How sustainability, philanthropy, and finance align: An interview with Debbie Clifford

Christine Stoner
Christine Stoner January 17, 2023 4 min read

Autodesk’s Chief Financial Officer, Debbie Clifford, is the board chair of the Autodesk Foundation. Increasingly, sustainability work requires alignment with financial priorities such as capital management, carbon accounting, impact measurement, and even product development.

Autodesk Foundation Executive Director Christine Stoner sat down with Debbie to learn more about her motivation, inspiration, and passion for her work.

Graphic lockup with headshots and titles of Debbie Clifford, Autodesk CFO and Foundation board chair, and Christine Stoner, Autodesk Foundation Executive Director.

You were at Autodesk for 13 years before you left briefly and returned as CFO in 2021. What brought you back to Autodesk, and what inspired you to take on the role of board chair of the Autodesk Foundation?

I love Autodesk; we have great products, great people, and strong growth prospects. But there’s more. I’m passionate about sustainability and the role I can play as CFO in driving our sustainability work forward. Autodesk is uniquely positioned for impact: our software can help address some of the most pressing issues, from measuring greenhouse gas emissions to improving health and resilience globally to supporting workers to adapt and thrive in an era of automation. Through the Autodesk Foundation, we direct Autodesk resources—including funding, technical training and support, as well as expertise—towards innovative solutions that are transforming the architecture, engineering, construction, and product design and manufacturing industries to be more sustainable, equitable, and resilient. It’s my passion across all these areas that brought me back to Autodesk and made me delighted to assume the role of chair of the Autodesk Foundation board.

How does your background in finance influence your approach to addressing climate change and inequality as board chair of the Autodesk Foundation?

As a CFO in my day job, it’s probably not surprising that I bring a data-oriented rigor to my approach as Foundation board chair. Of course, I track the Foundation’s finances closely, but I also want to ensure we employ a data orientation to our work to ensure that resources flow to the most impactful innovations. The team has done an excellent job applying this rigor through its impact measurement and management practice, which uses data to establish accountability, inform decision-making, and generate evidence of success.

As you look towards the year ahead and beyond, what does success look like for you as board chair?

The board plays an important oversight role; we approve and uphold policies and decisions, serve as a sounding board for management, and act as brand and cause ambassadors for the Autodesk Foundation. Furthermore, the board supports the Foundation’s team as they evaluate and make decisions about where to focus funding and resource allocation. Success to me is doing that well. In terms of oversight, a key ingredient to success is ensuring we’re funding a diverse portfolio that serves our mission to support innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges, and that this portfolio delivers measurable impact across the impact opportunity areas (Energy & Materials, Health & Resilience, and Work & Prosperity).

Our funding supports a wide range of nonprofits and startups, which I think is really cool. In the last board meeting, we received an in-depth overview of Coalfield Development from Founder and CEO Brandon Dennison. Coalfield is a social enterprise in the Work & Prosperity portfolio that focuses on rebuilding the Appalachian economy through sustainable project development, workforce training, and community revitalization, to name a few. Coalfield Development is one great example of the 50-plus organizations in the portfolio.

Your background in finance and passion for impact means you bring so much value to the board. How does the board chair role influence your day-to-day work at Autodesk?

I always have the Foundation in mind when performing my day job as CFO. At Autodesk, Inc., we are committed to funding the Foundation to ensure we can maintain the momentum needed to advance the Autodesk Foundation’s mission well into the future. A big factor for me is in ensuring accountability.

What aspect of the Foundation’s work do you get most fired up about?

It would be impossible to answer this question in any other way than to say the work our grantees and investees are doing is truly inspirational. The impact this portfolio has is why we do what we do. I get most fired up about seeing the impact of the portfolio, and how that evolves at scale with the capital—both financial and in-kind—that the Foundation invests in them. I recently had a chance to spend more time with the Foundation portfolio leadership at Autodesk University, and I look forward to more opportunities to get to know them, their businesses, and their challenges.

You come across as such an optimistic person. Where does that positive energy come from, and what gives you hope for the future?

You’re right. I am an optimistic person and will always hold hope for the future. I believe there are significant opportunities ahead to solve urgent social and environmental problems in the world. One of the Autodesk Foundation’s grantees, Splash, gives me a lot of hope because they’re doing just that. Splash and the Autodesk Foundation have collaborated since 2017 to scale a design-forward, replicable handwashing station, and Splash is tracking to reach one million children with this solution. When I think of how important water is to all of us—not just clean water, but hygiene education and improved sanitation, and the profound impact on life that has—I just know we can get there through better design, partnership, and the impactful work of organizations like this.


Read the Autodesk Foundation impact report to learn more.