Sunday, March 22, 2015

Back to the Future at the National Wildlife Federation

What I’ve heard lately about the National Wildlife Federation, the nonprofit environmental group I used to work for, makes me sad.

They’ve got an energetic, new leader, Collin O’Mara, who took over just last year. He inherited an organization in deep trouble, adrift from years of bungled direction and management. NWF’s former CEO, Larry Schweiger, had focused virtually all the group’s energy on fighting global warming and it hadn’t paid off – politically or business-wise.
As evidence of how bad Schweiger left things, O’Mara had to deal with an $8 million budget deficit and fire 50 of NWF’s most experienced (and expensive) staff. NWF’s endowment is down to $54 million; I recall it being twice that. O’Mara is selling NWF’s suburban-DC headquarters building. (I directed its $20 million construction in 2001.)

And in the Nation’s Capital, NWF’s presence, formerly symbolized by its older headquarters – a formidable building just up 16th Street from the White House, that once bustled with environmental experts and lobbyists – has shrunk to a few staff sharing offices elsewhere.

While it’s understandable that O’Mara had to take drastic actions to save NWF from ruin, a recent summary of his changes reads to me like NWF’s obituary (Greenwire, March 3, 2015). In it, O’Mara says he is going to return NWF to its roots – the “hook-and-bullet base.” He has shifted NWF’s resources to local issues of more immediate concern to hunters and anglers.

If dramatically downsizing its presence on national wildlife issues seems an odd thing for the National Wildlife Federation to do, then you have to understand NWF’s odd governance system. Managing NWF is complicated immensely by its organizational roots, which go back to the 1930s, that are predominately local and state-based hunting and fishing clubs. Their representatives – one affiliate from each state – set NWF’s conservation policies and elect its Board of Directors.
It may have looked surprising that this affiliate-controlled Board turned for its new CEO to an outsider – O’Mara came from running the state of Delaware’s natural resources agency. But really, not so surprising, given NWF’s dismal experience with his predecessor, Larry Schweiger, who was the quintessential NWF insider who always boasted that NWF was his family. It makes sense that the Board this time went with someone from outside the “family.”

One thing the two men appear to have in common, however, is a conservative streak, which seems bound to translate into too much tolerance of the Republican-driven political agenda that leaves no room for inconvenient science or environmental protection. Schweiger is an outspoken evangelical Christian. O’Mara, an activist Republican who formerly worked for a conservative, upstate-New York congressman.
O’Mara says he’s going to mobilize NWF as “America’s conservation field army” in order to right partisan gridlock on conservation issues. Good luck fulfilling that tired refrain.

His predecessor, Schweiger, also glorified NWF’s hook-and-bullet affiliates as the “army of folks” responsible for “the future of wildlife for this world.” And the highest priority of NWF’s previous CEO, Mark Van Putten, was creating an army of citizen activists to save the world.
Despite their miserable failures, now comes O’Mara saying he’s going to rely on NWF’s hook-and-bullet base to build his “army.” That seems to me like trying to fight a real war with recruits from the American Legion. Perhaps good guys in their day, but unfortunately on the wrong end of the actuarial tables.

Not unlike me, I admit. My days of trying to come up with answers for NWF’s complex woes are long past. I spelled out my sorry record in that effort last year in my memoir, Life with Big Green (ebook available on and ibooks). As for O’Mara, we’ve never even met and I wish him nothing but success.
In fact, NWF’s move toward dramatically-reduced capacity and expectations may be inevitable and the best it can hope for, particularly given NWF’s peculiar governance structure. Besides, with the gridlock in Washington, DC, why waste time there? Focusing on local and state wildlife issues just might make more sense. And, O’Mara says he’s going to build up NWF’s environmental education programs for kids. Who can argue with that? NWF’s Ranger Rick magazine, for example, is its most-recognizable asset with ordinary people, most of who never heard of the National Wildlife Federation.

One former NWF colleague opined that O’Mara’s direction: “may be a path to survival… The transformation may find NWF in a niche where it can thrive even if it is at a more modest scale.”
I think he’s probably right. But having once devoted more than a decade working at NWF, another decade working for its Michigan state affiliate, plus several years writing newspaper stories about environmental issues, I find that prognosis very sad. The Nation’s wildlife deserves better.

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