Writers on the Range 

Buying out – How nonprofit conservation becomes industry

Everyone who’s been involved in the environmental movement has seen it happen. Over the past 20 years or so I’ve been affiliated with at least a dozen groups, and I’ve seen it happen several times.

I’m talking about professionalization. It begins when a group of grassroots activists begins to feel overwhelmed. They can’t keep up with the reams of data, hours of tedious meetings or the technical complexity of the issues they track. Then somebody dies and leaves the group a bundle of money, or one of the members hits the jackpot with a grant proposal. The solution is obvious to everyone: Hire professional staff.

At a small foundation devoted to a particular local river, we hired a part-time executive director. The arrangement began well enough. The executive director attended board meetings, listened to the members’ concerns, and did a fine job at representing the group’s interests to agencies and the public. Working only 20 hours or so per month, our director also insisted that officers and board members stay engaged with particular issues.

A professional raised more money, leveraged the group’s funds and garnered more grants. The executive director and fundraiser became full time, and they in turn needed help from a treasurer, secretary, newsletter editor and assistant.

Maybe the board members got lazy. With a professional staff, there was no longer a pressing need to stay personally informed and involved. Or maybe the professional staff developed its own agenda. Today, that group seems to have lost its focus, board members serve in name only and the staff salaries are rapidly depleting the treasury. The first priority seems to be paying the bills and staff and not protecting the river.

Members and officers feel that they now work for the staff. At board meetings, the executive director runs the show and gives the marching orders, which is fine, since the officers don’t want to be burdened with leadership. It’s fine that their job is to raise money at the annual banquet, place calls to members and other potential donors, show up at public hearings to read scripted comments, and sign their name to bulk-printed letters.

In other cases, over time, I’ve seen an insidious shift in a group’s priorities. Chasing grant opportunities from special interests can lead to mission drift. I once belonged to a watershed group created to bring ranchers and conservationists together in order to keep more water in a river for an endangered native fish. But then the weeds took over. This group also began with just a part-time facilitator. Over time, the position blossomed into a full-time job, aided by a secretary and an intern or two.

Weeds were a major concern for the ranchers, and initially it was easy enough for everyone to support a little weed-whacking coordination with agencies and local governments. Then the weed coordinator became a full-time position, and the group now puts a lot of energy into a major annual fundraiser to buy herbicides (and fund the weed coordinator), and there is never enough time, money or effort to go around. Last I heard, the group was advertising for a grant writer in hopes of keeping everyone employed. Like other groups, the staff makes the decisions and board meetings are an exercise in passive listening.

One of the first environmental groups I helped form was determined to get a fair remedy at a local Superfund site. Another volunteer obtained a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund an expert that could help us understand the technical issues. Over time, the experts came and went, until one discovered there was more funding for activities like a newsletter and a website. Soon, our expert and his employees were running the organization from his office 80 miles away. Board meetings consisted of said expert presenting an agenda of work items.

The few members—including myself—who disagreed with the new agenda were shunned. Heaven forbid there should be substantial, time-consuming argument and discussion at a board meeting. Heaven forbid that ideas should move from the membership up to the staff. The staff needed to “maintain a good working relationship” with agency personnel and with other groups—even groups that were fundamentally opposed to our mission.

It’s a pattern: Disgruntled members like me move on. After a year or two of chill time, we’ll become passionate about some new issue. We’ll join another grassroots group—or maybe start a new one. Much like those tree seedlings, we hope to plant something that will bear fruit, and not just turn into dead wood
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