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Talking sustainability, community, and leadership with Sara Espinoza, new President and CEO of NEEF

Sara Espinoza, NEEF CEO

Being a CEO takes grit, no doubt about it. Especially when you’re a woman. As a passionate advocate for gender equality, I am always pleased to see women step up and take the reins. When Sara Espinoza was recently named President and CEO of the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), I was eager to interview her. Below is our conversation.

Disclosure: This sponsored interview celebrates women’s achievements in leadership, citing Sara Espinoza at NEEF as a prime example.

Interview with new CEO and President Sara Espinoza

To begin the interview, I congratulated Sara on her new role at NEEF. The environmental education nonprofit is well-known for its leadership in promoting lifelong environmental learning. Sara brings over two decades of nonprofit experience, including her former role as NEEF Vice President of Programs. Her words about her career path and continuing NEEF’s vision to make the environment more accessible and relevant are inspiring. Here is the full interview:

Congrats on your new role at NEEF! Have you always been passionate about the environment?

Thank you! I’m looking forward to this next chapter at NEEF.

I’ve always felt connected to the environment. I grew up in a beautiful place, Colorado Springs, with a family that prioritized time outside. I spent many days exploring the nature in our neighborhood, my family did a lot of camping, and we drove all over the country visiting National Parks and other public lands.

While I know I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time (one can only spend so much time in the car with their little brother!), I now know that I was incredibly fortunate and privileged to have those experiences. My childhood undoubtedly influenced my path to NEEF – although it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized there were career opportunities for me in this space.

That’s a wonderful look back. You mentioned career opportunities. What has your career path looked like up to now?

I started my career working on youth environmental education at The Jane Goodall Institute and World Wildlife Fund and then joined NEEF a little over 18 years ago. At the time, NEEF was standing up a program that provided training and resources to broadcast meteorologists to support them in communicating about the relationship between weather and the environment.

We were one of the first organizations to recognize the role broadcast meteorologists could play in educating the public about environmental issues. It was my job to build out the program, which ultimately reached hundreds of meteorologists around the country and led to a coalition of other organizations working in the space.

From there, I transitioned into a research and innovation role focusing on piloting and sharing promising strategies for lifelong environmental learning and strengthening NEEF’s ability to measure and communicate our impact. Some of my favorite projects were working with the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) to build out broad public engagement campaigns that used the power of sports to motivate people to act on environmental issues.

My latest role at NEEF before being appointed as CEO was Vice President of Programs, where I got to broaden my focus to oversee NEEF’s programmatic work in the areas of health, conservation, and K-12 education. It has been incredibly rewarding to work with the programs team to design, execute, and evaluate initiatives across these focus areas, including employee engagement campaigns, grant programs, and our signature annual event, National Public Lands Day.

All these experiences give me a unique perspective as CEO—deep knowledge of our history, what has and hasn’t worked, and how we got to where we are today.

Quote on NEEF's mission
Sara Espinoza on the mission of NEEF

Interview with Sara Espinoza cont’d.

NEEF is doing such great work! What is the nonprofit’s overarching mission?

NEEF’s mission is to make the environment more accessible, relatable, relevant, and connected to the daily lives of all Americans. We create opportunities for people to experience the environment in ways that improve their lives and the health of the planet.

One of the things that differentiates NEEF from other environmental organizations is that we lead with people. We view people as agents of positive change and center our work on practical, science-based strategies and messaging that appeal to a broad and diverse audience.

What have you learned from collaborations on behalf of NEEF, such as with the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League?

There are two big takeaways from these collaborations. First, sports leagues and athletes are incredibly powerful voices when it comes to environmental and social change—they can model positive sustainability behaviors through their own commitments and actions and, in turn, motivate millions of fans to act.

The NBA Green Energy All Stars campaign used the voices and images of NBA and WNBA Legends to deliver energy-saving tips to fans, and our work with NHL focuses on motivating youth to take actions in their communities to improve their health and the environment.

Second, people want simple actions they can take in their daily lives, and they want to understand the collective impact of those actions. With the big environmental issues we’re facing, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. Reminding people that small actions add up when we do them together, such as walking or biking, to when possible or choosing products with less packaging, show that we all have a role to play in improving our lives and the environment.

I love that: “Small actions add up.” Yes! I’ve been meaning to ask, can you share a bit about the moment receiving the news that you would be President and CEO?

I received the news right after our May board meeting. I was feeling energized by great discussion with our board members, and incredibly proud of the NEEF staff for their work to advance NEEF’s mission, especially during a time of leadership transition. It was a great way to end the day, and I felt ready and supported in taking that next step!

What do you most look forward to doing in this new role? Where do you envision NEEF in 5 years?

Over the past four years, we have refined our mission and vision and streamlined our programs, expanding promising program strategies while letting go of others that no longer serve NEEF. We have also strengthened our impact measurement, allowing us to better tell NEEF’s story.

All of this work has built a foundation for growth. I am looking forward to finalizing NEEF’s new strategic plan, which we are in the process of developing right now and will guide us over the next five years. I can’t reveal too much yet, but I can say that we will continue to deliver on our national mandate to cultivate an environmentally conscious and responsible public while increasing our investment at the community level and focusing our work on those most impacted by climate change and other environmental issues.

Women in the workplace quote
Great quote on women in the workplace from Sara Espinoza, CEO and President of NEEF.

Interview with Sara Espinoza cont’d.

To a woman who wants to become a CEO, what do you suggest to help her achieve this goal?

Find a mentor: I have been fortunate to have women mentors throughout my career who helped me to build skills and take appropriate risks, and advocated for me in the workplace. Finding a trusted and honest mentor, someone who can give both praise and constructive feedback is an incredible support in achieving professional and personal goals.

Take on “stretch” projects and roles: Every time I’ve advanced to a new position, it has felt like a stretch and a challenge, simultaneously exciting and a little scary. Being willing to do things that push us out of our comfort zones not only builds new skills but also demonstrates leadership capacity to others.

Women, in particular, tend to wait until they can check every box to pursue a new position or opportunity. That holds us back in the workplace—rather than striving for perfection, we can shift our focus to what we bring and how we will grow in a role.

Think beyond your current reality: I feel strongly that one of the reasons I’ve advanced in my career is that I’ve always been willing to work on projects and learn skills in areas that went beyond the role I was in at the time. I’ve gained confidence in fundraising, financial management, board engagement, etc., because I showed an interest in learning these areas of the organization even when they weren’t “my job.”

Great advice! Why is it important to have more women in executive roles?

I’ve read a lot about this topic, and there is research showing that women leaders can increase collaboration, fairness, and feelings of purpose in the workplace. And despite some stereotypes of women being “weaker” leaders, we are bold thinkers and strategic decision-makers.

I also think it’s important for women to see other women in leadership roles. Having women role models and seeing how they lead empowers other women to see themselves in similar roles.

One last question! What does sustainability mean to you, Sara Espinoza?

People often zero in on the environmental aspects of sustainability, but it’s so much more than that. Sustainability, to me, is about community. It is ensuring that we have a healthy environment and also have the social and economic systems in place that ensure that everyone benefits from that healthy environment fairly and equitably.

Sustainability is about all of us – individuals, communities, organizations and companies – making decisions and taking actions that improve our own lives and the lives of others.

Wishing you all the best in your new position as President and CEO of NEEF, Sara Espinoza! Thank you for taking the time here.

Find out more about NEEF

Connect with the nonprofit on the National Environmental Education Foundation website. Learn more about what they do, services, how to support them, and more.

The organization is also on social media. Follow NEEF on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date on how they are bettering the planet’s health.


Top photo: Meet Sara Espinoza. Photo courtesy of Sara.

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