bulkley at U of M who worked in waste water disposal issues for many years and became a key expert at U of M and on Great Lakes issues.”

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
 Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living
Q: It strikes me that you have those characteristics as well. You are a quiet leader and he invested in you.   

Ellen: Ellen blushes and looks for the best way to deflect attention away from herself. Ellen is a quiet leader – very much the person she describes above. 

Q: You were at Steelcase when you started working for the Foundation?

Ellen: Yes, I was in human resources at Steelcase. It started as a part-time thing. My kids were teenagers then. He was so flexible then, making sure I could get to a ball game, etc. By the time Steelcase went public and I needed to work full-time they were all out of the house… well, sort of… but that’s a whole other story… Peter was supportive and affirming every day.

Q: So when we talk about flexibility in the workplace, he was really an innovator and doing that for you early on. He allowed you to put your family first.

Ellen: Yes, it was great.

Q: As you close out your time at the foundation, at least in the CEO role, what makes you confident that the foundation had a positive impact?

Ellen: Well the very first one, Peter’s commitment to only fund LEED Certified buildings. His children, the foundation’s trustees, will be taking this commitment for healthy buildings forward. It changed the way we build in Grand Rapids and for some time we held the lead for the most square feet of green building in the country. This was an accelerator for LEED buildings nationally.
[Note: The US Green Building Council indicates that Grand Rapids no longer leads this statistic.  However, Michigan remains in the top four states with Green Buildings, largely because of the Wege Foundation’s influence.]

Second, Healing Our Waters (HOW) was huge; the focus it brought. Peter used to say, “Whose water is this? Whose responsibility is it to protect the lakes?” It’s ours, we need to protect it with strong policy.  He made sure Great Lakes protection was a nonpartisan issue. He used to say, “Drop your egos and pick up your ecos.”

Answering these questions helped to establish federal funding for Great Lakes Restoration and Cameron Davis’ position in the EPA as the Senior Advisor to the Administrator on the Great Lakes. HOW brought about new levels of cooperation between Great Lakes states, the US and Canada and across public, private and nonprofit sectors. It really was about his core belief that collaboration is critical. He was always searching out people who would come together and listen. Healing Our Waters came about through leaders – people and organizations who Peter identified had the capacity to lead the work and make it larger than any single group would have been able to do on its own. The coalition is strong enough now and stands on its own.

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.”
 Thomas Henry Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley - Volume 1
Q: What didn’t get done? What issue did Peter want to work on that didn’t get taken on? 

Ellen: Over-population. This is a water issue as well, because lack of fresh water kills more children worldwide than any other issue of global health issue. Peter really saw his water work as running on a parallel track with global population issues. He thought the key to addressing over population was to empower women. To me it is a mystery how to tackle even a little piece of this and get your arms around it. I’m so thankful for the Pope’s encyclical that has addressed some of this. From what I’ve read, the Pope’s message on Climate Change is about having compassion for people around the world who are affected by climate change. I think if he was a younger man, Peter would have tackled this… if he had been twenty years younger he would have… because he wasn’t afraid of big issues. But, he did think that he needed to pay attention to his own backyard first, and thus the focus on the Great Lakes as a resource for the people of the globe.

“Today we cannot fail to recognize that a truly ecological social approach should integrate justice in discussions about the environment by listening to the cry of the earth just as much as the cry of the poor.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si, Passage 49

Q: Peter was a very committed member of the Catholic Church. Did Catholic values conflict with global solutions to over-population?

Ellen: I don’t think so… he believed that by empowering women with education, resources and entrepreneurial opportunities to places to help women help themselves out of poverty was the path forward. He didn’t think of it through the negative lenses.
Q: You witnessed a lot of change in the environmental movement itself over your time at the foundation. What worked for the environmental movement during your tenure?

Ellen: Working across organizations and industries has gotten stronger. I think the cross-sector, cross-industry collaboration is the one thing that has made a big difference in the movement. When I think of the environmental movement maturing, I think it is visible in the new ways we do business – environmental protection principles are incorporated into the way we do business, rather than treating the principles as an outside practice. Certainly construction, engineering, packaging have all been heavily influenced by sustainable design for the environment practices.

Q: And the next big challenge for the environmental movement?

Ellen: It is about diversity. To work at bringing in different races into the movement. Working at listening and engaging all of the voices in the movement. I think this needs to be a bigger focus of the movement. Dr. Dorceta Taylor at the University of Michigan is doing great work on this. We made a grant to the Grand Rapids Urban League recently to be sure that people of color realize their opportunity to have access and input as the Grand River Rapids Restoration project. I think this is also where our investment in education comes in – our investment in Economicology. 

Q: You are moving onto the Wege Foundation’s Board of Trustees. What is exciting about this?

Ellen: There are eight of Mr. Wege’s grandchildren who have been quite active in the last year. They are curious because most of them weren’t raised here and didn’t see the projects he was working on first hand. Watching them engage is what is exciting to me, for instance, one is taking a role with the Environmental Grant Makers Association. Many of them are environmentalists in their own right and in their own communities. Peter’s ethic and legacy is present in their lives in authentic ways. I’m excited to watch them create their own pathways. They have committed that 80 percent of the Wege Foundation investments will remain in Kent County. When the environment and education come together, that is the sweet spot for us.

Q: Grand Rapids is changing rapidly; as you note, generational changes in leadership are underway.  What advice do you have to share as our community moves forward?

Ellen: Embrace the legacy, keep it simple, and get excited about making sure Grand Rapids is the best community of its size IN-THE-WORLD (as Peter would say). I remember sitting in a room with Mr. Wege 20 years ago with a group of leaders and they were worried that young people were leaving Grand Rapids and not coming back. So they raised the bar with the arts, the hospitals, LEED certification… and somehow it has worked. Young people are excited about Grand Rapids again… and that is a result of intentional philanthropic leadership. The breweries have helped too…clean water is the key to that!”

“Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy”
Isaac Newton

Rachel Hood is the Executive Director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. She lives on the Grand River in Grand Rapids with her two girls and husband.
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