Turnover at the top

  • Mike Brune


"Attention, Home Depot shoppers! Aisle 12 has lumber ripped from the heart of old-growth forests!"

California environmentalist Mike Brune got the idea to make shocking announcements like that during what he calls his "intercom campaign." He and his operatives acquired the access code to Home Depot's intercom systems -- punch *80 -- and pulled it off. The theatrics, which established Brune as a notorious green prankster during the 1990s, helped persuade the giant home-improvement chain to sell lumber that is logged at least somewhat sustainably.

Brune has made a career out of imaginative civil disobedience, successfully pushing consumers to help reform corporate practices. Since he graduated college in 1993, he's worked for Greenpeace, the Coastal Rainforest Coalition and then the Rainforest Action Network, where he held the group's top job -- executive director -- from 2002 until recently. He estimates that he's been arrested about a dozen times for trespassing and other protest-related offenses, but he's also known for negotiating pleasantly with corporations. On March 15, he'll take a new job as one of the world's most influential environmentalists: executive director of the 700,000-member Sierra Club.

Brune's latest career move is notable for many reasons. He vows to jazz up the Sierra Club's efforts to battle fossil fuels, back renewable energy and protect habitat under the regime of climate change. He also signifies a generational shift: At 38, he's replacing Carl Pope, who's worked for the Sierra Club for 37 years, the last 18 as executive director.

Similar changes in top leadership are occurring in at least seven other environmental groups active in the West: the National Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (which organizes hunters and anglers), Earthworks (which campaigns to reform mining), the Montana Wilderness Association, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace-USA.

We'll see a growing trend of (nonprofit leaders) stepping down (because) there's a big class of baby-boomer types who are moving toward their sunset years," says Rick Johnson, the Idaho Conservation League's executive director. But such transitions, he adds, are "nothing strange."

Studies show that the leader of a modern nonprofit generally serves only four or five years before stepping down or moving to another group. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services in San Francisco, for instance, helped survey 2,000 leaders of groups in 2005 and found that "three-quarters don't plan on being in their current jobs five years from now, and 9 percent are currently in the process of leaving." The reasons included "frustrations with boards of directors," low pay and the constant pressure to raise money from foundations and individual donors.

Today's economic recession, which has made fund-raising yet more difficult, adds to executive directors' burnout rate. There's even a new field called "executive transition management," as experts try to help groups prepare for "a large wave of leadership transition," the CompassPoint study reports.

There's also a political dynamic: "Everybody was hunkered down during the Bush administration, focused on the fights at hand," says an environmental-group consultant in Seattle. The greener Obama presidency creates a better atmosphere for career moves: Many environmentalist leaders are now working for Obama, and others feel freer to take jobs with different groups or retire because they are less worried about abandoning the troops in the middle of a raging battle.

Some groups appear to be maintaining their status quo despite leadership changes. Chris Wood, the new CEO of Trout Unlimited, has been with that group for nine years and led its more vocal efforts to stand up for habitat during the Bush administration. Under his leadership, the group will likely remain politically active.

But new leaders always bring the possibility of improvement, and some of the groups clearly want to adjust their strategies to be more effective. Brune told San Francisco radio station KQED that he wants the Sierra Club's campaigns to be more "creative, fun and exciting" -- more appealing to the general public as well as to activists. It's an exhilarating time for those who think that the environmental movement needs different leaders and a more experimental approach to deal with the 21st century's distinctive problems.

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