Big Thinking: Why conservation professionals are important to society and the economy

There is a prevailing notion in the conservation nonprofit world that spending money on personnel is a sign of misplaced priorities. I have frequently heard people who profess to care deeply and urgently about conservation say things like, “Well, that organization is bloated, it just has too many employees.” Individual philanthropists, foundations, and government granting agencies regularly exclude or skimp on funding to support the salaries of conservation staff. And I have heard employees of small nonprofits dis big nonprofits—BINGOS they call them (and the target of their dissing is usually the Nature Conservancy)—by saying something along these lines: “Look how small our annual expenditures on salaries are? We only have three employees, but we get a heck of a lot done.” I call this small thinking.

Funny how these folks are happy to take home their own paychecks while failing to think about what their organizations could accomplish if they had more—not fewer—employees. They write off the value of having other like-minded, well-trained, and equally committed individuals getting paid to work alongside them or in any number of other conservation endeavors of which there is no shortage. They fail to consider the wider economic and societal value of their profession: that is, having a robust, well-paid, and well-respected population of conservation professional living and working in communities across the U.S., buying homes, paying taxes, sending their kids to school, talking to their next door neighbor about nature and the environment, serving on community boards, maybe even running for public office.

Moreover, they telegraph a message to the world that conservation professionals—in other words, they themselves—are superfluous, some sort of expensive luxury. I believe this mindset helps explain why people who work in conservation, when compared to other professionals like teachers and healthcare workers, are marginalized in their communities and not infrequently vilified when confrontations arise over environmental issues.

I am a former employee of the Nature Conservancy. Like other so-called BINGOS such as National Audubon Society and World Wildlife Fund, TNC recognizes that investing in human capital is the most effective way to achieve its mission while at the same time supporting a workforce that sets an example for society and plows money back into the economy. The Nature Conservancy’s largest program expense is its personnel. In 2014, with revenues of $1.1 billion, the organization paid $309,859,000 in salaries and $13,877,000 into retirement plans for employees.

Think about it. Nature Conservancy employees, paid largely by means of philanthropic contributions, spend and save their earnings, putting that $300 million back into the private-sector economy, where a percentage of it will be donated back to conservation or other worthy causes. It is as elegant as the water cycle—money flowing from the private sector into the philanthropic pond then back into the private sector in a never-ending process (that is, as long as there are generous people who understand the power of philanthropy).

I believe a spectrum of conservation nonprofits—from small and local to huge and international—provides flexibility, intense focus, and broad continuity to addressing the manifold conservation challenges we face and there should be manifold business models for getting the work of conservation done. But I think the smaller nonprofits should take a cue from the BINGOS’ playbook. They should be investing more in human capital.

Small to medium-sized nonprofits often point proudly to robust volunteer rosters—people who work for free to help organizations achieve lofty and often challenging missions. Volunteerism is noble; we should all volunteer for something sometime in our lives. But running a nonprofit with volunteers is ridiculously naïve. More small thinking.

Volunteers work when they want to. They don’t necessarily feel obliged to follow orders (they can’t get fired and they often think “they know better”). Many volunteers bring valuable skills but just as many, while well meaning, are incompetent. Paid staff often have to “baby-sit” volunteers when they have more valuable work to do. Younger conservation professionals who may have jobs or are finishing up degrees often volunteer for nonprofits. In part, they are building up their résumés but in addition the vast majority of them have a passion for a conservation cause—until they are overworked and exploited because of their enthusiasm and idealism. Commitment turns into resentment.

There is a similar trend in the world of field biology and wildlife ecology. These professions rely too heavily on volunteer or poorly compensated (below minimum-wage) technicians—38% of the work force in one recent study (A.M.V. Fournier and A.L. Bond 2015)—to gather biological data about virtually every living thing—fishes to birds to plants to plankton—as well as information about systems function—marine acidification to climate data to soil chemistry to aquifer recharge. It is this vast pool of data that helps drive the missions and agendas of conservation nonprofits. And all this data is being collected and often analyzed by a whole lot of underpaid people. I happen to know quite a few of them personally, and many of them are, to put it bluntly, pissed off. They are becoming disillusioned about the things they care most about.

Field biology research, typically the academic pursuit of university professors, is funded primarily by governmental grants (federal, state, county, municipal). In this funding scenario, a negative feedback loop has developed that perpetuates the under-funding of salaries for the people who actually do the research. Professors (and their institutions, who want funding streaming into their coffers) submit grants with budgets that invariably and cynically skimp on reimbursement for technicians to increase the odds of their grants being funded. Granting agencies invariably and cynically fund the low-wage grants and broadcast the message that they are unlikely to fund grants with bigger budgets for salaries. The professors and their institutions do not challenge the feedback loop, and thereby they broadcast the message that their endeavors in field and conservation biology are of lesser importance than other types of research. In the realm of medical research, for example, post-doctoral students and career lab technicians actually earn living wages, because in our current culture medical research is deemed of greater importance than research that, well, might save the planet.

This pecuniary shortsightedness, madness, cynicism—call it what you will—drives competent and dedicated people out of the profession, stifles cultural diversity in science and conservation, and demeans people who continue to slog along poorly compensated (or not at all) for their time and effort and commitment. To quote a person with window on this world, ecosystems scientist Darroch M. Whitaker: “In my experience, underpaying new professionals almost invariably causes them extreme financial and consequent emotional hardship.” He continues, “A commonly reported frustration results from the widespread attitude among natural-resource professionals that financial motivation, even out of necessity, is in some way impure” (D.M. Whitaker 2002).

Read: This work is so noble and important you should do it for little or nothing.

Imagine if teachers, physicians, nurses, fire fighters, police, plumbers, electricians, investment bankers, farmers, pilots, truckers, lawyers, longshoremen, and software developers went around saying “My work’s so important to society, I’ll just do it for free.” Or “My employer can prosper with fewer of me, so I’ll just quit my job.”

A number of these professions have experienced, or currently are experiencing, some level of worker exploitation (e.g., teachers, nurses), but all of them have organizations or unions that promote the importance, indispensability, and nobility of their workers in the social and economic fabric of life, lobby for their welfare and remuneration, and provide some form of educational assistance, job training, and ongoing professional development. Conservation nonprofits, biological researchers, and conservation professionals themselves simply haven’t followed the example of other professions. They have failed to organize to make their case for fairer pay and fairer play from their employers and funders. Indeed, they seem resigned to the status quo.

Without some mighty prodding—or more likely, some mighty incandescent economic light bulbs going off—private and corporate foundations, governmental funding agencies, philanthropists, and business and industry will continue to short change conservation nonprofits and conservation professionals. What is it these sectors of our society don’t get? Do they really not understand the fundamental economic importance of ecosystems services? Do they really not see that global climate change will cause, is causing, global economic disruptions? Do they believe that fixing all the myriad other conservation problems—widespread loss of biodiversity, ocean pollution and acidification, shrinking wetlands, dying coral reefs, crashing marine fisheries, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, illegal poaching of megafauna in Africa, poorly regulated mining or mining in sensitive areas, declining avian populations, to name just a few—will somehow miraculously happen without paying for a well-trained conservation and science work force?

My arguments—small conservation nonprofits should not apologize for hiring conservation professionals; conservation professionals enrich the communities where they live, socially and economically; funders of conservation should more vigorously support an expanding conservation work force—come from a moral-value position, although I think a strong economic case could be made for these arguments. I personally regret that I am only now in my seventh decade trying to educate myself about economics, especially as it pertains to global climate change and broader conservation issues. I do believe the conservation movement, including myself, has leaned too heavily on moral suasion in the absence of hard economic arguments and to the detriment of our cause.

Moral authority and economic reality do not exist in parallel universes—examples: Everything for Sale: the Virtues and Limits of Markets by Robert Kuttner; Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy by Paul J. Sak; Generation Investment Management, founded by Al Gore and David Blood—but purely moral arguments in the absence of economic motivation seldom incentivize people or governments to change their behavior. A case in point: Pope Francis’ beautifully reasoned moral arguments in Laudato Si’, his encyclical on climate change and the environment issued on May 24, 2015, neither swayed the five Catholic U.S. Supreme Court justices who on February 9, 2016—Scalia died four days after the ruling—ruled to temporarily block the Obama administration’s efforts to control global climate change by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants nor me and my husband who drive twice a year back and forth from Minnesota to Mexico, about 6,000 miles, in a 4WD truck that gets not very good mileage because we use the truck to access beautiful, wild areas of Mexico that we love for their relative intactness and rich biodiversity. We also do so because so far we can afford to.

On October 8, 2015, my husband and I attended a lecture at the University of Minnesota by economist Michael Greenstone (, an authority on U.S. energy policy and the economic impact of global climate change. It was a fascinating lecture about Greenstone’s research, especially in China, on the implications of government energy pricing in confronting global climate change. During the Q&A session, a mechanical engineering student asked the kind of long-winded and earnest rhetorical question I might have asked about changing behaviors and lifestyles to reduce energy consumption. His question concluded,

“…if you are looking at solutions, why look at solutions only as energy pricing and not at the real driver for that energy consumption, which is the lifestyle of different societies.”

Greenstone replied:

“OK, that is a fabulous question and I am just going to knock that one right out of the park here. And I will reveal how narrow-minded I am on this and you can walk out of here with a sense of moral superiority that I don’t understand the way the world works, but as an economist, it’s prices. All that stuff is a function of prices—the way societies are formed, cities are shaped—that is all a function of the prices we set out and how people respond to those prices.”

I might have let the questioner down more gently, but Greenstone got my attention. Since then I have been thinking more about how I respond to prices (it’s pretty much according to Greenstone: prior to my retirement, I would buy the occasional bottle of Veuve Clicquot; those days are history) and about how our society allocates resources for different purposes. Here, for example, are the President’s fiscal 2016 budget requests for several governmental agencies and departments:

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—$1.6 billion
  • National Park Service—$3 billion
  • Environmental Protection Agency—$8.6 billion
  • Department of Homeland Security—$41.2 billion
  • Department of Defense—$534 billion

This list is just one of many possible metrics for gaging the prices our government—i.e., we the taxpayers—set for doing the business of conservation and environmental protection versus pricing for other priorities in our complex society. We get what we pay for. We don’t get what we don’t pay for.


Sources and further reading:

Fournier, A.M.V, and A.L. Bond. 2015. Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology. Wildlife Society Bulletin. DOI: 10:1002/wsb.603.

D.M. Whitaker. 2003. The Use of Full-time Volunteers and Interns by Natural-Resource Professionals. Conservation Biology 17:330-333.

Listen to Michael Greenstone’s lecture on economic incentives related to global climate change:

James Fallow’s article on Al Gore and Generation Investment Management:

Fiscal 2016 Budget of the United States Government


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