Nonprofit Spotlight: Sustain Dane

Posted by Samantha Haas on Thursday, April 27th, 2023 at 10:19am.

In honor of Earth Month, we’re highlighting a nonprofit that is making a big difference each day on a local level for the health of our planet. Sustain Dane’s mission is to inspire, connect, and support people to accelerate equity and sustainable actions for community wellbeing. Sustain Dane was founded in 1999 by a group of Madison residents and received nonprofit status in 2003. Its vision is a thriving and inclusive community with a sustainable environment and economy we are proud to pass on to future generations. 

Among the many programs that the organization offers, the Sustain Dane Summit is not to be missed. Mark your calendars for November 3rd at Monona Terrace for a full day of workshops, speakers, panels, awards, networking, and Dane County climate goals and progress updates.

Save the date and register for the following events

  • 5-6:30 p.m. June 7th: Dane County All Around Networking, The Loft at 132, 132 Market St, Sun Prairie
  • 6:30-8 p.m. July 12th and July 19th: Master Recycler sessions, Online
  • 8:30 a.m. July 25th and September 19th: Sustainable Breakfast Series, The Spark Building, 821 East Washington Ave, Starting Block Cafe (3rd floor), Madison
  • November 3rd: Sustain Dane Summit, Monona Terrace, 1 John Nolen Dr, Madison

Engaging with sustainability

We spoke with Claire Schaefer Oleksiak, executive director, and Sandy Xiong, board vice president, to learn more about Sustain Dane and how you and your organization can get involved in their eco-conscious activities and network.

Claire had previously led nonprofits in the Washington, D.C. area and returned to her hometown of Madison to serve as the Community Services Manager for the parks department. There she saw the social and emotional benefits of connecting children to nature and spending time outdoors, prompting Claire to deepen her commitment to sustainability, attend the Summit, and eventually lead Sustain Dane. 

The Summit was also Sandy’s introduction to Sustain Dane. Sandy, who is now the Chief of Staff to the City Administrator of Sun Prairie, attended the Summit in 2019. There she met Claire and outgoing director Jessie Lerner at a time when the city was exploring who they could learn from to address sustainability efforts in their strategic plan. 

“There are many different ways that people engage with sustainability. The journey is different for every business and individual,” Claire said. “We take the approach of education to lead to understanding, prioritizing, and taking action.”

For some, this might mean making larger investments to install solar panels or switch to electric vehicles. For others, this might mean starting their path to sustainability by becoming a Master Recycler or Water Steward, conducting waste and energy audits at home or work, or dropping off food scraps at the farmers market collection sites. Other ways to get involved include attending Accelerate Sustainability Workshops (where people can hear case studies, learn about business incentives, and connect with other individuals and organizations to work on sustainability initiatives), the Sustainable Breakfast Series (that highlights current sustainability topics), and Lunchtime Networking (to discuss successes and challenges with fellow members). And if you’re looking for inspiration, check out the ideas listed on the Climate Action page in categories like food, investments, energy, and transportation, or submit your own! 

“The framework of Sustain Dane is really professional development and systems thinking so that individuals understand the intersections of sustainability and how it’s good for business and for our community's overall well-being,” Claire said. Attending quarterly breakfast meetings or workshops with specific research topics, like forever chemicals discussed in the PFAS Community Impact and Management workshop, for example, are also ways for different municipalities to connect about what they’re working on.

Sustainability Case Study

The City of Sun Prairie’s sustainability journey serves as a great case study for how straightforward and cost effective it can be for an organization (or individual) to enact small changes that have a big impact, such as installing new lights and planting rain/pollinator gardens.

“We wanted to start with some low-hanging fruit, so we pursued grant opportunities to identify how our city facilities could advance some energy efficiency efforts,” Sandy said. “We recently converted over 500 lightbulbs at the library with LED T8 tubes. The existing lights were beginning to fail, were installed at different times, and of different color temperatures, resulting in light quality and energy consumption challenges. We received a Focus on Energy incentive and spent about $1,500 on the project. We’ve already seen decreases in energy usage with an anticipated payback period of 14 months. When looking at new facilities, we’re weighing options such as LEED Certified and Net Zero Energy and utilizing Life Cycle Analysis principles by comparing the upfront costs to the total cost of ownership with a focus on longterm savings and return on investment.”

This example is just a glimpse of what the City of Sun Prairie is working on. As Claire and Sandy both acknowledge, getting buy-in from leadership and finding team members from various departments that want to be involved with sustainability initiatives is paramount to making lasting change. 

“The first step is that leadership recognize how important this is for their business in terms of employee retention, attraction, and competition,” Claire said. “There might be challenges today, but if you don’t do them now you’ll have bigger challenges 5, 10, or 15 years from now.” 

Sandy is encouraged to see employees engaging with the city’s new rain/pollinator garden at City Hall, too. “The incoming workforce is really interested in what an organization’s values are and how they align with their personal values. They want to feel good about what they do,” she said. “So if you want to become an employer of choice and sustainability is a focus, it’s important to market that to attract high quality candidates.” 

Sustain Dane hopes that case studies like these will inspire other businesses, organizations, and individuals to give a project of their own a try – especially knowing there’s a community of members to support them along the way.  

To learn more about Sustain Dane, attend a program or visit their website ( where you can also sign up for their e-newsletter, get ideas and inspiration from their climate action page, become a member, or make a donation. Do you have a sustainability story? Share it here!

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