Stories in Washington

Meet Martha Kongsgaard: A TNC Trustee’s Journey from “Rabble Rouser” to Nonprofit Director

By Anya Blaney

Martha Kongsgaard sits in a grassy meadow with a small lake and a mountain peak in the distance.
Martha Kongsgaard Martha is a member of TNC in Washington's board of trustees. © Courtesy of Martha Kongsgaard

Martha Kongsgaard's connection to nature and commitment to nonprofit leadership define her career journey. She was born in Napa, California, to a lawyer mother and a judge father, who were thrilled when she followed their footsteps into the law. This was not a given, as Martha—a self-described “tomboy” and “rabble-rouser”—spent her early years escaping into the outdoors.

“I was the feral cat in the family,” Martha said. “I cared about animals and bugs and never wanted to go inside.”

Martha Kongsgaard sits in a rocky area with a small lake and a mountain range in the background.
At Home Outdoors Martha spent her early career surrounded by the wilderness of the Cascade mountains. © Courtesy of Martha Kongsgaard

Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a family friend and head of the Interior Appropriations Committee when Martha was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, influenced the course of her life by finding her seasonal summer jobs with the National Park Service in the North Cascades. The work ranged from picking up garbage to preserving trails, all with the backdrop of the wild Cascades that surrounded her post in Stehekin. Martha remembers this time working and scrambling in the wild fondly, recalling "dreamy" summers before phones and televisions were household appliances. 

As a youth, she followed her lifelong love of hiking and climbing to Norway, where much of her extended family lives. There, Martha embraced friluftsliv, the country's "right-to-roam" laws and philosophy that allow individuals to explore uncultivated and unfettered land. This experience gave Martha a deep appreciation for how governments can preserve common natural spaces while honoring the deep-rooted connection between culture and nature.

Martha volunteered with Amnesty International while studying in Europe, a significant stop in a lifetime of volunteer service. During this time, she became involved with human rights activists and developed a belief that "laws are not mystical but the result of conscious decisions made by people who shape the society they wish to create." Armed with ambition and a mastery of French, German and Norwegian languages, Martha decided it was time to do something other than "running on trains sneaking around the Iron Curtain." So, she went to law school and dedicated 15 years as a public defender in King County, Washington. 

Not content to be defined by one title, Martha established the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation in 1988 alongside her husband, Peter Goldman, an environmental and public-interest lawyer. Martha has championed climate and community causes through this foundation, grantmaking for environmental nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Washington, human rights groups like the UW Center for Human Rights and arts institutions like JazzEd. Martha believes that "environmental issues are the same as 'people' issues," and her foundation's work reflects her belief that safeguarding the environment is inseparable from advocating for the well-being and rights of communities. 

Together, the Kongsgaard-Goldmans continue to dedicate their expertise and resources to helping people and the planet with a hands-on approach, personally engaging with organizations and adopting a thoughtful and inclusive process for allocating funds. Martha describes her role as one of connection, deep listening, fostering long-term relationships and empowering others to pursue their goals. 

Martha Kongsgaard stands with a black dog on a leash atop a mountain with more of a mountain range in the background.
Commitment to Conservation Martha harbors a lifelong commitment to conservation and a knack for building grassroots connections. © Courtesy of Martha Kongsgaard

In recognition of Martha's commitment to protecting the natural world, former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire appointed her to the inaugural board of the Puget Sound Partnership in 2007. When the original council chair, Bill Ruckelshaus, resigned, Martha took charge of the group's efforts to recover and protect the Puget Sound. She communicated with boards, engaged with Tribes and spoke with communities on the Puget Sound. She met with schoolchildren and traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for funding and policy changes that safeguard the Salish Sea alongside the Northwest Indian Fish Commission.

Martha joined the board of The Nature Conservancy in Washington as a trustee in 2017. She was impressed by how the Washington chapter pushed the envelope on climate action by building consensus among stakeholders to put a price on carbon. She is also passionate about Tribal sovereignty and the treaty rights that safeguard the resources and people of the Pacific Northwest—issues that TNC in Washington centers in its work to conserve the land and waters on which all life depends.

"In my journey, I want to be surrounded by individuals who challenge conventional boundaries and are open to learning," she said. "The Nature Conservancy in Washington has earned the respect and support of a diverse range of people on both sides of the political spectrum."

Black-and-white portrait of Martha Kongsgaard.
Active Board Member Martha continues to sit on the boards of several conservation groups and human rights groups. © Courtesy of Martha Kongsgaard

Martha continues to sit on the boards of several conservation groups and human rights groups. She is the chair of the Marine Resources Advisory Council, a board member of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the Resources Legacy Fund out of California. She is also the chair of the Seattle Aquarium Ocean Pavilion Campaign and sits on the board of the Friends of Waterfront Seattle. These projects are revitalizing downtown Seattle by bringing green spaces to the newly reimagined historic waterfront and giving the community a “front porch” view into the world’s oceans.

The Nature Conservancy in Washington is proud to partner with Martha, who harbors a lifelong commitment to conservation and a knack for building grassroots connections. Her journey is not only defined by a passion for people and the natural spaces they inhabit but also by her unyielding belief in the power of individuals who champion what they hold dear.