A mountain view of the Ataya tract and Cumberland Mountains from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Tennessee.
Cumberland Forest A mountain view of the Ataya tract and Cumberland Mountains from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Tennessee. © Byron Jorjorian

Mark Tercek

State of The Nature Conservancy 2019

Mark Tercek Former Chief Executive Officer

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Every year, I look forward to this speech and to the opportunity to celebrate The Nature Conservancy’s achievements.

This year is a little different in two respects. First, this is my last State of the Conservancy speech. And second—to state the obvious—we are now addressing some specific challenges in improving our organization’s culture.

But, one thing is the same: I remain very optimistic about The Nature Conservancy’s opportunity to address the planet’s biggest environmental challenges—provided that all of you, TNC’s key leaders, volunteers, and colleagues all around the world, keep stepping up and taking the bold, decisive and sometimes risky steps needed to achieve our mission.

If you do all that—and I’ll tell you more specifically what I have in mind in a minute—I think you, too, will be able to conclude in future years, as I have over the past 11 years: that the State of the Conservancy is very strong indeed. 

Before I get going, let me say a couple of important things right up front.

First, I want to thank everyone on the TNC team for all of their support for me and for the organization over the past 11 years. We have accomplished a lot together. We can all be very proud of that. And we did most of this as a team. I’ll add, you have all been a kind, generous, creative and inspiring team. I can’t thank you enough.

I also want to thank everyone who has had the courage to speak up and share direct feedback with me these past 11 years, and also over the last several weeks. I know that it isn’t easy to do. And I believe the organization is better off for it.

Please continue to do so with your future leadership team. It makes the organization stronger. And it’s helped me to be a better leader.

Now let me turn my attention to our organization. Why do I say the state of the Conservancy is strong? How have things been going? What can we learn from our recent past? What do these lessons suggest about how you can move the organization forward in the very best way?

Let me start with where we are right now.

Others have referred to today’s situation as a crisis. I don’t want to dismiss concern. The way our colleagues deeply care about the future of our organization is one of our biggest strengths.

But we say we’re a science-based organization. Right? So let’s look at some recent history.

Mighty TNC has dealt with some very tough circumstances in the past—and each time, we managed to come out a stronger organization. Look, challenging circumstances like this are very different from one another. But still I think we can learn by reviewing how we’ve responded to previous challenges.

One of these times happened right after I joined the organization in late July, 2008.

Our Commitment to Fiscal Discipline

At the time I arrived, many people on the executive team were gone. We had significant financial deficits. Relations with some important state chapters and many trustees—some of you will remember this—were very strained due to concerns about financial management and other matters.

And to top it all off, 1 month into my tenure, the global financial crisis erupted. There was real panic in financial markets and among our supporters.

But, the TNC team pulled together. It’s what we do here. We got to work.

It wasn’t easy of course. Sadly, we had to let some colleagues go. We put together a solid and rigorous restructuring plan. We sought the input of some very frustrated Trustees—some of them might be here today—and we invited them onto a special task force to develop a tough-minded, no-nonsense five-year financial plan.

We committed that going forward, we would only spend within our means. We would base our financial forecasts on reasonable projections of philanthropic support. We would avoid deficits. And guess what—we’ve been doing exactly that every year since.

Let’s take a look. Here’s a chart showing our operating budget growth over the past ten years.    

TNC's Operating Budget Since FY10
A 10 year review of The Nature Conservancy’s budget growth (2009-2019)

We reduced our operating budget to $444 million in FY10, but subsequently grew to $790 million this year. That’s about 80% growth, which any organization should be proud of.

We did what we said we were going to do. We lived up to our promise to be financially disciplined.

And at the same time—and this is very important—we worked very hard to grow our resources. Now, why does this matter? Well, in my view, this commitment to be both fiscally disciplined—but also very ambitious about our growth—is essential for this organization’s success. It’s provided us the financial strength upon which we’ve been able to transform the way we work.

It’s allowed us to enter new geographies like India, Myanmar, and London. It’s allowed us to launch new initiatives like a Cities Program, a technology accelerator, NatureVest, and the Bridge Collaborative. It’s provided for tens of millions of dollars of long-overdue investments in modernizing our information systems. It includes significantly growing our fundraising team and our digital marketing presence. And importantly, it’s made possible the launch of a dedicated program to focus on the hugely important topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’ll talk about that in a few minutes.

Without the financial strength we’ve built over the past 11 years, these things would not have been possible.

I know focusing on budgets, financial discipline, etc. might not be the most poetic way to start this speech. But it’s how I started my leadership at TNC. And—in my view—it will be absolutely vital for continued success. As you move ahead, I urge you to continue the effort and hard work to sustain this kind of performance.

By the way, there’s a funny, and I think now timely, anecdote from the time of our restructuring in 2008.

I remember a difficult Townhall speech I had to give at the time as a brand-new CEO. Up until just a few weeks ago, I would have said it was the hardest speech I ever had to give at TNC. That speech also showed me right away that TNC colleagues aren't afraid of speaking up with constructive criticism.

At the podium that day, I had some plastic bottled water to help me get through my remarks. I had a terrible cold, and I was losing my voice. But of course, that was no excuse for my new colleagues. The next day, I had about 15 or 20 gifts of Nalgene water bottles waiting for me in my office.

Thanks, colleagues, for teaching me how to do this job every step of the way.

Our Shared Conservation Agenda: The Nature Conservancy’s Priorities

Now, let’s shift gears and turn to the Shared Conservation Agenda.

In my early days at TNC, the Board wisely—and strongly—pushed me very hard on our priorities. I remember it well. “Mark,” they said, “Don’t we need to be more focused? Don’t we need to hold our programs accountable? Don’t we need to be sure that we are allocating our limited resources to the very best conservation investment opportunities?”

I strongly agreed with them. But first, we needed some data.

So, we did what we always do when we face a tough challenge at TNC. We turned to science. We asked our scientists, “Between now and 2050, can we really have it all? Can we have a world where people get the food, water, energy, and economic growth they need without sacrificing nature?”

And we also asked, “Where can The Nature Conservancy make the biggest contribution to achieve this vision?”

Our team of scientists got to work. They made some realistic assumptions about how the world will change between now and 2050. They looked at two scenarios: “business as usual” and a “conservation” pathway. 

Two paths defined by science
Two paths to 2050 TNC developed two scenarios for the future: one was business as usual, and the other was a conservation pathway. We learned that by 2050 we can support both conservation and economic growth.

As you can see, “business as usual” results in some horrific outcomes for people and nature. The “conservation pathway,” on the other hand, offers a much brighter future.

Well folks, I’m oversimplifying here, but the full scientific analysis our team did is the underpinning for our Shared Conservation Agenda.

We concluded that we were morally obligated to do everything we could to put the planet on that brighter conservation pathway.

My points: First, we’re not winging it. We’ve done the science, and we’ve identified where TNC can make the biggest difference. And second, as you can see, the stakes are very, very high.

So I urge you: As you move forward, please stay focused on the plan that we’ve developed. The whole world is counting on you.

It’s not easy for an organization like TNC to stay very focused like this. Every day, very worthy new opportunities surface. Sometimes they even come with donor capital. But we know if we take on too much—if we spread our resources too thin—we’ll get very little done. I hope you won’t let that happen.

Now let me turn to the four areas of focus that make up our Shared Conservation Agenda.    

The Nature Conservancy priorities: protect land and water, tackle climate change, provide food and water sustainably, and bu
The Nature Conservancy priorities Our four priorities (our Shared Conservation Agenda) are protect land and water, tackle climate change, provide food and water sustainably, and build healthy cities.

I’m going to take a look at what’s been happening in each of these areas to see what we can learn.

Protect Land and Water

First, let’s start with protecting land and water.    

Protect land and water: One of The Nature Conservancy’s top priorities
Protect land and water One of our top priorities is protecting land and water.

This is what put The Nature Conservancy on the map. It’s what brought many of us to the organization in the first place. It’s always been—and always will be, I hope—one of our top priorities.

So, how have we doing been here?

I’d say the last 11 years have been very strong in this department. I don’t think TNC or any other conservation organization has ever gotten more done in this area in a single decade. Here are some, but not all, of the very big projects we’ve done. 

Major land protection projects
Major land protection projects The Nature Conservancy’s recent major land protections projects include: Great Cumbung Swamp, Northern Rangelands Trust, Montana Legacy Project, Heart of the Adirondacks, Great Western Checkerboards, and the Dangermond Preserve.

Across these 6 great projects, we’ve invested over a billion dollars and have protected on the order of 12.8 million acres. In my judgment, this is absolutely breathtaking. Future generations will thank us. Well done, team.

At the same time, our chapters are doing great projects like this state by state and country by country. 

Sampling of major land and water protection projects driven by The Nature Conservancy’s U.S. state chapters.
major land and water protection projects The Nature Conservancy’s state chapters and country programs are integral to our protection work, as evidenced by this small sampling of projects over the past nine years.

I’m enormously proud of all these projects. And these wins for nature should make you confident about what you can do going forward.

Thanks to us, these beautiful places will be protected forever. If we hadn’t stepped up, these deals wouldn’t have been done. Hooray for the home team.

And by the way, our recent activity here continues to be very strong.

Protecting the Cumberlands

Here’s a photo of one of our latest projects in the Central Appalachians.    

Protecting the Cumberlands
Cumberland Forest A mountain view of the Ataya tract and Cumberland Mountains from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in Tennessee. © Byron Jorjorian

Cumberland Forest Project

253,000 acres of important Appalachian forest conserved through a new & innovative project

Learn more

Just the other month, we closed on a major land acquisition: 253,000 acres of former coalfields in Kentucky and Tennessee, and we expect more news on this front soon.

This is a powerful example of how conservation can benefit an area that really needs economic development. We know the project will create jobs in sustainable forestry, land restoration, outdoor recreation, and tourism.

I want to stress here that doing deals like this is not easy. It takes financial strength. It takes people with sophisticated deal-making skills, and an organization willing to take some risk. And it takes an extraordinary amount of very hard work. Just ask the team. Right up until the end we weren’t sure we’d get this over the finish line.

I hope over the years ahead, you’ll continue to invest in the teams that are driving groundbreaking projects like this.

Working with SwissRe to insure coral reefs

And it’s not just land deals where we’re driving this kind of innovation. We’re doing a lot in the marine world, too.

Take Quintana Roo, Mexico, for example.

Working with SwissRe to insure coral reefs
A snorkeler with elkhorn coral A snorkeler swims past a large stand of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) along a reef north of main dock in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. © Jennifer Adler/TNC

Here, TNC has teamed up with the government, Cancun’s huge tourism industry, and global insurer SwissRe to design and implement the first-ever parametric insurance policy for a coral reef.

The reef, of course, is good for biodiversity and good for tourism. But it also functions as a seawall, providing protection from sea level rise and storms. With this insurance policy, a Category 4 hurricane will trigger an immediate payout to restore the reef. This is conservation that essentially pays for itself.

And it’s a superb example of innovation by TNC. Our plan now is to replicate and scale.

Unlocking $1.6 billion for ocean conservation

Another marine example from a few years ago is our work with the island nation of Seychelles, where we restructured $22 million of sovereign debt in exchange for a commitment to protect 30% of the country’s near-shore ocean areas.

The country is now on track to protect 400,000 square kilometers of ocean—an area the size of Germany. 

Protecting the Seychelles
Anse Royale Beach, Seychelles Landscape in Anse Royale Beach, Mahé Island, Seychelles. © Jason Houston/TNC

We now plan to do 20 more of these deals over the next five years—ultimately increasing the amount of ocean protected around the world by 15%.

The strategy—which we’re calling Blue Bonds for Conservation—was recognized at this year’s TED conference as one of the very best nonprofit projects in the world. 

Mark Tercek and Chris Anderson, CEO of TED, on stage at TED conference.
Chris Anderson and Mark Tercek Mark Tercek presents The Nature Conservancy’s Blue Bonds for Conservation at the annual TED conference. © Bret Hartman/TED

We are well on our way to raising $40 million in philanthropic seed funding for our team, which we believe will unlock on the order of $1.6 billion for ocean conservation. That’s a lot of capital.

Blue Bonds Learn more about how "Blue Bonds for Conservation" work -- and how you can help unlock billions of dollars for the oceans. This ambitious plan is a part of the Audacious Project, TED's initiative to inspire and fund global change.

Leading on innovative conservation finance

I was working on this speech at home on Tuesday evening, and my dear wife Amy—a Maryland/DC trustee—said, “Don’t talk so much about finance, dear. You’ve done so much more than that at TNC!” Thanks, Amy. But I can’t help it. I really want to emphasize to all of you how important this is.

Conservation is very capital intensive. There’s just not enough philanthropy in the world to protect nature at the scale we need. We’re not doing innovative finance because it’s cool. We’re doing it to get much more conservation done, period.

Indeed, most of the projects I just mentioned wouldn’t have happened without impact capital.

  • Great Western Checkerboards: 95% of the funding came from investors, not donors.
  • Coral reef insurance: no donor funding at all.
  • Cumberlands Forest Project - 70% equity, 30% debt. No philanthropy.
  • And Blue Bonds for Conservation – I’ll say it once more. $40 million of philanthropy will unlock $1.6 billion for ocean conservation. It will be very hard to find better leverage than that. 
The role of impact capital in major Nature Conservancy projects
impact capital Conservation is capital intensive. Impact capital can help leverage donor dollars and, in some cases, even fund environmental protection work without philanthropy.

I believe we should all be enormously proud of TNC here. We are by far the leading organization in the world when it comes to innovative conservation finance.

In fact, given our strength here, I think we have an obligation to help the environmental community writ large to build their capabilities in this area.

This year, we did just that by launching a new executive education program at Harvard Business School with the help of one of our most loyal funders, the Robert W. Wilson Trust. The one-week exec ed course on innovative finance brought together 72 participants from 16 environmental NGOs. I’m very proud of TNC’s leadership here. We received great feedback from every participant, and it now looks like the program will happen on an annual basis.

Looking ahead, this kind of work will be only more important.

Take, for example, the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity, which will happen in China in 2020. We all hope this will be a game changing conference, just like the Paris negotiations were for climate change. Many of our fellow environmentalists are talking very enthusiastically about a goal to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030. Of course, I’m all for that. But in my view, most environmentalists aren’t thinking hard enough about how we’ll pay for it.

But we are.

There is a huge funding gap to bridge if we are to achieve global conservation, climate, and sustainable development goals. It will be up to groups like TNC and our great NatureVest team to keep up the momentum on financial innovation.

Tackle Climate Change

Okay, enough about finance and big protection deals. Let’s shift to another one of our top priorities, climate change.

Tackle climate change: One of The Nature Conservancy’s top priorities
Tackling climate change One of our top priorities is tackling climate change.

This is where I think humankind faces its biggest challenge ever. I hope our speakers Katharine Hayhoe and David Wallace-Wells helped you better appreciate the challenge.

I want to start by thanking all of you for our recent progress here—especially those of you from states where talking about climate change isn’t always easy.

It was just a few years ago at this very event that I asked Trustees to step up and support our 50-State Climate Initiative. At the time, it was a very big ask. Many of you faced stiff political headwinds in your states. But we knew we had an important opportunity to drive progress by drawing on The Nature Conservancy’s unique strengths:

  • Our reputation for developing pragmatic, nonpartisan, commonsense solutions.
  • And—just as important—our strong and diverse network of volunteer leaders.

The Nature Conservancy’s 50-State Climate Initiative

So, how’s this new initiative going? Well, each one of our state chapters now has a clear and thoughtful strategy to pursue climate action in a way that works for their state. 

The Nature Conservancy 50-state climate initiative
Laura Crane The Conservancy’s Laura Crane visits a solar project under construction. © Dave Lauridsen

Let me mention a few big wins over just the past year.

  • In Nevada, we helped pass a renewable energy standard.
  • In New Mexico, we did the same.
  • In Washington, the coalition we led for a price on carbon last year didn’t win. But this year we helped pass a mandate for 100% clean energy.
  • And across a range of coastal states—including some deep red ones like Alabama—we’ve launched the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. This group understands first-hand the negative impacts of climate change. We’re working hard with them in various ways, including hosting their recent visit to Capitol Hill to make the case for climate solutions.

I really could go on and on with 50 specific examples.

We can be encouraged by all of this, but we also know it’s insufficient. If we care about vulnerable people today, if we care about other species, and if we care about future generations, we all know that we’ve got to ratchet up our game now and make bolder and faster progress ASAP.

I’m counting on all of you to do so.

CEO Climate Dialogue

We’re leading other efforts on climate too.

Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund and I recently launched the CEO Climate Dialogue, a coalition of major company CEOs committed to advocating for federal climate policy.

Last month, our group issued a public call to action urging the President and Congress to pass long-term federal climate policy as soon as possible, including an economy-wide price on carbon. The announcement received very positive media attention, including a prominent op-ed by the Washington Post’s Editorial Board. 

Washington Post op-ed and names of CEOs in the CEO Climate Dialogue.
Climate Dialogue Washington Post op-ed and a list of names of CEOs who are part of the CEO Climate Dialogue with The Nature Conservancy.

Some of you have asked me, “Mark, why all the fuss about a group of CEOs pushing for climate policy? Will that really make a difference?” Yeah. I think so.

Smart, effective government policy is by far the most important thing we need to address climate change.

But, broadly speaking, we haven’t made enough progress on the policy front. We need all the allies we can get pushing our policymakers for change. If we can get more CEOs to add their muscle and political clout to the mix, that should make a real difference.

I’m very proud of how far we’ve come. Please keep up this progress.

By the way, I don’t have time to talk about everything today. You’ll be relieved to know that.

But on the policy side, let me also briefly note, our government relations team is doing extraordinary work all across the organization.

You all know that, thanks to your participation in Advocacy Day yesterday. Big wins like the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the wildfire funding fix in Congress’s 2019 spending bill are enormously positive achievements.

Advocating for Natural Climate Solutions

Returning to climate, let me note that nature can make a huge difference here, too. Again, I’m very proud of TNC’s leadership here. 

Natural climate solutions
Natural climate solutions One of The Nature Conservancy’s climate change strategies is advocating for natural climate solutions.

Environmentalists have long known that healthy forests and other natural systems play a big role in storing carbon. But it was The Nature Conservancy who published the definitive paper on this topic.

Here it is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from October 2017.

Paper published in PNAS on Natural Climate Solutions.
Natural Climate Solutions paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, published October 2017

Our scientists were the first to fully quantify this. They determined that 30% of what the world needs to meet the Paris climate goals can be done by restoring nature at scale. But we didn’t stop there.

Last September, The Nature Conservancy led a coalition of NGOs at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The team did a terrific job of ensuring that natural climate solutions were front and center with world leaders. Here are some of the creative ways the team helped spread the word. 

Installations promoting natural climate solutions at the Global Climate Action Summit
The Nature Conservation led a coalition promoting natural climate solutions at the Global Climate Action Summit.

Thanks to TNC and our great partners, the world now fully understands that nature can be a powerful tool in fighting climate change.

What’s more, if these projects are done right, they also protect habitat for wildlife, protect watersheds, boost resilience to extreme weather events, and benefit local economies. It’s the proverbial win-win-win-win-win.

Looking ahead, the hardest work remains—taking this strategy to scale. It will be critical for TNC to really step up here.

Provide Food and Water Sustainably

Let’s now turn to the third priority of our Shared Conservation Agenda. 

Provide Food and Water Sustainably: One of The Nature Conservancy’s top priorities
Providing Food and Water Sustainably The Nature Conservancy works with farmers, ranchers, fishers—as well as other NGOs and private companies—to provide food and water sustainably to a growing population.

This has always been one of our strengths: working with farmers, ranchers, and fishers to provide food and water sustainably.

Why is this so important? Well, we know global population will grow to some 10 billion people by 2050. And as more and more people rise out of poverty and enter the middle class—a positive thing—they will seek more protein-rich diets. Accordingly, the world will need to produce some 70% more food by 2050.

It’s our job to help the world do this in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the environment.

Electronic Monitoring in Pacific Tuna Fisheries

Using FishPath to help fishing communities manage their fisheries
Micronesia Fishing A fisherman gillnet fishing on the reef edge in the breaking waves in Kosrae Island, Micronesia. © Nick Hall for The Nature Conservancy

Take our work in fisheries.

Last year, I told you about FishPath, a tool that helps fishing communities better assess, monitor, and manage their fisheries. The tool is now being used by Peru’s fisheries at a national scale.

Likewise, the National Fishing Cooperative of Belize has adopted ThisFish, an electronic traceability tool developed by one of the winning companies of TNC’s brand-new TechStars Sustainability Accelerator.

How cool is that? Our technology accelerator is only one year old; of course we’re the only NGO who has one; and already one of our start-ups is embedded in our priority work. Well done, team!

Financing Soy Farmers in Brazil

Turning to farming, here’s another area where we’ve shown we can do a lot through smart science and collaboration. 

The Nature Conservancy is helping establish sustainable soy expansion in Brazil
Brazilian Amazon An aerial view showing forest cleared for cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon. © Haroldo Palo Jr.

In Brazil, we’re working with ag businesses, government agencies, and partner organizations to help direct crop expansion into land already cleared in the Cerrado. This is Brazil’s vast savannah—an incredibly biodiverse area that’s at huge risk because of ag expansion.

One way we’re doing this is through technology.

We just launched Agroideal, an online tool that helps companies identify already-cleared land suitable for soy expansion.

We also partnered with commodity company Bunge and banking giant Banco Santander to launch the development of a first-of-its-kind financing mechanism for soy farmers in the Cerrado.

The idea here is to provide long-term loans to farmers who are willing to commit to sustainable soy production.

This program—another financial innovation by us—will provide a real incentive for farmers to produce more sustainably and go beyond compliance with environmental regulation.

Build Healthy Cities

Let’s turn to the last of our 4 priorities, cities.    

Build Healthy Cities: One of The Nature Conservancy’s top priorities
Building Healthy Cities One of our top priorities is building healthy cities.

Why are we in cities? We have to be.

Today half the world’s population lives in cities. Soon, it will be three-quarters. For the planet to be sustainable, for people to be healthy, we need to ensure that our cities incorporate nature in every respect.

This is the perfect fit for us. We have the science and tools to help cities invest in natural solutions to address stormwater runoff, air pollution, watershed protection and coastal resilience.

And we’re good at bringing diverse groups together to get important work done.

So, how’s it going?

Sometimes building new initiatives at The Nature Conservancy can feel like a big lift. But this time, it seems almost everyone here has quickly embraced this priority. We’re off to a great start.

Just last week, we helped Melbourne, Australia, launch their first metropolitan-wide urban forest strategy.    

Urban forests in Melbourne, Australia
Living Melbourne The Nature Conservancy helped the city of Melbourne, Australia launch their first metropolitan-wide urban forest strategy.

At TNC we call this “greenprinting.”

CEOs, mayors, and more than 30 municipal governments came together to create a science-based, comprehensive plan for greening their metro area, providing wildlife habitat and improving public health.

This was a true One Conservancy effort. For more than three years, our cities team, the Australia program, and technical experts and scientists from across the organization worked together to make this happen. Well done, team.

And here are some other great examples of recent wins by the cities team.

In India, TNC’s newest country program, we’re working with partners in Chennai to restore one of the last remaining natural marshlands in South India. 

Finding natural solutions to urban flooding in Chennai and around the world
Chennai Urban flooding in Chennai has recently devastated the Indian city. The Nature Conservancy is working with local partners to restore natural marshlands to address these challenges. © The Nature Conservancy

This chain of lakes is hugely important to manage urban floods that have recently devastated the city. It also provides critical habitat for birds.

In Houston, Texas, we’re working with Lowe’s on a community outreach campaign to help residents make their homes healthier and more resilient to climate change through backyard greening. Think: rain gardens, shade trees, and other improvements.

You’ve heard me mention the Louisville Green Heart Project before, but it’s worth mentioning again. We’re partnering with the National Institutes of Health and the University of Louisville on a medical study to test the efficacy of nature as a public health intervention. The research participants are now all signed up, air quality monitoring has started, and we’re about to plant thousands of native trees and shrubs.

And right here in Maryland, we’re working with a tech startup to better manage water in big-box store parking lots. This project has the potential to keep more than 4 million pounds of pollution out of Chesapeake Bay. And we expect to eventually scale it nationwide.

So there you have it—our Shared Conservation Agenda. We’ve come a long way over the past decade, and we are now well aligned around a powerful set of conservation opportunities.

The importance of philanthropy

So let me talk now about what makes this work possible: fundraising. 

Philanthropy at The Nature Conservancy
Philanthropy at The Nature Conservancy Philanthropy is incredibly important to The Nature Conservancy’s mission. The Hong Kong Gala, pictured here, was one of many successful fundraising events.

Here's a picture from our recent gala in Hong Kong. Thank you to everyone who made this event and many others like it all around the world a big success.

Even after a decade at The Nature Conservancy, I still feel a sense of awe when I think about how powerful we are on this front. Almost everything we do at TNC is driven by the generous support of our donors. So, thank you to everyone in the room today—trustees, Board members, former Board members, and colleagues—for helping us fund our ambitious plans. I’ll also note—and I try to say this every year—I think we should always be humble about our fundraising success. Everyone who works here—and everyone who benefits from our work—we are all fortunate beneficiaries of our supporters’ generosity.

But I do want to recognize the great work of our team. Let’s take a look at how things have been going recently. In fiscal year 2009, my first year at TNC, we raised $377 million in philanthropy. Last year, we raised $760 million. 

The Nature Conservancy’s revenue from 2009-2019
TNC Revenue Fundraising revenue at The Nature Conservancy has grown considerably to match the pace and scale of our ambitious Shared Conservation Agenda. Source: internal data.

That was a record amount for the third consecutive year. Congratulations to everyone for this truly stellar performance.

Here’s another way to think about it. In 2011, we closed a historic capital campaign that raised an impressive $1.7 billion for conservation. It was a record amount—not just for TNC but for any nonprofit environmental organization.

Of course, much of the work on that campaign happened before I started. But it was exciting to help the team celebrate a job well done.

But at TNC, we never rest on our laurels. We keep pushing ourselves.

So, in 2013, we launched the Our World Campaign, a much more ambitious effort. In fact, it’s by far the very biggest fundraising campaign in the history of environmental organizations—and one of the biggest across any sector in the nonprofit space. 

Campaign fundraising goals for The Nature Conservancy (table).
Campaign fundraising goals Table showing The Nature Conservancy’s campaign fundraising goals broken into categories.

Today—thanks to all of you—we are very near the finish line of our $7 billion goal. As of the third quarter of this fiscal year, we’ve raised close to $6 billion of the total. Take a look at where things stand.

  • Private philanthropy: Our goal is $4 billion. We’re 92% of the way there.
  • Impact investing: Our goal is $1 billion. Although we’re 37% of the way there, don’t worry, we have half a billion dollars in transactions in the marketplace right now. We’ll get there.
  • Deferred gifts: Angie Sosdian and her team always overachieve. Our goal was $1 billion, and we already beat that.
  • Direct public funding to TNC is also on track. We’re 88% of the way to our $1 billion goal.

This is truly an extraordinary achievement. I want to thank all of you.

The Our World Campaign is especially lucky to have 2 very strong leaders who have stepped into Jim Roger’s shoes to help us get to the finish line: Carolyn Long and Amy Batchelor.

Also, over 90% of chapters are running local campaigns.

And more than 30 chapter boards have achieved Trustee Legacy Champions status—meaning that at least half of their Trustees are in the Legacy Club. South Carolina has even reached the 100% threshold. Bravo! I’ll note that Amy and I are both very proud members of the Legacy Club too. 

Marketing Milestones

Let’s turn to another area where we’re making good progress—marketing.   

The Nature Conservancy website homepage (screenshot).
The Nature Conservancy website homepage

This year, the team reached the halfway point of a massive Digital Transformation initiative, including a major refresh of nature.org. Now, this isn’t just about making some cosmetic updates to our website. Though I have to say it looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

This is about using all of our marketing channels in a smarter way to reach, engage, and convert our target audiences. We’re implementing best-in-class marketing technology that uses data and machine learning to help us engage our donors better.

We’re already seeing great results. Since launching the new nature.org, visitors are staying on the site longer, they’re viewing more pages, and they’re coming back to the website more often. In short, the initiative is working.

Upgrading our systems and technology

Now let me turn to our information systems and technology. In 2010, we announced the Major Systems Initiative with the goal to hugely reduce costs and improve business processes. The upgrade is now 100% complete. Our team did a great job. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Shared Conservation Hub (screenshot).
TNC’s Shared Conservation Hub The Shared Conservation HUB integrates key conservation project data into a central system to support The Nature Conservancy’s dispersed teams.

I want to call special attention to our new Shared Conservation Hub—a collaborative database for all of TNC’s work. The Hub makes it easy to enter key conservation data about our strategies and projects into a central system where funding and financial data are integrated. It delivers dynamic dashboards, maps, and information products that allow us to see the sum and the parts of our conservation work. This will help us work in the smartest and most efficient way.

Equity, diversity and inclusion at The Nature Conservancy

Now, I want to shift gears and address the very important topic of our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

This is something I have talked about every single year at this event. Why? Because it’s absolutely critical to get right. I keep saying it’s my highest priority. I want—and I think all of us want—our organization to be a place where all colleagues feel valued and respected and know that there is a level playing field with equal access for everyone.

It makes sense for us to do this—it will help us achieve our mission. But the main reason we are determined here is it’s simply the right thing to do, period.

I know that we still have significant room for progress here. I also know that we have some strong critics in this area. I know they’ll continue to push us. And they should.

In order to assess how we can best move forward, I think it’s useful to step back and better understand what we’ve been doing in this area to date and whether it’s had any results.

So, what have we done over the past few years?

First, we hired a Chief Diversity Officer, Heather Wishik, to lead our efforts here. Heather has done a tremendous job since joining us in 2015. She’s built a great team that has really accelerated our progress. She pushes us; she criticizes me when I need it; and she holds the Executive Team accountable.

Next, we launched eight Employee Resource Groups, our ERGs, to help build a better culture of inclusivity. 

TNC Employee Resource Groups list.
TNC Employee Resource Groups list The Nature Conservancy has a variety of Employee Resource Groups to build a culture of inclusivity.

Our colleagues in these groups are heroes. They’ve stepped up and committed their time and energy to draw attention to ways we can improve as an organization. Thank you also to the managers who support this commitment.

I’ll give you just a few examples of how the ERGs are making an impact.

  • In March we announced a new parental leave policy, driven in large part by our Women in Nature colleagues. Now TNC will provide new parents 8 weeks paid time off. 
  • LEAD, which stands for the League of Employees of African Descent, has helped all of us understand how race differences impact staff at work. The group also recently held a panel discussion where colleagues spoke candidly about both their positive and their more challenging experiences with their white counterparts. This is really helpful.
  • Nature’s Pride, our LGBTQ group, consulted on my Memo to the Secretary of State pushing the State Department and USAID to address safety and inclusion. More recently, the Pride group developed Workplace Gender Transition Guidelines to better support our transgender and non-binary colleagues. And the group continues to rally support for visibility through local Pride Parades. Let’s take a quick look from last week’s parade here in DC.
The Nature Conservancy Pride ERG at Washington DC’s Pride Parade.
Capital Pride Parade The Nature Conservancy at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Pride Parade in 2019. © TNC

I’m sorry I missed the parade this year. I’ve always been so proud to be there.

What else have we done?

  • First, we mandated new rules to help us overcome biases in recruiting, such as requiring diverse applicant pools and diverse interview panels.
  • Second, nearly half of our staff globally have already participated in our Engaging Across Difference training. This multi-day workshop focuses on teaching concrete behaviors of inclusion and leveraging of differences, and we’ll get to 100% participation soon.
  • Third, we launched a new program that provides skills training to help bystanders take action when faced with situations of discrimination, harassment, or disrespect. We’re now rolling out this program across the organization.
  • Fourth, every single employee is now required to take compliance, ethics, and anti-harassment training every single year.
  • And finally, fifth, as we’ve reported to the organization already, we are once again updating how we manage issues of sexual harassment or other improper work conduct so that we are doing this important work in the most effective way.

Now let’s step back for a minute and consider whether these initiatives are having impact.

Again, I know very well we have a lot of room for improvement here. But the data does suggest that when we have thoughtful programs like the ones I just described, we can in fact expect better outcomes.

Let’s take a look, for example, at some data on gender. 

The Nature Conservancy employees by gender (chart)
Employees by gender Bar charts showing The Nature Conservancy employee numbers by gender.
  • Of our 4,173 total staff, 60% are women.
  • Of our 812 senior-level staff, 54% are women.
  • Of our 32 Executive Team Members, 44% are women. That compares to 19% in 2014.
  • Of our 22 global Board members, 41% are women. That compares to 24% in 2014.

Or, take a look at our hiring numbers. Since 2015, we’ve hired 405 senior-level positions. 60% of those have been women. 

The number of new senior-level female employees at The Nature Conservancy since 2015 (chart).
new senior-level female employees A chart showing the number of senior-level hires made by The Nature Conservancy and percentage of new female employees since 2015.

However you might feel about TNC’s current performance in these areas—and I believe as much as anyone we have a long way to go, especially with other underrepresented groups, including race—I also think we can be encouraged that interventions like the ones we’ve implemented so far suggest that we can in fact make progress.

So what you’ll need to do going forward is to make more investments along these lines—more programs, more training, more rules, more holding leaders accountable.

Headquarters leadership of course has the responsibility to make sure this all happens. But everyone else can lead too. Please do so. Don’t wait. Make the change happen that you want to see in your unit.

Finally, I encourage the team going forward to take advantage of all the data on TNC’s culture.

For example, for the last 3 years we’ve done a very rigorous People Survey, managed for us by outside experts, and with superb levels of participation. Last year, it was at 86%.

The survey has helped us in many ways. Each year, it’s identified areas where we should seek improvement, and we’ve worked vigorously to do just that.

But I also think we can be encouraged by some top-line takeaways. 

Results from The Nature Conservancy’s People Survey (chart)
TNC’s People Survey A chart showing employee satisfaction results from The Nature Conservancy’s People Survey.
  • As noted, last year, 86% of colleagues took the survey.
  • 94% of say they are proud to work at TNC.
  • 88% say they would recommend TNC as a great place to work.
  • And 88% expressed a high level of overall satisfaction.

Our consultants—a leader in the field—tells us these scores are far superior to peer organizations.

You can also look at various third parties that assess and measure organization’s cultures. Take GlassDoor, for example.

The Nature Conservancy’s GlassDoor webpage (screenshot)
TNC’s GlassDoor webpage A screenshot of The Nature Conservancy’s GlassDoor webpage.

Broadly speaking, these are pretty good scores. And again, they compare well to other organizations.

This does not mean we have any room for complacency.

But in some areas of our culture, I believe we are building from a position of strength.

Taking The Nature Conservancy to the Next Level

Okay. It’s time for me to wrap up.

I recognize that we’re in a challenging spot today. It might very well stay challenging over the immediate period ahead, too. But I think that will likely be a good thing. The tougher the challenges you face, the harder you have to work, and the stronger you emerge.

I’ve said many times over the past few years, and more intensely over the past two months, that our work on equity and inclusion must be my top priority as CEO. I believe that should remain true for the new leadership team.

My recent decision to step down as your CEO is not to abandon the important work of improving TNC’s culture—rather, it’s to create the space for the right leader to take this work to the next level.

I always try to be very transparent and straightforward. So let me say a bit more about this.

I guess I’m an old school CEO. I happen to think that ten years is about the right amount of time for any CEO. Accordingly, this past February I initiated conversations with our Board Chair Tom Tierney and some other Board members about my transition. I told Tom I was very proud of everything we had accomplished at The Nature Conservancy—but in my view, it was time to transition to a new leader. Someone who would bring enormous energy, bold ideas, and determination to take our organization to the next level. Just like I tried to do in 2008.

When I initially shared my plans back in February, the Board asked me to wait. So I did. But when our recent challenges arose, I concluded it was the right time for the organization—and the right time for me—for this transition to happen.  

Again, I’m very proud of everything all of us have accomplished together. It’s been the honor and joy of my professional life to be your leader. And now I’m confident it’s the right time for a new leader to step up and take the helm.

I want to thank everyone I work closely with and everyone at the organization for all you have done for TNC and for me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. And thanks also to our Board members Tom Tierney, Fran Ulmer, and Sally Jewell for stepping up.

Colleagues–you’re in good hands.

I am trusting all of you to dig in and do your very best to make TNC a great place for everyone to work—and an ideal place for achieving our important conservation mission. I’m confident you can do this. I’m confident you’ll keep up the great work I described in this talk. You’d better. The whole world is counting on you.

So for now, I say thank you. Thank you for the privilege of serving as your CEO. Thank you for showing up every day and bringing your best selves to work. And thank you for all that you do to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. 

Mark Tercek is the Former Chief Executive Officer of The Nature Conservancy, the global conservation organization known for its intense focus on collaboration and getting things done for the benefit of people and nature. He is the author of the Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.

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