Steve McCormick, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), announced his resignation on October 1st. In an all-staff e-mail, McCormick said:
"I've concluded that I've contributed all I can to help the organization improve its ability to fulfill the mission. I've decided, therefore, to resign, and will vacate my role immediately..."
The Washington Post notably assigned the story to reporter Joe Stevens, co-author of the 2003 exposé that by McCormick's own admission created "a withering, and potentially irreversible, crisis following the Washington Post series, and the consequent investigation by the Senate Finance Committee". McCormick's e-mail described that experience as a blow that the organization not only survived but which made it stronger. However, under McCormick's tenure there was plenty of turmoil at TNC before as well as after the Post series.
Following the previous CEO John Sawhill's untimely death, in 2001 McCormick ushered in a period of change and uncertainty within TNC. One of McCormick's first stated goals was to make The Nature Conservancy one of Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work. His leadership of TNC's redirection and re-organization, however, was poorly managed and seemingly indifferent to its impact on the Conservancy's more than 3,000 staff and long-time conservation partners: arguably it greatest resources.
The Post series, which in all fairness never produced the smoking guns it was after, nonetheless affected more than just the way The Nature Conservancy conducts its business. It set in motion a Senate Finance Committee hearing that among other things called into question the legitimacy of conservation easements: voluntary agreements between private landowners and conservation groups that protect land while keeping it in private ownership. Such easements have been one of the primary conservation tools used by land trusts across the country. In response, leading organizations within the land trust community have adopted standards and practices that make conservation easements far more difficult for small land trusts to accept when donated and strain their resources to defend when violated. The documentation of value now required of landowners by the IRS can set back an easement donor many thousands of dollars and must be verified by the land trust that accepts the donation. There are now some land trusts that do not wish to accept any more easements because they believe these standards and requirements are unduly burdensome.
Although the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that McCormick considers his work at the Conservancy done, TNC is preparing for a massive multi-year capital campaign and has recently expanded its global conservation work to include Africa in addition to Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. He may not be the right leader to carry this work forward, but his abrupt departure at this critical time will be very challenging for the organization if it wants to maintain its momentum.
If, as it appears, TNC has shown the door to its CEO - with indications of a golden parachute since McCormick will remain an adviser to the Conservancy's board for the coming year -, the McCormick Era will likely be remembered for the damage inflicted on the organization rather than the extraordinary accomplishments of this flagship conservation non-profit and its many dedicated staff and supporters. That would be a terrible shame, for TNC has unique skills and resources that enable it to save land and work at scales far greater than most non-profits, and we need it to remain a strong and viable conservation partner. I truly hope that TNC will take this opportunity to reflect on the kind of environmental leader and conservation partner it wants to be under the leadership of its next CEO.