Birchard, Bill

birchard.gifBill Birchard is a veteran writer and journalist specializing in business, the environment, and health care. During the past 10 years, he has written for Fast Company, CFO, Chief Executive, Strategy + Business, and Tomorrow magazines. He coauthored the award-winning Counting What Counts about the crisis in corporate accountability and The One-Minute Meditator about reducing stress and finding meaning in everyday life. His most recent book is Nature's Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World.

natureskeepers.gif asks ...

What is the Nature Conservancy?

BB: The Nature Conservancy is the biggest environmental organization in the world ... biggest by revenue, that is. It has $800 million in revenue each year, compared to $330 million for World Wildlife Fund, for example, and $121 million for Green Peace. It's not the largest in membership; there are others that are much larger. It has about a million members. Its mission is primarily to save biodiversity, save the genetic library of life on Earth.

And it's been doing that for about 50 years. It was once known primarily as "The Real Estate Arm" of the Conservation Movement, because it just acquired land. But it has gone beyond that, and today it not only acquires land, but also works with institutions—whether in the federal government or states, or other nonprofit organizations—to manage land. It might be re-zoning or setting up programs to manage watersheds ... that sort of thing.

Why did you want to write this book?

BB: The motivation was really a personal one. I've written about business management for quite a number of years, and I've also been interested in conservation since I was young. I was looking for a way to take the management writing, where I had done a lot of work in the finance area, for example, and green it up a bit. So I proposed this idea of looking at the Conservancy, which had become known as extremely well run, in a businesslike fashion.

My operating assumption was that if I went into the Conservancy, I could find people who would be heroic types of managers, who would be archetypes of great things that the Conservancy did. And I could tell their stories and illustrate how the Conservancy works. So, that's just what I did. In the end, I identified nine extraordinary managers and told their stories. Together, the collection of stories really tells the reader what makes this organization tick.

It's also a history of the organization, isn't it?

BB: Yes, it is. I chose people who spanned from the founding of the organization back in the 50s to the current day. The first extraordinary manager I chose was Richard Goodwin, a Connecticut College botany professor. He was not the founder of the organization, but he was the first one to exercise a kind of leadership that really moved it up a level in its growth. In telling his story, I really tell the story of the founding of the Conservancy.

I then go through people from subsequent decades in sort of fast-forward way up to 2003, when I tell the story of the crisis that the Conservancy faced when the Washington Post did a three-day, front-page series on some of the conflicts of interest and mistakes the Conservancy had made. So by going through these peoples' stories, I bring in a lot of history. And by the time you're done, you know pretty much how the Conservancy has come to be what it is today.

You say there are a million members in The Nature Conservancy. Those would be natural readers of this book, but then, who else?

BB: The idea is that we're telling stories about leadership, and about management, that apply to all organizations. Certainly, nonprofits are unique in some ways, but organizations have universal themes whether they are nonprofit, government, or corporate.

For example, there's a chapter featuring Harvard ecologist Robert Jenkins that illustrates the importance of focusing on a mission. We think that's a lesson that applies to everybody. The chapter on Pat Noonan, the 1970s president who was responsible for accelerating the growth of the Conservancy, is a story about corporate culture, and how you instill in your people what's needed to make an organization grow.

We have a chapter on Kent Wommack, who was the director of the operation in Maine, and how he needed to work with his local board to get them engaged, to help them use their power and influence to advance the mission of the Conservancy. All these things are messages that are as applicable to a corporate audience as they are to a nonprofit audience. Obviously, I think it's going to speak most strongly to nonprofit leaders, who see in the story the fundraising that has to go on and how a smaller organization makes its way in the power circles of Corporate America.

I recall reading about at least two instances where someone was hired, and then told that they had to basically go out and raise funds to pay themselves.

BB: That's right. One of those was Michael Wright, who was hired in California, and eventually moved to Washington with the promise that he would start an international program. When he arrived in Washington—with his wife and baby in tow—he got to the office to find out where his budget was, and what was in his account.

He found he had a thousand dollars, and he went straight to Pat Noonan, the president who had said he would underwrite the start-up. Noonan said, "Well, here's a list of people that I think you can raise money from; go to it." Wright felt absolutely betrayed, but he did what a lot of Conservancy people did in that era. He went out and solicited money from foundations and donors and got what he needed to run the international organization. The interesting thing is that fundraising is very different in the nonprofit than it is in the corporate world. Obviously, you have to find money for your programs in the corporate side, but nonprofit fundraising is unique. I think the Conservancy's stories about fundraising are inspirational, in terms of what you can do when you're up against the wall, and you have to come up with the money to keep your program going.

You start off the book with the Washington Post articles that exposed everything that's wrong with the Conservancy. What's the greatest problem the organization has encountered in its history?

BB: The organization has encountered a lot of problems, but the greatest one is, basically, how to raise the money. The genius of the organization was how they changed their fundraising model in the 70s.

Patrick Noonan was a tireless fundraiser, flying all around the country at a breakneck pace with several appointments a day—one with a corporate chief, one with a foundation chief, one with a private donor. And that's the fundraising model that works in a lot of organizations. But the Conservancy changed that model by saying, "We're going to break this up; we're going to send it out to the states. The states will all raise their own money."

Not only the states, but also people like Michael Wright, were to raise their own money for their own organizations. And all of a sudden, the bottleneck of "how do we pay for all this?" was broken.

That was the big, early problem: How do you pay for this, where is the money coming from? If you ask me what's the organization's biggest problem today, I would say that was illustrated by the recent situation with the Washington Post. The Conservancy, like so many organizations, has operated as if it were an angel, a total do-gooder.

So when the Washington Post exposed the fact that the Conservancy had made some mistakes, such as overpaying its chief executive, they didn't look pure anymore, and they fell off their perch. I don't think the organization has bounced back entirely, but it's come back a long way to the point of understanding how transparent and accountable an organization needs to be today. Donor expectations of responsible spending and accountability are a relatively new theme in the nonprofit sector, and it's something they have to deal with today.

There's a chapter that deals with the Conservancy buying up some land on the Chesapeake Bay by creating a dummy company to get around the property owner's specific resistance to selling to the Conservancy. People felt lied to and betrayed. So, how have they dealt with that?

BB: Well, there are two things I should say about that. First, that particular example occurred in 1969. At the time, the head count of the organization was only 45 people and the environmental cause was a pipsqueak. Basically, we were still in the post-World War II boom, where rebuilding the standard of living and increasing income was everything.

The organization at that time felt that outfoxing the giant was okay. They didn't do anything illegal, but they would push the tax law. They would push the legality of things as far as they could to save land. And that justified it.

So it happened years ago, and it was really a much smaller organization. The other point is that today they don't do things like that. In fact, I didn't find an example where they did anything like that after the mid-seventies.

Well, right, they've certainly become more legit. And they're no longer David fighting Goliath.

BB: Right, right. The other thing is that it was real estate guys who ran the Conservancy in the 70s. Patrick Noonan, the president, and David Morine, an MBA from Boston—these guys were keen business people and negotiators. And if you're in real estate, the whole notion of using a third party to buy a piece of property—so that the seller does not know your identity—was very common then. And it's common now.

They didn't think there was anything wrong with that at the time and later when they grew and saw themselves as more of a public trust, they no longer did that sort of thing. There's no question that they did acquire some beautiful pieces of property using that technique. For example, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the Conservancy went on to acquire 14 islands and 51 miles of shore, which is now essentially the greatest piece of wilderness on the Eastern seaboard. The islands are inaccessible, except by boat, and you have to get the Conservancy's permission to go to most of them.

Do they publish maps of all their holdings?

BB: I don't know if they have one unified map. They own 120 million acres of protected land around the world, so that would be quite a map. The states have a variety of maps to show where their preserves are, but I simply don't know about larger scale maps.

Most of the preserves are open to the public, but some are not. In fact, a very tiny number of preserves are not even marked because they have such rare species on them. Even the open preserves don't encourage people to come and spend a lot of time there, because of course that would risk deterioration of what they're trying to save.

What is the greatest challenge facing the Conservancy now?

BB: On the conservation end, it is simply accelerating the rate of conservation, so that they can save biodiversity. That challenge hasn't really changed throughout the history of the Conservancy. The current goal is to save ten percent of every habitat type on Earth ... every grassland ecosystem, forest ecosystem, and so forth. So the challenge on the conservation side is to rise to that occasion. On the management side, therefore, the challenge is how to mount the organization to do that.

I would say that for over 10 years, the challenge has been to figure out how to ally themselves with other institutions: work with partners, work with corporations, government entities, and so forth. Not just to buy land—because it's too expensive to buy 10 percent of every habitat type on Earth—but to work to change zoning, land use management, and corporate management of lands, so that the plant and animal species on them are protected.

So they've gone from mastering the tools of buying land, or putting restrictions on the use of land, to trying to master the tools of dealing with other organizations and alliances to manage land, so that it's protected. That continues to be the big, managerial challenge.

Are there other organizational issues that go along with that?

BB: The Conservancy has recently been through several restructurings of its organization, trying to figure out how to place enough protection emphasis on overseas sites. The question is how to take money from the developed world and use it to fund—or to underwrite—protection of biodiversity in the undeveloped world.

Most people like to give money to protect what they know, and most people know best what's in their own town, or in their own state, or in their own region. So it's hard to move that money, and the organization continually tries to find the best structure for doing that.

I think one of your characters says at some point, "People don't give money to causes; they give money to people."

BB: One of the old fundraising saws is that people give money first to people, second to causes, and third to institutions. So you have to have great fundraisers, you have to have great individuals that have a persuasive argument that gain the confidence of wealthy people.

The power brokers at U.S. foundations, the CEOs of corporations, those people have purse strings, so you must gain the confidence of those people. But then once the money has been brought in, how do you make sure you are structured to channel that money to those parts of the world that matter most in meeting the biodiversity challenge? And how do you channel staff and resources to those areas? That's very difficult.

Are you a member of the Conservancy?

BB: Yes, I am.

Do you think your money is being well spent?

BB: Yes. If somebody asked me, "After having written this book, would you give money to the Conservancy?" I would say, "Absolutely, yes." I would be a member; I would give money. I think that the Washington Post series cast doubt in a lot of members' minds as to whether the Conservancy was an organization they could trust. I know that my own family in the Washington area told me that they would never give to the Conservancy again.

But if you look at it from the point of view of somebody who's written about management for years, who's interviewed managers in all walks of life, and in all industries over 15 years, you recognize that in innovation, in entrepreneurship, mistakes are part of the game. And if mistakes are part of the game, then a couple of mistakes do not make an organization not worth giving to.

So, after reading those articles, I researched the Conservancy for most of the year, and I found it to be a well-run organization. Yes, of course, it's made mistakes.

Well, it's sort of the typically American thing, where we know that we all make mistakes, but we don't want our institutions to make mistakes.

BB: Right. But it's particularly bad in government, and it's particularly bad in politics in Washington, D.C. You know, the old saying is, "Don't shoot the messenger," but the messenger gets shot all the time. And aided and abetted by journalists, I think, who are researching whether somebody is accountable for what they've done. Mistakes were made, but the reporters did not uncover any fraud at the Conservancy.

Now, did they lose a lot of members at that point?

BB: I'm sure they did. I don't know the numbers, but I know they felt they were taking a hit. They were getting phone calls, and people were taking the Conservancy out of their wills. The head of the organization, Steve McCormick, and his staff organized open houses around Washington, because that was the audience that got the full-blown story.

It was syndicated and printed in other parts of the U.S., but the Washington audience got more of it. At these open houses, people were madder than hell and asking McCormick to resign. So you can only assume that a good percentage of those people withdrew from the organization.

What I take away from this, and what I think any reader interested in management takes from it, is the constant innovation within the organization. The creative ways they found to fund land acquisitions when they didn't have much money. Every time you turn around, they seem to find a new way to attack a problem, and it just seems to be a wonderfully innovative venture.

BB: Right. They figured out some clever ways to transfer land—from both willing and unwilling sellers—into conservation. One of the most amazing things they did was figuring out, early on, how they could become the agent for the government in acquiring land. Whether it's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or the National Park Service, or what have you, the government often can't work quickly, and it has to work within budgets that are authorized months or years earlier. So if some piece of property came on the market that, let's say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coveted, the Conservancy would have an agreement to buy the land so that the government could buy it from them once the authorization came through. They did that over and over again. So they might spend a million dollar donation over and over again by buying land, selling it to the government, and using the same money to buy more land.

It just seems to be an action-oriented culture, which may have come out of those initial days when a few people felt like they were the last people on Earth trying to save the land.

BB: Well, it was really. The Conservancy was originally founded by a bunch of scientists who were gradually joined by businesspeople because it became apparent that they needed wheelers and dealers who could figure out how to move lands from the hands of corporations or private individuals into the Conservancy's trust.

Right, they didn't know the difference between a hemlock and a maple.

BB: That's right. A great example was Ed Kingman, a former treasurer of the Navy who was hired around 1968. He knew nothing about conservation. In fact, when he came in, he astounded the staff by saying, "I don't know the difference between conservation and conversation, and I don't care. I'm here to run the business side of the organization." Here was a guy who knew so little about birds that he hung a picture of a woodpecker sideways on his wall, but that's the kind of people who came into the Conservancy.

There's no doubt there are still people there who are businesspeople first. The idea is that you can teach a businessperson to be a conservationist much more easily than you can teach a conservationist to be a businessperson.

What's your favorite episode or story from your research?

BB: I think my favorite is the story of George Fell, who was a huge contributor of his time and passion in the earliest days of the organization. He set up the accounting systems and other vital organizational management functions. The story goes that he was so punctilious about the accounting that he started to grate on the people who were trying to save land. You can imagine, you have impassioned people trying to save their hemlock gully, and this guy from the national office is saying, "well, you have to fill out this form ... ."

The board decided to demote Fell from executive director to executive secretary so they would have a former U.S. Forest Service man at the head of the organization, and Fell, who knew all the operational details, as the support.

But Fell did not take this lying down. He launched a fight against Richard Goodwin to take over the entire board of the Conservancy and make himself the president. Now, this was a very small organization, but it illustrated what happens when you have two kinds of individuals, both of whom are needed to launch an organization, and they can't see eye to eye. In the end, Fell lost the proxy fight to Goodwin by a hair. The Conservancy became successful, because Goodwin went on to merge what I call the rainmaking and rulemaking functions to bring in the money and run a solid organizational machine.

There were no villains in that story. Fell went on to found The Natural Lands Institute in Illinois and became one of the country's most respected conservationists. The Natural Areas Association created the prestigious George B. Fell Award in honor of his contributions to land conservation. Some 30 years after Fell left the Conservancy, the awards committee, unaware of the bitter parting of ways in the 50s, nominated Richard Goodwin for the George B. Fell Award. They say that both Fell and Goodwin saw the humor of the situation and that they exchanged compliments at the awards ceremony.

So that's my favorite story.

I definitely like your strategy of telling this story through the people; I think it's very smart.

BB: Well, from a writer's point of view, my challenge was to do a book in a year that would tell the story of a 50-year-old organization with 50 state programs, 28 international programs, and 3,500 employees. So I decided that I would just choose a few remarkable people and write about their stories.

The first phase was calling around, talking to all the prominent people I was told to talk to, people who either were leaders or who knew Conservancy history. I asked them about who were the movers and shakers through history, who were the movers and shakers today? Who had done incredible things in different ways, who were the innovators, who were the ones who were terrific with the board? Who were the ones who helped focus the mission, who were the great leaders? Then I matched what seemed to be the most compelling people with the most compelling issues, and tried to have some variety as well, both across history and personality. Those were my people, and their stories are the organization's story.

Thank you for talking with us. I enjoyed your book very much.