Nonprofits reap the profits


Green, Inc. – An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad
Christine MacDonald
288 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
The Lyons Press, 2008.

Inflated executive salaries. Top brass hobnobbing at expensive getaways. Questionable side deals negotiated with no concern for the everyday folks affected by them.

These problems aren't just native to Wall Street. They also occur in a rather unexpected habitat: environmental nonprofits. In Green Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Christine MacDonald takes these groups to task for numerous misdeeds and illicit activities.

MacDonald worked for Conservation International's Global Communications Division in 2006, before her job was axed in a corporate restructuring. But this book isn't just a bitter diatribe from an ex-employee; it raises legitimate questions. The three biggies of the enviro nonprofit world -- Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund -- bear the brunt of MacDonald's criticism. Others are implicated, too, including the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund. MacDonald isn't angry with the groups' rank-and-file workers, but she has plenty to say about the transgressions of their leaders.

he big three get millions of dollars in donations from corporations that influence their decisions and policies. In the Amazon, Conservation International works with Bunge, an agribusiness that is decimating the rainforest for soybean production. The World Wildlife Fund defends IKEA, the home furnishings company, and is ushered in for damage control after the mega-chain is discovered selling illegally logged wood. The Nature Conservancy lavishes conservation leadership awards on Shell Oil and Exxon Mobil, despite their records of environmental irresponsibility. "Reputational insurance" is what MacDonald labels this, meaning the big polluters "know the next time they end up in a fight with uncompromising environmentalists they can count on having a conservation heavyweight in their corner."

MacDonald lists some needed reforms: Groups should limit corporate donations and influence on their boards of directors, publicly disclose funding sources, and cap executive pay. 

Still, despite their problems, the big nonprofits do good and necessary work, and in this era of climate change and disappearing species, MacDonald understands that "we need our environmental organizations more than ever."

Wes Rolley
Wes Rolley
Apr 15, 2009 09:49 AM
Those who have been concerned about ecology for much longer than I have been telling me this for years. For all the individual good they do, this just gives cover for a lot of bad. The Nature Conservancy helped to save a historical hot springs site in my county, and then turns around and supports an environmentally catastrophic peripheral canal solution for the California Delta.

Guarding against greenwashing
Tim Connor
Tim Connor
Apr 15, 2009 03:16 PM
Ever since Environmental Defense Fund started working with McDonald's in 1990 to eliminate foam-plastic sandwich bags, along with 150,000 tons of packaging waste, we've been accused by some of corporate greenwashing. In fact, EDF has from the beginning operated under strict guidelines for the NGO-corporate partnerships we understake: EDF does not accept payment or financial contributions from our partners and we hold them accountable for achieving and reporting on any environmental improvements we agree upon. For a more complete description of our experience with this issue, read about the policy at[…]/.