Donor Profile: Sarah Johnson - Center for Climate and Life

Donor Profile: Sarah Johnson - Center for Climate and Life

Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson’s environmental advocacy began more than three decades ago when she lobbied for clean air and water in Washington D.C. with the Garden Club of America.

Today, Johnson’s commitment to the environment includes furthering understanding of climate change by being a philanthropic partner of the Center for Climate and Life. This research initiative, based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, supports innovative, solutions-focused climate science.

A New Vision for Supporting Urgent Research

It was Johnson’s generosity that helped establish the Center for Climate and Life in 2011. She was the Center’s first major donor, grasping the importance of its mission from the beginning, even before the climate crisis had become a part of the collective conscience. She has since used her background in finance and business, and passion for activism to drive its growth and advance its impact.

“Sarah helped us to develop a new vision for supporting urgent scientific research, and laid the groundwork for the Center with a foundational gift that has inspired many other donors,” said Peter de Menocal, the Center’s director. “Frankly, she affirmed our belief this new model would work.”

Johnson is committed to making the world a better place; she’s also an activist for education and gender equity issues. Her interest in the Center for Climate and Life stems from her belief that the pioneering climate research advanced by Center scientists is key to understanding our planet and accelerating climate solutions.

“I think we’re facing huge natural and manmade crises,” Johnson said. “We need to be prepared for the worst because the warnings are more and more dire each year. The Center for Climate and Life, with Columbia University behind it, has the world’s top scientists. They’re out all over the planet studying what’s going on in real time.”

Born in New Jersey, Johnson moved to San Francisco in her early teens. Her father established Franklin Templeton Investments and her mother was a psychiatrist. She attended St. Lawrence University in upstate New York and studied biology with the goal of being a marine biologist. After graduating in 1982, Johnson worked as a Portfolio Manager for the Franklin Income Fund, married and started a family, and established a children’s clothing business.

In 2002, Johnson and her parents donated $10 million to St. Lawrence University—the largest gift it had received—for a new science complex; the Johnson Hall of Science, the first Gold-certified LEED building in New York State, opened in 2007. Johnson then began to increase her environmental and social activism by backing and producing notable documentary films such as No Impact Man, Chasing Ice, and The Great Hack.

Johnson also produced feature films such as the Academy Award-winning Birdman, and works to provide more opportunities for women in the film industry.

Furthering Climate Solutions

Johnson and de Menocal first met as undergraduates at St. Lawrence University. They reconnected in 2009 when Johnson was on the Board of Trustees at St. Lawrence (she now chairs its capital campaign) and de Menocal returned to campus to receive an honorary doctorate. After learning about her interest in the environment, de Menocal asked Johnson to join the Lamont advisory board, which she has chaired since 2013.

When Johnson first joined the board in 2009, Lamont had historically received most of its funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and U.S. military agencies. Yet the federal funding landscape was changing dramatically and diversifying Lamont’s research funding portfolio had become a priority. 

Johnson confronted these issues over five years and helped Lamont develop a financial strategy. She met with Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, to emphasize Lamont’s value to the scientific community, the university as a whole, and the timeliness of expanding and enhancing climate research. Her leadership resulted in Columbia recognizing and championing the value of Lamont, and also committing resources to help launch the Center for Climate and Life.

In addition to her philanthropy and board work, Johnson hosts events and develops other outreach opportunities that introduce the Center to new audiences. These increase awareness of its scientists’ research and inspire others to support it. And her efforts have been extremely successful: The Center for Climate and Life has raised almost $15 million in private and foundation giving since Johnson made her first gift.

Johnson believes philanthropy can further climate solutions and encourages others to become involved with the Center, in part, because “our government is not interested in investing in climate science right now, so the support has to come from the private sector.”

Johnson is both moved and motivated by her experiences engaging with researchers at the Center and Lamont.

“These scientists are so passionate about what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re doing this research for the love of the Earth and not for fame or fortune.”

— Renee Cho is a freelance writer who also contributes to the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet