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Episode 86: Take A Bold Path with Caeli Quinn of Climate Ride

"The bicycle is a powerful tool for change all over the world." This week we're joined by Caeli Quinn, co-founder and Executive Director at Climate Ride. Caeli talks about why charitable rides work, how Climate Ride pairs adventure with philanthropy, and how climate justice and racial justice go hand in hand.

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Hey, Iris.

Iris: Hey Lisa.

Lisa: And hey, all our listeners. Welcome to Outside by Design.

Iris: Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome.

Lisa: This is a weird situation because we are back in the WHEELIE office, but I'm sitting in my office. And what are you doing?

Iris: Well, I'm not allowed to come record with you. So I'm sitting in the conference room.

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah. Social distancing. Well, anyway, life is crazy.

Iris: Sure is.

Lisa: And it's an interesting time to be an agency. And it's an interesting time to be speaking on behalf of brands. And it's an interesting time just to be a human being.

Iris: For sure.

Lisa: But I feel really hopeful about change and about America in general. And that comes up a little bit in this podcast and I just, I really like this episode.

Iris: Yeah. I like this episode too. Who do we have today?

Lisa: Today we have Caeli Quinn, the founder and executive director of Climate Ride. And Caeli Quinn... I really like as a person because she just crushes on a mountain bike. I can never, ever beat her Strava times. She's a mom and she's like, so globally thoughtful and like one of those human beings, that's just so scary smart. And... I don't know. I feel really hopeful about America as well that there are organizations like Climate Ride with leadership from people like Caeli Quinn.


Lisa: For those of you that don't know, Climate Ride is a really impactful organization. And the coolest thing about it is that it helps mobilize people to protect the planet. And so it ties in biking and hiking and running and merging that athletic endeavor with fundraising to support environmental passion, love of physical activity, and then philanthropy. And so, basically athletes - or human beings, just like you and I - can fundraise and go on giant rides and accomplish something big while raising money for a cause that we care about. So it's big and really, really well thought out.

Iris: Yeah. Yeah. Caeli talks about why charitable rides are so successful, why they can succeed, how she ties together, adventures and philanthropy and the group experience of cycling along with like, alone time and self-reflection. And she also talks about what they've been doing during COVID-19, switching over to virtual events, and how climate justice relates to racial justice. So there's a lot in this episode.

Lisa: There's a ton in this episode and Climate Ride has always been super supportive of sustainability, active transportation, and environmental causes. And I love that Kaylee is not scared to now tackle social justice as a direct link to environmental justice. So... I don't know, I'm really, really excited to follow Climate Ride in the next year.

Iris: Yeah.

Lisa: Let's... let's kick it over to Caeli and listen to what she has to say. She's... she's a big thinker.

Iris: Let's do it.

Lisa: All right, Caeli. Welcome so much to our podcast today.

Caeli: Thanks for having me, Lisa. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Lisa: Yeah. And the first question we ask everyone is where are you and what are you looking at?

Caeli: I am in Whitefish, Montana, and it has been raining for several days. And so our Aspen trees are just in full bloom and it's incredibly beautiful, even though it's gray and stormy.

Lisa: Did you get a ride in this morning?

Caeli: Not this morning, little too wet. And I'm preparing to leave for one of our Climate Ride events in Bears Ears National Monument. So I'm getting ready for that.

Lisa: Oh, cool. When... when is that event?

Caeli: It begins this Thursday and it is a four day backcountry gravel ride in the national monument. With a group of people who are very dedicated to supporting nonprofits in the environment and active transportation, as well as organizations supporting the fight for Bears Ears.

Lisa: So for our listeners, do you want to get into what Climate Ride is and how, um, how people can get involved with it?

Caeli: Oh, certainly. So Climate Ride is a Montana-based nonprofit organization and we started in 2008. I'm the co-founder and executive director of Climate Ride. And the vision behind Climate Ride was that I was a long time hiking and cycling guide, working all over the world in active travel. And I moved to Montana after a stint working in China and parts of Southeast Asia. And I was really turned on to understanding the environment, it was sort of my awakening to environmental issues over those years of traveling. And I moved to Montana just as scientists were beginning to discuss climate change as a serious impact on the ecosystem here.

And I wanted to figure out how to take my skill base as an outdoor professional and translate that into philanthropy for the environment and active transportation. So Climate Ride was born. It started with a bicycle ride from New York city to Washington DC. We had a hundred people sign up within six months of starting a website and getting donation software. And then we had everyone meet with their members of Congress once we arrived in DC in 2008.

So the idea behind it was really that so many people engage in charitable events for a variety of causes, particularly health and disease related causes, you know, like cancer and HIV/AIDS and MS, and type one diabetes, but nothing like that existed to support the environment and active transportation advocacy. And we were the first people to do that.

Lisa: That's amazing. So, how did you go from having an idea to actually having actionable... like, an actionable organization that people could sign up for?

Caeli: So those steps in the beginning... I feel like any time you start something, there's a great deal of learning. And so many resources are available to do that. This was 2008 though. And I mean, this was before really everyone had smartphones even. I looked around for mentors and people who had some experience in this industry. The idea of charitable rides has been around for 40 years or so in the United States. They are... have been incredibly successful for three main reasons: they galvanize an audience to stay engaged. They constantly raise the profile of a cause. And they raise funds for organizations.

And when I really thought about it and learned more about American philanthropy, when I learned that less than 3% of charitable giving in the United States goes to support the environment - and that includes all animal welfare, like zoos, uh, animal rights organizations, things like that - less than 3% of the money that Americans give to charity supports the environment, even though the environment is truly an area that affects all aspects of our lives. I was really moved by that and I saw an opportunity to use adventure and to use sport and to use charitable events to raise awareness of that cause.

Lisa: And then how did you... like, you kind of summarized it, like “yeah, and a hundred people signed up.” How did you get 100 people to sign up for something new?

Caeli: In 2008? We... we made a website. We reached out to every single person we knew. I mean, there wasn't really social media then. We didn't have these other avenues of reaching people.

I mean, we were astounded that a hundred people signed up in 2008. And everyone raised $2,400 to go on this five day bike ride from New York to DC. And we worked with three nonprofit organizations to whom we donated all the proceeds of the event and we encouraged them to reach out there to their supporters.

And it was really through our network in the active travel industry and our website, which was designed here in Whitefish that we were able to reach these people. And what's really fascinating is how much it's grown over the years. And now with other tools and opportunities to reach people, I really think we're at a beginning of incredible growth, especially considering how people are much more comfortable now raising money for issues like climate conservation and bike advocacy.

Lisa: That is a good lead-in to one of the questions that I'm excited to ask you about, which is how does philanthropy force people to examine their relationship to themselves and their relationship to money?

Caeli: That is a really interesting question. One thing I noticed working in active travel... for-profit active travel, you know, incredible people, right. Engaged in seeing the world and enjoying the people they're traveling with. When we started creating these adventures with a philanthropic component, people... the act of fundraising and engaging in philanthropy is deeply tied with sharing the fact that you're doing that. That you're taking that big step. You know, for many people advocating for climate from 2008 on when it became a politicized issue - you know, it wasn't politicized before that - it was a significant amount of bravery to go out to you know, write emails to a hundred of your friends or post to Facebook you know, to everyone you know that you are taking on this big challenge to support organizations working on climate.

So when... what we've noticed on these events is that everyone comes to the event with this incredible sense of purpose and this purpose unites us and it brings people into... you know, definitely with attitudes of positivity and action and advocacy and, “what can I do next to further my connection to this cause?” And that's really what we try to... the atmosphere we try to create during the Climate Ride events.

I think when people recognize American philanthropy, and the billions of dollars that Americans give, there is space and there is money and there is opportunity to support nonprofits working in environment and active transportation. They tend to be smaller organizations. They tend to work more locally. You know, there aren't these enormous multibillion dollar NGOs focusing on these issues. So I think there's a real education around philanthropy and how it relates to the environment that we wish to protect. And we're seeing that people... they used to say to me, “I can't raise money for the environment. How do you do that?” You know, it's not, it's not like raising money for other causes, you know, where everyone feels they've been touched by cancer, for example. But when you're talking about the environment, we've given people the tools to recognize that we're all touched by these issues. And I think it's going to become a much larger section of American philanthropy in the years to come.

Lisa: It's also really interesting that you're using the bicycle as a catalyst for change.

Caeli: Yes. When, when we started, we, we asked that question, why are there no bike rides to benefit bicycling? And, you know, active transportation advocacy… which a fair amount of our grants go to support.

You know, these are very small organizations working on a local basis. And the impact they have on urban environments to provide opportunities for people to commute to work or do their daily chores by bicycle or walking are incredibly important to mitigating pollution issues and climate impacts in our urban areas.

So, uh, I think the bicycle is a powerful tool for change all over the world. And when you look at the people who have done our rides - we now have about 4,000 alumni across the United States and the world. And we've been able to grant more than six point $1 million to organizations, um, that embody the values and the future that we'd like to see.

So using that bicycle as a tool for change. I mean, many people... I often say, you know, if you can come on a Climate Ride with our support and our help and you can ride 300 miles, there is a great chance that you will feel more comfortable riding two miles to your grocery store. And so it really changes people's thinking in terms of what their capabilities are. And so I'm very proud of having a part in raising funds for bicycle advocacy and getting more people out on bikes.

Lisa: Yeah. Another thing I find super interesting is that as a cyclist myself, like, I love that time alone on a bike and like that introspective, I dunno... just all the things you think about while you're riding your bike. But you've also built this whole entire community around kind of like this experience that you have alone, but you also have this togetherness of, of having like supported rides. And so like, how did you sort of reconcile those two worlds to... to build something cohesive that people could understand and sign up for?

Caeli: Oh yeah. You know, bike touring... I did a lot of bike touring on my own. I've done a lot of bike touring in groups. And on a Climate Ride event, there's multiple things going on. There's that sense of adventure, that sense of breaking out of your every day living, to join a group of strangers and do a five day bike ride down a coast where sometimes you are going to be alone. Alone with your bike, even though it's a fully supported ride. But that sense of freedom, that sense of adventure, and that sense of a challenge. There is, as you mentioned, the group aspect... and often when you're an advocate for the environment, it can feel lonely. You know, a lot of us are in our echo chambers and social media, or you're in places where you just don't know people who are interested in these issues, or maybe you don't really know that much yourself, but you'd like to dive in. And so on Climate Ride events, it brings together a really engaging adventurous group of people who are interested in learning from one another.

So aspects that we've created on the rides are things like evening speaker series, where we'll invite experts on a variety of topics to come and talk to the group. So after, you know, an amazing day of accomplishing, for many people, what's the longest ride in their lives. It could be 30 miles, it could be 60 miles. It could be a 100-mile century day… this opportunity to gather, um, and laugh and learn, um, and be inspired is really terrific as well. We also invite our beneficiary organizations, so on a Climate Ride event on most events, you're presented with the opportunity to choose from more than 100 organizations that you can support. And so people support a variety of groups, and that brings a lot of energy. Especially that idea that we're sort of a big umbrella for this vast environmental and conservation network. And we'll invite leaders of these beneficiary organizations, these nonprofits to come and give three minute rapid fire, kind of, elevator pitches about why their organizations are so important. And from those, those sort of touching moments, our riders become more connected to groups they really didn't know anything about. So, you know, I think by creating this holistic experience that touches, you know, your mind as well as the physical aspect, which motivates your body and your soul, we create this... we bridge those two worlds between the… sometimes the souloness of cycling in the adventure of a group tour.

Lisa: I love that. It seems so well thought out. I'm sure through experience and, you know, putting on tons of events. Yeah, that just seems so well done. So how can brands - a lot of our audience consists of marketing managers and brand managers - how can brands engage in this level of thinking?

Caeli: Well, you know, it's been so interesting over the years... and we're talking about brands in general, engaging with environment and climate. You know, these are sometimes issues which can be at odds with what brands represent. And this is something we've struggled with over the years, in terms of who do we align with, you know, is there... does sponsorship really exist when so many brands are approached by such a variety of organizations in so many things?

And I think when I… when I work with brands, I'm really impressed by brands being more brave, you know? And... and that authenticity behind their bravery. You know, like, right now, what we're seeing - and something I've really been looking closely at - with the black lives matter protests and the responses from brands right now, you know, there's some really deep questions about some of the large corporate brands and how they're presenting themselves, but then how they act behind the scenes in terms of funding politicians who are... get an F rating from the NAACP in terms of how they approach racism in this country and systemic racism. So I think like nonprofits, companies and brands really need to examine their values.

And I think now more than ever is the time to take a bold path. You know, if it's on climate, if it's on systemic racism - which, these things are linked, climate justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. So I look forward to this deep examination that's happening right now, because I think it's a completely different time than it was a few weeks ago.

Lisa: Yeah. That's, that's an awesome outlook.

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Lisa: So our level three at WHEELIE, and we're always referring to these levels. You can check them out on, but level three is level up your community.

Iris: Sure is.

Lisa: Right. First you have to level up yourself and then you can level up your brand and then you can level up your community. And Climate Ride is an organization that definitely levels up its community and the community of all the causes that it supports. And I really appreciate Caeli’s ability to link a brand in with caring about something and standing for something, because we fully adamantly agree that if you don't stand for anything, then you stand for nothing. And now is a beautiful time for brands to take a stance and really, really, really throw down to support causes that they care about.

Iris: Yeah. I feel like for years now in this industry, we've been talking about how more and more consumers care about where a brand stands on social issues and that, like, not only should they take a stand on things, but actually do the work internally. And we're seeing that so strongly right now with Black Lives Matter. With companies making statements but then not actually doing the work to change anything internally, getting called out for that. Or companies staying silent and getting called out for that. And people want to know that where their dollars are going, are, are going towards the causes that they care about.

Lisa: Yeah. Super rad.

Iris: Well, let's get back to Caeli.

Lisa: What, uh, what are you at Climate Ride doing to kind of deep dive into that or sit with it or change and adapt.

Caeli: Right now we are amplifying the voices of our beneficiary partners, whose missions have always focused on racial justice and climate justice. And I think our position right now is let's think about what the needs are and how we can be there to support it. And as well, I mean every organization's, you know, systems change is huge. And I'm not sure what the next steps are going to be, but I'm hoping for guidance from these organizations and social justice groups who have shown leadership on this for years now.

Lisa: I agree with you that it's a good time for brands to step up and make changes and amplify voices. And I think… I think it's an exciting time and I think our audience is largely involved in branding and marketing. So, everybody's thinking really deeply right now. And I, I'm kind of enjoying the national existential... I don’t know, existential thoughts that are going around collectively.

Caeli: It's a... I mean this year for... for any company or nonprofit, you know, dealing with something like COVID, which has such a... you know, we just ran our first virtual event in April because so many nonprofits in our network could very well cease to exist by the end of the year.

And so we saw a really important need to motivate our network of what I call, you know, sort of citizens or everyday philanthropists, you know. You'd be surprised, you know, with the power of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people giving, you know, 5, 10, $20, what sort of impact that can have. And could we motivate our audience, in that time, when so many of us were quarantined and sheltered in place to really dive into our own creativity and help support these nonprofits. And it was, it was astounding. We had 310 people sign up, raised $62,000 in one day. I mean, people had dance parties, they baked, they played piano, ukulele. You know, did art projects, did cleanups, did runs alone. You know, it was really a moment of great action and positivity. And so, you know, for us as a nonprofit company, we saw an opportunity to ignite our audience, to make a change for that. And we're doing it again in July. And we're really thinking deeply about supporting those organizations that are working on climate justice at this time.

Lisa: This is fascinating. Wait, so how did, how did this look? You had 300 people sign up and they raised money on their own?

Caeli: They did. Yes. So we created our first virtual event and we used a combination of our website, social media, and then we had a Zoom call that, you know, we had something like 125 people show up for that and did a big kickoff event. And then everyone that day did these unbelievable creative events and sent us photos and videos. And we compiled all of that into a photo book. But you know, primarily we'd worked on cycling, hiking, and running charitable adventures. So to shift that within, you know, basically an 11 day period into something entirely different… yeah. It was a really powerful event for our, our, our supporters and for our staff and everyone connected. I mean, my mother started a book club where they read books about the environment. And she's not someone who would have come on one of our bike rides. So it was, for me it was... it was an opportunity to see our... you know, just that there's so many different ways to be an adventurous advocate. Beyond just the physical.

Lisa: I find this really interesting because a lot of experiential brands are having to modify their offerings and the way that they raise money because of COVID. And at first, everyone sort of was slapping a bandaid on it, like, “Oh, well we'll just put this exact event online.” And it wouldn't really work. I equated it…. I'm a vegetarian, to when people are like, “well, we'll just pull the meat out of this meal and it'll be fine.” And then you're like, but there's no protein! You know, where it seems like you've mindfully built an event specific... like it wasn't, it was not a bandaid for anything else. You've mindfully built a digital event that still supports your causes, but also honors the unique experience of being a virtual event.

Caeli: I... yeah, I think we did. And we really looked at that event and we've built upon that for our next one in July. And I really look forward to seeing the outcome of that. And you know, another thing we did was we made it so that fundraising was optional. And so that idea, you know, who runs a fundraising event where the fundraising is optional? Like, did I ever think I would do that? And that was powerful too, because it made it inclusive and it made people learn more about our organization, you know, get to... to be with us in this virtual event before having to take a step into doing a five or six or seven day event with us.

So I have to applaud our team at Climate Ride for the brainstorming and creativity that went into it. And all of our supporters and participants who helped raise the profile. So I'm looking forward to seeing the next one. We've created some... a bunch of categories that you can participate in, to jumpstart creative thinking. So we'll see how it goes.

Lisa: And that's in July.

Caeli: That's in July, July 11th.

Lisa: Cool. Cool. And obviously COVID has affected the events. So... and you have the four day backcountry trip to Bears Ears. How, how is that changing or is this the first event that you're doing after COVID?

Caeli: It is, we did have to cancel... we did an event actually in February, before… before we all recognized what was going on with COVID. And so, in a way, we were fortunate to have one event occur this year, but we did have to cancel our largest event, which is our California ride, which was supposed to be in May in California. And usually there's about 120-150 people on that event. And it's a very strong fundraiser for our grants program.

So given that, you know what we've done is, you know, like you're talking about brands and what they create, you know, what we do are these immersive multi-day events that really connect you to the cause, to the environment, and to fellow advocates. So now we're following obviously whatever state regulations are in place and what the CDC recommends, we've shifted to smaller and wilder and wide open spaces. So our events have a very strong COVID protocols in place, which can be seen at our website. And we are starting to roll out much smaller events on the scale of 10-15 people versus when we did ones with hundreds of people. So that's what our event future looks like in the short term.

And then we'll see in the late fall how we're doing as a nation to address COVID and what happens. But until then, we'll keep innovating on the virtual front, running these small events, and motivating our philanthropic base of citizens to support a variety of causes that are related to climate, the environment, conservation, active transportation, and systemic racial justice issues.

Lisa: Wow. One thing I really, really respect about you is you live in a small mountain town in Northwest Montana, but you're such a global, a national thinker. How do you do that? How do you stay so connected to the bigger vision even though we might live in a... in a small remote mountain town?

Caeli: In a way I think being in a small rural area causes me to think even more critically, particularly living in an area that's, you know… it's not like being in a more progressive urban atmosphere. I think it forces me to really think and examine what I'm doing and to be very critical of my thinking and that of our staff. You know, we've got people based in Missoula, two people in Missoula and I'm in Whitefish. And then we have, um, two staff members in California. So, I mean, when I started this, I was definitely in a... in a small rural town to be talking about climate was really out there, really out there. And so when I go on these rides, when I go on the Climate Rides or the hikes or the runs, and I meet people from all over the U S and the world, people from small towns, big cities, suburbia, and... I find the conversations and the thinking so energizing. And that, when I come home, it certainly sustains me. But then it also provides me with the energy to continue being an advocate in my own community.

And so it's been so wonderful to see the dialogue changing. But then I also so value being in a... I mean, I'm a person who... I crave the outdoors all the time. And so for me it's incredibly revitalizing to be home here in Montana. But deeply appreciative of being able to walk in a variety of worlds. Because they inform my thinking on both, both... wherever I am.

Lisa: That's so cool. And just shows in the organization, it's all the thought and all the, all the conscientious effort that you put into it. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think our audience of marketing and creative professionals would be interested in?

Caeli: Well, I know this is a very challenging time for all businesses. I mean, for a multitude of reasons of what's going on in our world. So, I mean, there's some days, you know, you wake up and you wonder, you know, what will my company be? You know, so many outdoor brands are small companies. I know that, you know, my husband owns a rafting company in Montana.

And everyday you just don't know what's going to be there for you, your staff, your supporters. And when there's hard days, I really... I really try and wake up and think, you know, how can I be as creative as possible as kind as possible? And then also thinking about my staff. And like our staff at Climate Ride and making sure that they're energized and sustained through this.

So a lot of companies have had to make very difficult decisions in the last six months. And... my heartbreaks for an industry that's already small and, you know, some are big, but it takes, it takes a lot of effort to run small companies and get them going as well as small nonprofits.

So right now, if we can be as supportive as possible of each other, and connect with your nonprofit communities if you're a for-profit brand, you see how you can be engaged, you know, and, call on other people, you know, for creative thinking. That's what I've done. I've reached out to so many people in the Climate Ride community to bounce ideas and, and talk about how they could see us move forward.

And I think we're all hopeful, you know, in terms of adventure and advocacy that particularly with COVID, you know, that we can begin to reengage as we have in the past starting next year. But that said, you know, I... I work on climate environmental issues. And these, you know, you mentioned existential, these are existential issues. And so I do hope that we can think about what's happened and move forward to permanently change business as usual.

Lisa: Mmm. Cool. Well, Caeli, thank you so much for being on our podcast today and where, where can people get involved? Where can they learn more?

Caeli: Definitely. It's been great to talk. It's such an interesting, it's such interesting questions you asked and I appreciate that. Our website is And, you know, please check out our virtual event, email us, ask questions, and you can learn a lot about our programs, our grants, the upcoming events that we're running and you know, stories of our participants and their efforts at our website. So I look forward to connecting with your audience, Lisa.

Lisa: Awesome. Cool. Thanks for being here. And, uh, yeah, I hope it stops raining and you can get out and ride some trails.

Caeli: [laughs] Yeah, that would be great. Alright. Thanks so much.

Iris: Thank you so much for being here, Caeli. We're so glad that you took the time to join us on the show. And to all our listeners out there, you can find Climate Ride's website in our show notes, as well as some extra resources on climate justice and racial justice.

And we would love for you to leave us a review if you haven't already. And you can see the rest of our episodes as well as show notes and links and transcripts at And if you have a recommendation for who you'd like to hear on the show, please send it our way on Instagram or email or through the website. We'd love to hear it.

Lisa: And as always, thanks for being here.

Iris: Thanks for being here. See ya.

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