ocean meeting high brown cliffs
Dangermond Preserve Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, a critical juncture between Northern and Southern California © Peter Montgomery/The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek

Tech Titans Help Protect Last Perfect Place In California

Mark Tercek Former Chief Executive Officer


Just before the start of the new year, my organization, The Nature Conservancy, got some very good news. Thanks to an incredible $165 million gift—the largest single donation we’ve ever received—we were able to buy and protect 38 square miles of “the last perfect place in California.”

Known to many as the Bixby Ranch, the area sits at Point Conception—California’s elbow, near Santa Barbara—and has remain untouched by development. The site will connect more than 125,000 acres of protected land—undisturbed coastal habitat, huge expanses of estuaries, coastal prairie, grasslands and oak forests—that have long-existed in their natural, wild state. Thanks to Laura and Jack Dangermond, it will stay this way.

The Dangermonds, founders of GIS software company Esri, made this land deal possible with their visionary contribution, which inspired a wave of support from other donors and allowed us to close this deal entirely with private funding. The Dangermonds have quietly supported many nonprofits over the years, but this time they agreed to be more visible. By creating the new Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, they hope to inspire others who can make a similar difference.

What can you do to invest in nature?

Ready to follow the Dangermonds and build your own investment in nature? Here are a few ways that savvy investors and business people can help protect important lands and waters around the world.

1) Donate—no matter how big or small.

The conservation world needs more visionary philanthropists like the Dangermonds. But gifts of all sizes add up, too.

Take TNC’s Heart of the Adirondacks deal—an equally breathtaking project on the East Coast. Here the purchase price was $110 million to acquire 161,000 acres of privately-owned timberland in the middle of the largest publicly protected area in America.

aerial view of a lake surrounded by autumn trees and mountains
Adirondack State Park An aerial view of Follensby Pond in New York © Blake Gordon

How did we scrape together that kind of money? Through an old-fashioned capital campaign. To be sure, we received some very generous gifts from lead donors. But thanks to many additional supporters and their charitable donations—big and small—we were able to complete a historic deal that protects an expanse of globally significant forestland encompassing 415 miles of rivers and streams, 300 lakes and ponds, and 90 mountain peaks.

There are a growing number of opportunities to get involved with projects like this outside the U.S., too. In China, for example, TNC board members—including Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma and Tencent Chairman and CEO Pony Ma—came together to raise $15 million to establish the country’s first privately managed land preserve. The 27,000-acre Laohegou Nature Reserve, protects critical panda habitat. The project also inspired a private land trust movement that replicates this model of land protection across the country.

Or take the China Global Conservation Fund (CGCF). After a trip to Kenya, TNC’s China board launched the CGCF to fund important conservation work outside of China’s borders. Fund participants do more than just write checks—they visit inspiring projects, come up with ideas on how to improve them, and really dig in on how TNC can replicate those strategies around the world.

Finally, don’t forget about giving through your estate. Bequests are a great way to help build a nonprofit’s long-term strength without affecting your assets or cash flow today.

2) Consider impact investing.

Opportunities like the sale of the Bixby Ranch or the Heart of the Adirondacks land don’t come along very often. And when they do, they often require quick action. If we’re lucky, supporters like the Dangermonds will step up, but we can’t always rely on private philanthropy to close deals like this.

That’s where impact investing comes in.

In 2014, for example, TNC had the opportunity to purchase 165,000 acres of forestland in Washington and Montana. The deal was incredibly strategic—it linked together millions of acres of wildlife habitat and protected an important source of drinking water for the region.


back of a man as he fly fishes.
Fly-fishing on the Clearwater River, part of The Nature Conservancy’s Great Western Checkerboards Project in Montana © Steven Gnam

The purchase price was $134 million—steep even for a large nonprofit like TNC. Fortunately, visionary philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss stepped up, along with other impact investors, to provide 95% of the capital at very low-cost financing. Just 5% of the funding came from traditional donors. In other words, we did a leveraged buyout for nature.

TNC now has a growing portfolio of investable deals like this in the pipeline—projects that deliver both financial returns and clear environmental benefits. Through our impact investing unit NatureVest, we plan to source and put to work at least $1 billion of investment capital for measurable conservation outcomes in the next three years.

3) Take advantage of green financial products.

Over the next five years, private investment in conservation is expected to triple. Even if you’re not in the position to make a major investment like Hansjorg Wyss’s, you probably do have funds in low risk holdings, like money markets or other kinds of savings—and they probably aren’t earning remarkable returns. There are plenty of “green” financial products to bring into your portfolio, with returns for both you and the environment.

Take the Conservation Note. The first investment-grade retail product focused on conservation, Notes allow investors to lend money to TNC at below-market rates. Investors get more than just a financial return. The full value of their capital is deployed to support priority conservation projects—like conserving important natural areas, wildlife habitat, and protecting water sources.

Products like these are a great way to support a cause you care about, beyond charitable contributions or major impact investments.

Why do it?

California saving the last perfect place

The Nature Conservancy is fortunate to have the support of incredibly generous people in the league of the Dangermonds, Hansjorg Wyss, Jack Ma, and Pony Ma. And I think that each of them have discovered that giving back to nature at this scale doesn’t just make a huge difference for the planet—it leads to fulfilling and satisfying lives.

In his pocket, Jack Dangermond keeps a small card with a photo of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and one of his famous quotes: “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” I’m calling on all nature-minded business people to take to take this advice to heart. And I hope readers will consider investing in nature, whether that means making a visionary philanthropic gift or greening your investment portfolio. It might just be the smartest decision you make.

You can read more about this historic gift and The Nature Conservancy’s plans to protect this land at The AtlanticLos Angeles TimesNational Geographic and Forbes—or watch a video of the preserve on TNC’s website

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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