The Magazine

In Land We Trust

The conservative approach to preservation.

Sep 5, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 47 • By G. TRACY MEHAN III
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Of course, not everything the Nature Conservancy did was pleasing to all parties. As noted, some thought it too accommodating to business. Local officials objected to some past practices, like using straw parties to buy up properties contemplated for development. Property-rights advocates objected to it serving as a surrogate for government land acquisitions. Birchard quotes Peter Drucker, the dean of management consultants: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first give 40 years of success." He vividly illustrates this in a final chapter focusing on the recent crises engulfing the Conservancy after a series of stories in the Washington Post ("Nonprofit Land Bank Amasses Billions"), a Senate Finance Committee investigation, and an IRS audit involving alleged self-dealing, overvaluation of in-kind donations, and other (infrequent) abuses, all of which rocked the house in 2003. Even a green, not-for-profit organization must learn the hard lessons of corporate America in terms of governance, accountability, and transparency.

Ira Millstein, a prominent New York attorney and expert on corporate governance who was recruited for an outside panel to advise the Conservancy on its troubles, claimed that the organization suffered from "a debilitating attitude of hubris." Nevertheless, under the leadership of its current president, Steven McCormick, and with the support of its board, the Conservancy bit the bullet on governance and oversight reforms with a newfound appreciation of the virtue of humility. Ironically, this crisis of confidence--in this most successful of nonprofit organizations--required that its board, in the words of Millstein, "operate more like a for-profit board," which views its donors and other constituencies as functional equivalents to stockholders.

Given its size, wealth, and reach, not to mention its mission, it is encouraging to learn that the Nature Conservancy, in Birchard's words, "retains the ability to renew itself--whether forced to do so from a sudden crisis or spurred to do so by the challenge of constantly working smarter or faster--and can survive to fulfill the growing needs of its constituencies, decade after decade."

G. Tracy Mehan III, a principal in the Cadmus Group, an environmental consulting firm, served at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.