Stories from the Field

50th Anniversary Sponsor Highlight: Klean Kanteen

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“I I was going to send you some photos from the last NatureBridge event I went to, but then I realized I don’t have any! When I’m there I’m either hiking or talking a million miles an hour with so many interesting people; I never pay attention to my phone.”

It’s easy to see how Caroleigh Pierce, Klean Kanteen’s nonprofit outreach manager, could lose track of her phone when presented with the opportunity to connect with people instead. Bubbly, self-effacing and a natural conversationalist, Caroleigh’s career makes perfect sense. She has been instrumental in the longterm partnership between NatureBridge and Klean Kanteen, the family and employee-owned company in Chico, California best known for their reusable, eco-friendly metal canteens, bottles, straws and food containers. 

yosemite national park entrance sign with woman in hat smiling

Founded in 2002, Klean Kanteen is 100% Climate Neutral certified, a member of 1% for the Planet and a B Corp, which means it “meets high standards of social and environmental transparency, accountability, and performance.”

“We’re small but mighty; very family-oriented. We’re all up in everyone’s business,” Caroleigh laughs.

A mother of four and former K-8 teacher with a degree in psychology, Caroleigh doesn’t fit the stereotype of a slick brand ambassador with an MBA and a fake smile. Instead, she brings authenticity and emotional IQ to her position, which she nurtured prior to being hired at Klean Kanteen in 2010. 

“[When I was hired], I had no skill set. I mean, we didn’t even have job descriptions for years! Culture and trust came before skill set for Klean Kanteen,” she says.

That ethos carries over into the way Klean Kanteen approaches its 30+ nonprofit partnerships, which includes Outdoor Afro, 5 Gyres and other equally “small but mighty” groups. In order to be considered for partnership, organizations must be performing significant work within one of Klean Kanteen’s four pillars: plastic pollution, safe consumer products, land and water conservation and outdoor stewardship. 

NatureBridge came across the company’s radar through our Armstrong Scholars, an annual program that seeks to inspire young women, trans-inclusive, to reach their highest potential and explore their personal connection to nature during a 12-day wilderness backpacking adventure in Yosemite's High Sierra.

The program is inspired by and named for Joie Armstrong, a former NatureBridge educator who lost her life in 1999. Two Klean Kanteen representatives happened to attend college with Joie at Chico State University and brought the program to the company’s attention. For the first several years, Klean Kanteen’s donations were specifically designated to fund the Armstrong Scholars. From there, the donations of both product and funds have become even more generous and broad.

“I like to say we’re the sand and the glue,” says Caroleigh. “We don’t have any restrictions on the funding we give to NatureBridge, we’re happy to have our funding keep the lights on one month or pay for an intern or wherever you need us. We practice trust-based philanthropy and have been for years; way before we knew what it was called.”

That no-strings-attached approach is not exactly common in the corporate world, but little is common about Klean Kanteen’s approach to their partnerships. Much of that comes directly from sibling co-owners Michelle Kalberer and Jeff Cresswell. 

“[Jeff and Michelle] wanted to make these partnerships because it was the right thing to do. Other companies have these marketing teams that make decisions about donations and partnerships, and that’s fine but we’ve always wanted to keep that separate... it’s just who we are, and we’ve been doing it all along.”

They also encourage these partnerships to go beyond a check in the mail (Caroleigh is so close with most of the development liaisons that she actually texts them when funds are on the way). It’s not just supporting a cause; it’s building community between two organizations. For instance, each year, Klean Kanteen pays for three of its employees to attend the Armstrong Scholars resupply, a raucous, playful hike into the High Sierras to give the participating young women food, water and other necessities for their remaining trek.

I had my shoes off, my bare feet on the ground while she was blessing the land. I felt so connected to the land, the space, the purpose. To know so many kids would come there and learn and was wonderful.
Caroleigh, Nonprofit Outreach Manager at Klean Kanteen

Caroleigh hasn’t attended a resupply -- she wants other employees to have the opportunity to experience their nonprofit partners and connect with them in the same way she does. She did, however, attend the grand opening of the National Environmental Science Center (NESC) in Yosemite, where she remembers a particularly stirring moment.

“An Indigenous tribal leader came and said a prayer while we were all outside in the middle of a meadow and I had...a big, emotional experience,” she laughs while tearing up. “I had my shoes off, my bare feet on the ground while she was blessing the land. I felt so connected to the land, the space, the purpose. To know so many kids would come there and learn and was wonderful.”

Caroleigh has moved to Meridian, Idaho to work remotely for Klean Kanteen, further from NatureBridge’s Golden Gate campus, which she has visited many times. She loves still being able to connect with people on video chats despite the distance and is enjoying her new city. Still, she is ready for in-person experiences.

“I’m ready for hugs, handshakes and hotel rooms again,” she says. “Though maybe more elbow bumps and hand sanitizer now.”

As far as Caroleigh’s relationship with NatureBridge, that isn’t changing anytime soon. She only decided to relocate to Idaho if she could remain with Klean Kanteen, and she can’t wait until she’s once again able to visit our campuses because of her work.

“I have the best job. I was probably an okay person before, but I’ve really grown so much from working at Klean Kanteen; NatureBridge is a big part of that, too,” she says. 

“In my experience as a funder of nonprofit organizations, it says a lot for an organization to have made it 50 years. We need NatureBridge. We need to continue to show the importance and the connection we have to nature. Not only for our health and development, but to develop the next generation of advocates to protect and preserve these spaces for everyone.”

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