Every year, Trustees from TNC’s state chapters and country programs get together during the Volunteer Leadership Summit to reflect on the work we’ve done, plan for the work we have to do, and think about ways we can work more collaboratively with each other. And every year, I have the privilege of delivering the State of the Conservancy speech. This year, my goals for this speech were to help Trustees understand why we view our Shared Conservation Agenda (TNC’s north star for conservation efforts) as very important, why we have made various organizational changes over the past few years, and why—based on results over the past year—Trustees should be confident that we can realize our goals.
State of the Conservancy | Volunteer Leadership Summit 2017
Delivered on Jun 22, 2017
One of my favorite annual duties is giving my State of the Conservancy remarks.
When I was thinking of how to kick this speech off, I recalled my trip to India about one month ago. TNC has a new program in India, and it’s off to a great start. While I was there we had a very important meeting with government and business leaders, Indian environmental NGOs, and our key supporters.
When it came time for the Q&A after this meeting, the first question was a big one: “So, Mark, how is TNC doing these days?”
I told the group that TNC is doing well for three important reasons: our team, our financial strength, and our ambitious but doable plan.
Any organization’s strength starts with its team. In my view, TNC’s 3700 professional team members are the greatest people in the world: hardworking, smart, devoted to the mission, and unafraid of big challenges or change. These colleagues are supported by our extraordinary team of volunteers. We have a great team all around the world, and they are the first reason for my strong confidence.
Next is our financial position. We never take this for granted. We are well aware that our financial strength is entirely due to our generous supporters, and we are extraordinarily grateful for the support we get every year.
You’ll recall the financial crisis in 2008-2009. At that time we worked carefully with our Trustee Council; we created a Trustee Task Force; and we committed ourselves to a disciplined financial plan by which we would always live within our means. And we’re living up to that commitment. Now we’re nearing the end of our second five-year financial plan. Every year we meet our budget and end the year with a modest surplus.
At the same time, we also want to be very ambitious and to keep growing. When I joined TNC we were raising about $400 million dollars a year—more by far than any other environmental nonprofit. Today we’re raising about $600 million a year. That is strong growth over this time frame.
As you know, we now seek to raise some $6 billion through our capital campaign now underway. This is by far the largest and most ambitious capital campaign in the history of environmental nonprofit organizations. We know we have a long way to go—and we’ll need all of your help—but I’m pleased to report that we are now more than halfway through the campaign and ahead of schedule in fundraising.
The third strength I pointed to is our robust and ambitious plan. We’re seeking to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. Indeed, we worry sometimes that we sound grandiose when we talk about our plans to address these challenges. But if not us, who?
Our plan is ambitious, but it’s also realistic. Further, the plan is broadly supported by our constituents. That doesn’t mean every single person at TNC agrees with every single component of the plan. We’re too big and diverse for that. But we’ve always been good at finding common ground, and we’ve aligned all our resources behind this plan.
In sum, we have a world-class team. We have strong finances. And we have an ambitious, doable, broadly-supported, and well-resourced plan—seeking to solve the world’s most important challenges in the environmental space.
These three things are what allow me to say to you today, with confidence: The state of the Conservancy is very strong indeed.
Developing Our Shared Conservation Agenda
I want to cover two topics in my remaining remarks. First, I’ll review some recent history about how we got here. And second, I want to show you some real evidence from the past fiscal year that demonstrates we can succeed in each of our priority areas.
Let’s take a step back to 2012. That’s when we began to talk about the Global Challenges Global Solutions framework–and intentionally shifted from protecting nature one place at a time to tackling global challenges.
It’s also when we changed our mission statement: to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. We chose those words carefully. By “all life,” we mean animal and plants, as we continue to be focused on biodiversity. But we mean people, too, and this was a big change.
We began to use the framework: protect, transform, and inspire to describe our work. Yes, we protect the world’s great places and the planet’s precious ecosystems—we’ve always done that and we always will. But to have greater impact, we also seek to transform how businesses, governments, and society use nature. That lets us scale up. And we want to inspire more people to be constituents for nature.
Around the same time, you’ll recall we launched a number of new initiatives. We began operations in India, Myanmar, London, and other places. We opened NatureVest, our impact capital unit. Through NatureVest, we seek to raise investor-provided capital at very favorable terms to lever up donor funds.
We doubled down on science partnerships, building on our great collaboration with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. We developed our SNAPP partnership, a joint venture with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Santa Barbara to produce practical, science-based knowledge to guide the work of TNC and our partners. We launched our NatureNet Science Fellows, partnering with leading universities to support outstanding early-career scientists researching pressing conservation challenges. We discovered that when TNC partners with the world’s greatest scientists, we can access that science in an affordable way that ultimately scales beyond us.
We also started ramping up our internal collaboration—across chapters and across our professional team and trustees. One great example is our work along the Mississippi River, aimed at dramatically improving agricultural practices. Here, our chapters and trustees work together on a regional basis, transcending traditional organizational structures and introducing new ways for the TNC team to get important work done.
We began to think about how our professional team works together, too. In the past, many of our teams, at least to some degree, worked in siloes. Today, we need to collaborate at a much more sophisticated level across all units and all geographies to address the complex challenges we face. We’re building training programs and investing in information systems to make that happen.
As a science-based organization, we also took a hard look at the science behind our work. First up was Conservation by Design (CbD), TNC’s toolkit for how to go about protecting nature. CbD had been based on a traditional model: protecting nature one place at a time. It served us and the broad conservation movement very well. But as the threats to our mission have changed, we’ve changed, too. CbD 2.0 now guides us in solving global problems—at a system-wide scale—and keeps people in mind as well.
Finally, we asked our science team to make sure our plans were realistic. We asked them to step back and look at the big picture. We asked: Between now and 2050, can we really achieve our goals? Can we have it all—a future where people get the food, energy, and economic growth they need without sacrificing nature?
Our scientists got to work. They started with a set of base assumptions for the period of time from now until 2050:
- World population grows to about 10 billion people, a 40% increase.
- Global GDP grows 8% per year. This is a positive trend—billions of people will be lifted out of poverty. But all that economic growth will put great pressure on the natural resources that sustain us.
- Demand for food grows by 55%—more than population growth—as more people enter the middle class and transition to protein-richdiets.
- Demand for energy grows more quickly, by 60%, as more of humankind gets access to energy.
These are realistic assumptions. We’re not making any heroic predictions here.
Then we asked our scientists what the outcomes would be for nature and people. They identified two scenarios: “business as usual” and the “conservation pathway.”
I’m warning you here: Business as usual is a dire path. This scenario assumes that humankind keeps doing its thing, with minimal changes. So what happens?
- Global temperatures rise by 3°C (about 5.4°F).
- Air quality negatively affects the health of about 5 billion people.
- Only 16% of the world’s fisheries are sustainable. The rest are wiped out.
- Only 8% of lands are protected, a vicious blow to biodiversity.
Now let’s look at the conservation pathway. Here, things are much better:
- Global temperatures rise by only 1.5+°C—meeting the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2°
- Air quality negatively affects the health of less than 1 billion people—still too many, but much better than the business as usual scenario.
- 100% of global fisheries are sustainable.
- 17% of global lands are protected, a much better outcome for biodiversity
We at TNC are confident that the conservation pathway can be achieved. Further, there is a critical role for TNC to play in accomplishing these dramatically more positive outcomes. But in order to pull this off, we will need to do the right things, and we will need to do them very well.
So now—very importantly—let me slow down and ask that you pay very close attention to my remarks. This is important.
TNC colleagues, trustees, and supporters often ask me, “Mark, why is there so much change underway at TNC? Why can’t we just keep doing things the way we used to?”
That’s a very good question. And here’s my very important answer.
As leaders of this great organization, we now feel that we are morally obligated to do everything we possibly can to shift the world from the business as usual pathway to the conservation pathway. If humankind falls short of that outcome, there will be a lot of suffering that could otherwise have been avoided.
At TNC, we all care very much about these matters. We care about people who are vulnerable to the dire impacts of the business as usual pathway. We care about other species—animals and plants. We care about future generations.
And let me refer back to the inspiring comments our Board Chair, Tom Tierney, made at last night’s trustee dinner. Tom told us how proud he is to be a grandfather, and how moved he was to hold his newborn grandson in his hands for the first time. Looking into the baby’s eyes, he realized that as a TNC leader, he’s in the position to do something very important to protect his grandson’s future.
That’s why there is much change underway at TNC.
Indeed, we are being very ambitious. We are doing everything we can to achieve our mission in the most positive and impactful way possible. We seek to build on our strengths and make the biggest difference we can. For us, we feel like we have no choice.
Shared Conservation Agenda: A Closer Look at TNC’s Five Priorities
What will TNC’s role be as we help shift the world from the business as usual pathway to the conservation pathway? Where can TNC make the biggest difference? What challenges line up well with our experiences, resources, and know-how?
That’s where the Shared Conservation Agenda comes in. My colleagues across the organization have worked very hard to identify and prioritize the areas of work that best play to TNC’s strengths and capabilities. We identified five essential priorities. Here they are.
I want to talk about each of these and offer you some real evidence from the past fiscal year that shows we can, in fact, achieve success in each of these areas. We absolutely can do this. Yes, we face daunting challenges, there’s a lot of hard work ahead, and none of this will be easy. But in my view, if we work together and each make our maximum contribution to achieving our mission, we can pull this off.
Protecting Land and Water
First and foremost, we will continue to be in the business of protecting land and water at scale. This has always been our bread and butter work. It’s what brought many of us, including me, to TNC. People understand this work, and we are world-class at it.
Of course we can’t do it all ourselves. So we’re using our science to pick the most important places to save, and sharing our strategies and models with other organizations.
We’re also using new tools, like impact capital, to take this work to scale. Our NatureVest team has been successful in raising very low-cost, long-term capital to make these kinds of projects more attractive from a financial perspective.
We’re also using new strategies, like Development by Design (DbD). We advise governments and businesses on how to design, operate, and locate infrastructure in a way that minimizes environmental harm. Likewise, we continue to champion investments in nature with a particular focus on green infrastructure. In many cases, green infrastructure is a better deal than traditional manmade solutions—it often costs less, performs better, and provides a variety of environmental benefits for free.
One recent example of our continued land and water work is the Bow and Arrow Ranch in Colorado. We purchased 34,420 acres of important grassland habitat that we are now selling to a conservation-minded buyer who will protect it through easements. This deal brings the total land protected across Colorado through easements to roughly 3% of the state. This was great work by our Colorado chapter, and work like this is happening all around the world.
Tackling Climate Change: 50-State Climate Initiative
Our next priority is tackling climate change. In certain important areas, we have long been a leader in doing critical climate work. For example, we’ve been very active in forest carbon sequestration, ecosystem-based climate adaptation, and international climate negotiations. But several years ago, we decided we needed to step up our game and do even more.
First, we launched our 50-State Climate Initiative. Thank you very much—colleagues and trustees—for supporting this important work. I know this has been a big ask. Climate, for better or worse, is a very contentious and partisan issue in America right now. However, our science tells us unequivocally that climate change is the number one threat to our mission. So we feel we have no choice but to step up our game and do more.
Furthermore, our standing as a nonpartisan, inclusive, and in the U.S., a 50-state organization, positions us especially well to make a big and unique impact.
In many states, addressing climate policy is a difficult task. I’ve learned a lot on this front thanks to candid dialogue with trustees on how we can best do this work. We’re trying very hard to be respectful, listen, and find common ground. We seek to show the country that there are in fact nonpartisan and pragmatic ways to achieve change.
Here are a few examples since launching the program just two years ago:
- In Ohio, the state had a strong renewable energy portfolio standard that was under threat. TNC and our partner Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) put together a great report for Gov. Kasich, making the economic case for clean energy. It was a big win when the Governor vetoed legislation that would have continued the freeze.
- In Illinois, we supported legislation to double the state’s energy efficiency goal and increase the use of renewable energy. The bill was signed by Republican governor Bruce Rauner.
- In Massachusetts and New York, we are at the table bringing together political and business leaders focused on grid modernization. If there was ever a win-win, this is it. Modernizing our electrical grid would lower costs, improve reliability, and result in better climate outcomes.
- In Oregon and Washington, where the politics are favorable for this kind of strategy, we’re leading the charge to have a price on carbon.
- In Louisiana, we’re taking a more traditional approach. With our farming partners in the state, we’re taking marginally productive farmland along the Mississippi River and restoring it to sequester carbon. We then sell those credits to our business partner Disney. Farmers win economically, carbon is sequestered, biodiversity is enhanced, and Disney benefits as well. This is a good example of how to approach climate change issues in a red state.
- In Florida—the Sunshine State—we worked successfully again with EDF to push for legislation to erase barriers for financing solar installations.
As you can see, some of these efforts focus on policy work with state and local governments; others focus on on-the-ground conservation projects that address climate. By tailoring our initiatives to the circumstances in each state, we’re able to find common ground with diverse groups and advance practical climate solutions.
Another critical piece of the 50-State Initiative is what all of you Trustees did yesterday on Capitol Hill. Nearly 200 of you—Republicans, Democrats and Independents—convened on Capitol Hill to let your Senators and Representatives know how much their constituents care about protecting our lands and waters and addressing climate change. You participated in more than 250 meetings with Congressional offices from all 50 states. We’re showing the country that it’s just not true that we’re hopelessly divided on these issues. We just have to do the hard work of getting people together, finding common ground, and making progress. What an opportunity for TNC! Thank you, everyone, for allowing us to make that progress in an admittedly difficult space.
Tackling Climate Change: Natural Climate Solutions
Another climate example I want to point to is natural climate solutions.
Our scientists have concluded that as much as 1/3 of greenhouse gas reductions needed to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Accord can be achieved through restoring and changing how we manage ecosystems at scale. Forests play an outsized role here as well, but other ecosystems are important too, from mangroves to grasslands.
Of course, just because we know this can be done doesn’t mean it will be done.
So what are we doing? Our first question is how to pay for this strategy at scale. We can’t do it with philanthropy alone. So we’re studying financial structures that include government grants, multilateral aid, impact capital, and commercial funding to lever up philanthropy. We’ll need strong business models, especially in the areas of timber and agriculture. We’ll need business partners and government support. We’ll have to think big. The work is underway—stay tuned.
This is classic TNC—protecting lands and waters at scale—while reducing carbon emissions and benefiting communities. Our goal? To lead a revolution in natural climate solutions similar to what we’ve seen in the clean energy space over the last two decades.
Providing Food and Water Sustainably: Agriculture
As I mentioned earlier, the world will need to produce at least 50% more food by 2050, as population grows and more people enter the middle class. We’ll also need to do this with less water and fertilizer, and without expanding agriculture’s footprint. And we’ll need to do all this in a climate-smart way. At the same time, we have to somehow sustain the world’s fisheries.
It’s very complicated, but doable. And I think we have good reason to be encouraged.
I’ll start with agriculture. One example that may be familiar to many of you is our work up and down the Mississippi River with farmers. This is a great example because it shows how all the different pieces of TNC come together.
The work starts at the state level. Our Midwestern states, chapter by chapter, build relationships with farmers and persuade them to try out new methods, such as cover crops. We test and monitor the methods, and to the extent they work, we try to spread the word and support the on-the-ground work with first-rate science. At TNC, we now have a new soil scientist, Deborah Bossio, leading this work, and we have a new partnership with Cornell University to document agricultural best practices and help them spread. If we want to scale these practices, we have to prove they work, so there’s an important role for science.
And how are we going to spread the word? And how will we do this as fast as possible? This is where partnerships with companies like Cargill and alliances like Field to Market come in. They are respected and have the expertise to help farmers understand that doing the right thing environmentally also lowers costs and improves business results.
TNC also benefits from its great North America agriculture team. Their job is to make sure that we’re using best practices in all places. We also have partnerships with other companies: Walmart, Coke, General Mills, Pepsi—buyers of agriculture output. Their role is to reward and favor suppliers who play by the new rules.
And, as you all know from Advocacy Day on the Hill, we also need the government on our side. That’s where the Farm Bill comes in. We need to advocate for those smart programs in the government budget that make this work happen. The government sometimes gets this wrong. They sometimes view such programs as government “spending,” but it’s not spending at all. It’s government “investing.” We ask for investments in restoring floodplains along the river. Yes, there’s a cost to that. But it’s not an expense. It’s an investment that will enable us to save on future costs from floods.
Finally, our international footprint matters. We take these best practices and distribute them internationally. From Brazil and Colombia, these practices are gaining great traction thanks to the work of our great agriculture team.
Providing Food and Water Sustainably: Fisheries
As the numbers I shared earlier indicate, we have a long way to go in making the world’s fisheries sustainable. We’ve done a number of successful fishery projects, as have other NGOs, so that’s good news. But now we’ve got to take this to scale quickly.
One of the things we’re betting on here is technology. New gains in technology should allow for great breakthroughs. We were thrilled this year to win Google’s Innovation award for our FishFace technology, which we’re using in the Pacific. This tool uses facial recognition technology to be smarter about what fish are being fished where and in what quantities. It’s a low-cost, fast and efficient way to transform the way fisheries are managed.
By the way, we think that technology is going to be a big area of opportunity for us in the few years immediately ahead. We think it can unlock progress at scale in many areas. Stay tuned.
Providing Food and Water Sustainably: Water Funds
The last category I’ll mention here is water funds. Water funds are really encouraging evidence that TNC can scale up good strategies.
A water fund is a beautiful and relatively simple conservation model: users of water pay for conservation of the upstream watershed—i.e., they invest in nature—to secure their water supply. Why? Because it’s a very good deal—a low-cost investment that ensures big returns. It’s conservation that pays for itself. The projects not only protect water supply, they also advance biodiversity by securing habitats for wildlife, sequester carbon, and support local communities.
We launched our first water fund in Quito, Ecuador, in 2000. Today, we have nearly 60 funds in operation or development on four continents. We have funds in operation all across Latin America, and now in China, Africa, and the U.S. too. But we don’t want to stop at TNC’s reach. We want to transform how everybody takes care of watersheds. So we’re working with governments, other NGOs, companies, engineering firms.
If there was ever a scalable conservation idea, it should be water funds.
Here’s a snapshot of our water conference at Columbia University this fall. Some 500 people attended. About half of them were a diverse set of people from TNC. The other half were our partners—other NGOs, corporations, government officials, university scientists, you name it— sharing best practices so that we can catalyze a whole new approach to water conservation. I think we have very good reason to believe we can keep scaling up progress here.
Building Healthy Cities
As a city guy, I’m delighted with our new urban initiative. It was always my hope that TNC could be a big player in this space. Two and a half years ago we started the Global Cities Program. The program is off to a tremendous start. We currently have 25 projects in the U.S., several very important projects underway in China, and soon we’ll have projects in Africa and India.
Why are we taking on this new priority? First, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities. Soon three quarters of the world’s people will live in cities. We want to be relevant to those people—we want to do work where they live.
Second, when most of the world’s people are living in cities, we don’t want them to forget how important nature is. We want them to have a conservation ethic, and we can cultivate that.
And third, cities need nature. Our current tool kit is already helping mayors solve big problems in cities. I want to point to two examples.
Take Louisville, Kentucky. The idea here is to plant trees to address air pollution to improve health conditions for the residents of Louisville. It’s a health play. We just got a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for $7 million. We appreciate the financial support, and we like the validation of the strategy. We think we have a big opportunity here to show that nature benefits people’s health.
And the other example I’ll note is the use of green infrastructure in Shenzhen, China—part of China’s “sponge city” program to pilot the use of natural infrastructure to reduce urban flooding across the country. China Board members Pony Ma and Zhu Baoguo have provided critical support for this project. This project also has an academy in which some 30 mayors of China participate. The idea is they will return to their cities and deploy these same strategies.
Our Global Cities program off to a great start, and I think we can be very optimistic. Thanks, everyone, for supporting this program.
Connect Nature and People
Our last priority, last but certainly not least: connecting nature and people. TNC has always been pretty good at this. We’re pragmatic, we’re inclusive, we never vilify others. We try to find common ground and get things done. That’s a good formula for building a great organization and drawing many constituents and supporters.
But now we understand that we need to be even more ambitious here. We need more people on our side. And we need more diversity on our side. You’re going to see us be more visible and more assertive in telling our story.
I want to start off by talking about the recent Science March. Here in the U.S., we’re very concerned about the proposed drastic reductions in the federal budget for science programs. We’re the best-resourced science organization in the environmental space, but we still depend significantly on government-funded science: science from NASA, NOAA, EPA, USDA, and other government agencies. This science is fundamental to environmental progress. We want to be advocates for that science, and the Science March seemed like the perfect opportunity for us in a way that’s true to our character: nonpartisan, pragmatic, and inclusive. The lead parade was here in DC, and TNC was an organizer and a huge participant. We had great attendance at our workshops. We also participated in satellite marches all around the world—it was a huge victory. And people were really pleased to see TNC in that high-profile role.
Our marketing team is also doing a great job reaching out to broader audiences. I was really happy with the social media on Capitol Hill for Advocacy Day and seeing Trustees online throughout the summit. We leveraged social media for the Science March as well. You know how you can apply a frame over your Facebook profile picture to show support for a cause? Our marketing team did that in connection with the Science March, and thousands of pages had these frames up for the next several days. What a good-looking team.
We’re also making good use of traditional media to broaden our constituency. For example, we were recently featured in Delta’s inflight magazine, Sky, which reaches more than 5 million people. This article generated a large amount of inquiry by prospective donors and partners.
Over the period ahead you’re going to see us trying even harder on the communication strategy, telling our story, and rallying more support for our cause.
I also want to touch on TNC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. I mention this every year in this speech, and I intend to do so in every future year. We have a long way to go in this area.
We have work to do among our volunteers, our trustees, our staff—and more broadly diversifying the conservation and environmental movement. We’re doing a lot externally, but we’re also really focused internally. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to happen overnight, but I think we’re making good progress.
This past year we introduced some pilot recruiting programs. So far, 16 state chapters and seven of our functions participated. They received training and they committed to new procedures and new guidelines to bring on and retain a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Another thing that’s been working for us is our employee resource groups (ERGs). Here we create the opportunity for folks on the team to rally around different opportunities in the diversity and inclusion space. Here are photos of our Women in Nature, Multicultural, and LGBTQ groups, as well as Heather Wishik’s diversity team.
Call to Action
Sometimes after I give a talk like this people ask me, “Mark, are you optimistic? Are you optimistic about the future of the environment?”
I’m definitely an optimist by temperament. But I don’t want to be Pollyannaish. So the big question is: can we really pull this off? Can we really a world in which both nature and people get what they need to thrive?
When I consider everything I’ve talked about in this speech, my answer is yes.
Look at our team, our financial position, our ambitious plan, and the evidence of what we accomplished over this past year. Consider how we are able to bring people together and overcome divides. Notice our ability to take on new challenges and move quickly to take on new opportunities. These things all give me great confidence that we can achieve our mission. Yes, I am optimistic.
Let me close by saying that it is a great honor and privilege for me to serve as your CEO. And as your CEO, I for one am going to do my best to make my maximum contribution to achieving our mission. This is a phrase you’ll hear a lot of at TNC these days, making your maximum contribution to our Shared Conservation Agenda. We’re asking all of our units: How are you going to make your maximum contribution? What are you going to do differently? How are you going to help other units? When are you going to ask for help? What strategies will allow you to make your maximum contribution?
I think your answers to these questions will be the key to unlocking our progress.
My only ask of you is this: please make your maximum contribution.
Roll up your sleeves, get to work, think hard—as trustees, as volunteers, as TNC team members—what can you do to move the ball forward so we can achieve our Shared Conservation Agenda?
If we continue to work very hard, listen respectfully to one another, and come together as one team—as we have over our proud 65+ year history—I think we really will be able to save the lands and waters on which all life depends.