The Great Recession hadn’t yet found its bottom when Mark Tercek, an investment banker from Cleveland, left his job at Goldman Sachs in 2008 for another challenge: saving the planet from climate change and environmental destruction. And he was going to use his Wall Street experience to do it.
In the following decade, Tercek rang up big results as CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization: Revenues doubled, to more than $1 billion. Operations expanded to dozens more countries. Corporate partners like Coca-Cola, BP and JPMorgan Chase signed up to further the group’s work of protecting rain forests, coral reefs and other imperiled habitats.
But now that reign is in tatters. Tercek has stepped down, along with Conservancy President Brian McPeek and the heads of the group’s two largest programs, after an external report — first disclosed weeks ago by Politico pried the lid off years of complaints about discriminatory treatment of employees, especially women.
That report offered just a glimpse at the problem, according to interviews with dozens of current and former Nature Conservancy staff members during the past month. They revealed an organization adrift, torn between a senior leadership that aggressively cultivates ties to global corporations and a core of ecology-minded staff members who chafe against the Wall Street culture, along with female employees’ unhappiness with a “good ole boys club” that hampers their advancement.
Even amid their relief and jubilation at the leaders’ departures, current and former employees express concern that the scandal will drive away key supporters and funders, jeopardizing the world’s most extensive network of land conservation projects. Several top donors declined to tell Politico whether they still support the Conservancy.
At the very least, veterans of the group say, the trauma is a distraction from an environmental mission in which The Nature Conservancy plays a distinctive role — one that harnesses support from activists, corporations and political leaders of both parties, despite the increasingly polarized climate debate in Washington. Those who withstood years of discrimination did so because they believed in the organization’s overall goals, and they hope it can adjust.
“I find it really sad because the Conservancy is a really great organization and it’s got a lot of really good people who are doing really good work,” said Susan Ruffo, who worked at The Nature Conservancy from 2006 to 2015 and served on the Obama White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. “I’m sorry that this is why they’re getting a lot of press right now, but I do also think there’s been a failure of leadership.”
Another former Nature Conservancy staffer, Mollie Marsh-Heine, called it no surprise that the #MeToo sexual harassment scandal that hit Hollywood, Wall Street and major news organizations would find its way to the big green group.
“When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, not only myself but many people still working at the Conservancy were like, ‘Whoa,’” said Marsh-Heine, a fundraiser for environmental causes. “I knew it would reach TNC eventually. It was just a matter of time.”
For The Nature Conservancy, tapping Tercek as its CEO was a natural extension of its strategy for wooing business partners and bringing in more donations.
That strategy had long brought the group both growth and criticism.
What had started in 1951 as a band of ecologists who united to stop development on a 60-acre forest in eastern New York has exploded into a 4,000-employee, studiously non-partisan organization that has helped protect more than 100 million acres globally. Since the 1970s, however, detractors have accused the Conservancy of being too cozy with its corporate donors, many of them polluters seeking to green up their reputations.
Nature Conservancy leaders have long called this criticism off-base, saying the money enables them to protect more lands and waters. Besides, they argue, it is better to work inside the boardrooms to improve companies’ practices than to wave picket signs outside the gate.
And Tercek saw the world changing, according to interviews with dozens of current and former staffers: Defending a plot of land in the Adirondacks or the Catskills matters, but those are piecemeal approaches in the face of the widespread environmental degradation accompanying global climate change.
So Tercek introduced a revised strategy: He brought in Wall Street-style data-crunching to measure the effectiveness of The Nature Conservancy’s projects, a change that mirrored the processes he’d used in his investment banking background. He appealed to the Conservancy’s corporate donors by harnessing market-driven formulas, including one called “impact investing,” to boost the group’s funding so it could work on a global scale.
He also helped recruit a board of directors that reflected the corporate approach, including Chinese billionaire and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, ex-Dow CEO Andrew Liveris, JPMorgan CEO of commercial banking Douglas Petno and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman.
Tercek set the tone for this new culture: The conservancy held corporate-style senior manager meetings at locales around the world and boasted an ever-expanding executive team with lofty salaries. (Tercek earned $819,000 in 2018, according to the organization’s Internal Revenue Service filings). It also began approving first-class flights for “key people” in certain circumstances beginning in the 2010 fiscal year, it told the IRS.
As the organization would come to discover, that culture also brought a management structure that, according to current and former staff, shrugged off the complaints of lower-level employees and women in senior roles.
Tercek, according to many of his underlings, didn’t much concern himself with employee morale. They described him as aloof and awkward, saying that for all his everyman, Rust Belt persona — marked by a flat, nasal Midwest accent — he bristled at criticism and didn’t form relationships with colleagues easily.
Tercek arrived a few years after McPeek joined the Conservancy from the influential consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and at a time when corporations were looking at stark changes in Washington. The newly elected Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress were talking about taking on climate change with cap-and-trade legislation, which would offer economic incentives for oil companies, power utilities and other businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas production.
Ignoring the continued criticism about corporate “greenwashing,” Tercek forged even closer ties to big business.
“When Mark Tercek first started there was a real feeling like the private sector was the solution to a lot of things,” Ruffo said of the mood across the conservation movement and government. “For the Conservancy in particular that was maybe taken to extreme.”
Tercek inked partnerships with multinational corporations with long reputations as top environmental offenders: Coca-Cola, oil giant BP, mining heavyweight BHP Billiton and Dow Chemical. His signature program, NatureVest, leveraged his investment banking background and a partnership with JPMorgan Chase to drive $1 billion of private capital for conservation — including sustainable timber harvesting, carbon credits, a restructuring of island nations’ debt to expand marine conservation, and grants to promote more sustainable cattle grazing.
He hired former investment bankers and added alumni from big agriculture companies, such as Monsanto.
The Nature Conservancy was hardly the only big environmental group embracing the corporate approach at the time — the Sierra Club had taken criticism in 2007 for making an endorsement deal with Clorox, and later revealed that it had accepted $26 million in undisclosed donations from the natural gas industry.
But the TNC’s shift didn’t endear Tercek and McPeek to the scientists, ecologists and naturalists who staffed the group’s operations around the globe, a senior leader said.
“[They] sort of embodied and represented the change from place-by-place conservation to working at a global scale — like with the investment community, working with the insurance community,” one senior leader said of the pair, speaking anonymously to candidly discuss high-level personnel issues. “These things that were not strengths of the long-timers at TNC.”
Tercek and McPeek were “strong personalities,” the senior leader said, acknowledging that their management style had drawbacks. The leader said people felt forced to agree with Tercek, while McPeek insulated himself from conflicting viewpoints by surrounding himself with friends and allies, both men and women, from his days overseeing the Conservancy’s Denver office.
“Sometimes they missed good advice and they missed good opportunities to elevate other people,” the senior leader said. “But on the flip side, they did do some really powerful things for this organization.”
Their approach was undoubtedly good for business. The Nature Conservancy pulled in $547.2 million in revenue in 2009, Tercek’s first full year atop the organization. Last year, it generated just shy of $1.3 billion. It also expanded globally, jumping from operations in about 30 countries a decade ago to 72 now.
The executive team expanded with its finances. Just 18 people made up its top level in 2006, according to archives of the organization’s website. Thirteen years later it stood at 32 members.
Even as the executive team ballooned, women said they found it difficult to advance. Three high-ranking female officials departed during Tercek’s tenure with six-figure severance payments, according to the organization’s 990 filings. Others departed with significant “other compensation,” to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.