04 April 2013

Review: NATURE'S FORTUNE by Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams

I remember when I first learned that some guy from Goldman Sachs was taking the helm at The Nature Conservancy.

I had left TNC already and was meeting a former colleague and friend who has also since moved on from TNC.

"Hank Paulson?" I asked, assuming the former TNC board chair was unhappy at Treasury and that the CEO spot at TNC would have been a nice swap.

"No, Mark Tercek," my friend informed me. "He used to run some environmental unit at Goldman."

"That's a bold move," I answered, thinking it complemented the trajectory that John Sawhill started back in the 1990s. "In some ways it legitimizes what John was saying that companies had to be part of the solution."

My friend was more worried about how it would impact management of the organization, which had long operated more like a Fortune 500 company than a non-profit, but we agreed the new guy would have to adapt as much as the organization.

Then I met Mark in Aspen where we were both speaking at the Aspen Institute's Environment Forum, and heard him speak about his journey and what he saw as the challenges for the environmental movement. I was impressed by his humility, candor, and sense of purpose.

In his short tenure at the Conservancy, Tercek's taken some bold steps to build on Sawhill's legacy of corporate engagement, developed new financing mechanisms for conservation, and brought transparency and authenticity to his role through social media.

While there are still grumblings in the ranks at TNC that things haven't changed all that much or that there is still a disconnect between the field and the "Home Office," from my view, Tercek seems to be making the tough choices, living with the consequences, and course-correcting where need be.

Now, with science writer Jonathan Adams, Tercek has published his thoughts on the new direction TNC and other environmental groups must take to achieve real, lasting results in conservation.

Not everything in Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature is new -- the writers trot out some old saws like the protection of the NYC watershed, the water funds in Ecuador, and the concept of accounting for "natural capital” that have been around for over a decade -- but Tercek's banking imprimatur, a different kind of green roots, may legitimize to the business community that business can be a beneficial environmental partner.

More activist oriented greenies may not like this approach. There have been a number of attacks on the organization for its work with Dow Chemical, taking money from Monsanto, and some of its management of specific projects over the years.

Tercek and Adams are careful to thank the activist organizations for their role in calling attention to issues and keeping TNC and its corporate partners honest.

It is refreshing to see the Conservancy turning its attention to urban conservation in New York City and elsewhere, which it has traditionally shied away from preferring to view cities as “major markets” for philanthropy and marketing purposes.

More radical perhaps is Tercek's assertion that more basic business thinking familiar to corporate analysts should be part of the environmental organization's toolkit, such as maximizing returns, investing in assets, managing risk, diversifying portfolios, and promoting innovation.

Nature's Fortune is not a perfect book. I'd prefer a little more poetry, which Tercek studied in college and continues to be involved with as a reader, in the mix.

But the book is a good primer for business readers and will sit nicely on a shelf next to Ray Anderson’s Mid-Course Correction and Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, and other books about the relationship between ecology, economics, and how the two are increasingly interdependent.