This is what I wrote to the Nature Conservancy after reading Part 1 of the Washington Post article:
I have been a member of The Nature Conservancy for about 12 years. I have been giving every year in increasing amounts and support the Georgia chapter as well. I joined because I liked the idea of an organization that doesn’t do a lot of lobbying, doesn’t go to parades, doesn’t do publicity stunts, and just concentrates on buying and preserving land.
I read the Washington Post article (Part 1 anyway) and while I took some of the information with a grain of salt, the article also put its finger on some issues that have concerned me in the past. Rather than saying you’ve been improperly portrayed and that TNC is doing a great job, you need to look at what they’re saying and see how much of it indicates some problems or at least opportunities to do better.
One concern I have is the ballooning number of employees at TNC. I’m not sure why it takes so many people, offices, jeeps, etc. to preserve land. While any landowner needs to dedicate resources to protecting that land and managing that land, I wonder how many employees do just that? Employees and overhead are very expensive to have and maintain. The money that pays one $40k employees (with at least another $40k in overhead) will buy a lot of land. And buy more every year. My entire yearly contribution of about $150 pays that employee for less than one day.
Another concern I have when I read the annual report is the number of acres TNC *sells* every year. There is a lot of income from land sales and I would bet that some years TNC sells more land than it buys. I just have to wonder about that. While you are quick to say you have protected X acres, how much of that is owned? I would bet that many of your supporters are thinking you own that land. I may be mistaken but I remember the Gray ranch being touted as a great acquisition and then several years later it was sold.
I see a lot of money in the annual report going towards the vague notion of “education” and “programs”. I wonder what those mean. Is a letter I get telling me about the need to raise money for a new purchase considered “education” or is it “marketing”. To me, it is marketing. Is the cost of the magazine considered marketing? It probably should be. I wonder if marketing costs aren’t hidden in programs and education just to make the organization look better. I wonder that with all organizations I support, so it isn’t unique to TNC.
And yes I wonder why some of the nations biggest polluters always seem to team up with The Nature Conservancy. I think it’s great to raise money from them and put it to good use. And I like the idea of helping them come up with better policies. But I wonder if that relationship legitimizes those businesses. And I wonder if such a tight relationship doesn’t open the possibility of abuse. I work for the government managing consultant contracts and dealing with consultants every day. Therefore I am very aware of how vigilant one must be to avoid conflicts of interest, even the appearance of them.
I hope that The Nature Conservancy takes the questions raised by the Post and uses the information as an opportunity for reflection. I hope that you can build on the information and opinions stated in the article (and those you are no doubt receiving as a result of the article) and use those as a guide to do a better job of protecting land.