Nonprofits reap the profits

by Brian Park

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."

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