Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Steve McCormick
In this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas and trends in the environmental movement.
Next in the series is my conversation with Steve McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and my predecessor as CEO at The Nature Conservancy.
Mark Tercek: What do you see as the biggest environmental challenges we face — and the best ways to address them?
Steve McCormick: Well, let me start by saying that the biggest reality we need to confront is that, despite all the great conservation work that’s been done over the past 50 years, we haven’t staunched the rate of loss of biodiversity. Extinction rates have actually increased in the 30 years I’ve worked in conservation. And while some major habitat types, like temperate forests, have been fairly well conserved, most are disappearing at accelerated rates.
The biggest challenge we have to face, therefore, is that the drivers of these changes derive from fundamental human needs and desires. While I am passionate about the importance of creating protected areas, I’m convinced that the only way we will secure conservation at a globally meaningful scale is to work on system change, especially in market systems by reflecting the true costs of natural capital in its various forms.
Mark Tercek: What else could the environmental movement do to better address these challenges?
Steve McCormick: Frankly, I don’t see a “movement” at all. I see individual organizations doing good projects, but the aggregate result of those projects isn’t adding up to mission success for any of the organizations. I would really like to see more collective effort towards really ambitious shared goals — goals that aim to reduce rates of loss of biological diversity.
Mark Tercek: Yes, I agree. We’re making some progress here — including our merger with Rare and the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) initiative, our new coalition with Wildlife Conservation Society and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis — but we still have a considerable ways to go. What other advice do you have for how we can we make the biggest difference in our mission?
Steve McCormick: Two things come immediately to mind. First, align everything around mission and strategy, meaning be willing to make tough trade-offs. I see a lot of organizations layering in new programs and activities without getting out of anything. Related to that, be absolutely clear on what constitutes mission success and be disciplined in assessing what will optimize achieving those goals.
Second, I strongly encourage conservation CEOs to find opportunities to work towards collective impact. I see from my current role how the conservation organizations could have much greater impact by working in complementarity. I have to confess, foundations could also do the same. It’s something I’m committed to here.
Mark Tercek: How is Moore trying to achieve “collective impact”? What are the best opportunities? And what would you do if you were in my shoes at The Nature Conservancy or at another NGO?
Steve McCormick: We have several collective efforts underway. One example is a joint venture — the Science Philanthropy Alliance — with six other large foundations that, like us, support basic research, and about a dozen research universities. The goal is to increase private funding for research by $1 billion over the next five years. In our Patient Care Program we are creating a coalition of four academic medical centers and three other foundations to create a scalable IT platform designed to dramatically decrease preventable harms in the ICU setting. And a good, recent example is the mobilization of key stakeholders in stopping the Pebble Mine at Bristol Bay in Alaska, led by a former TNC’er, Erin Dovichin.
As for what you and your colleague CEOs in conservation could do is share staff resources on a major issue — say energy — so that each NGO doesn’t create duplicative staffing and approaches. Get together and create a shared picture of a pragmatic energy future, then deploy the best, complementary staff from each organization. And give the joint effort sufficient decision-making authority and resources. Another opportunity is working with corporations on sustainability. Recognize that we need a common methodology around value of nature in business decisions, instead of individual one-off relationships with individual companies. The multiple approaches and models is creating confusion, and therefore lack of systemic, industry-wide uptake.
Mark Tercek: What else excites you about your work at Moore Foundation?
Steve McCormick: Foundations, especially large foundations like ours, with the size and reliability of our financial resources, have the rare capability of trying to effect systemic change. We can deploy patient capital; we can support unorthodox but potentially breakthrough ideas; we can strike quickly to create momentum; and we can help mobilize collective action. It’s really very exciting.
Mark Tercek: What are some of the most exciting opportunities in this regard that you are pursuing now?
Steve McCormick: Well, all of our Environment Program Initiatives — Andes-Amazon; Marine Conservation; Wild Salmon Ecosystems — are examples of “patient capital;” we’ve been involved with them for over ten years. As we move into addressing sustainability we will take the same long view. A good example of “quick strike” was our support of EDF’s imaginative habitat exchange approach to addressing the conflicts that arise when a species is listed as endangered. When we realized they had an opportunity to move other key players, but needed to act fast, we got a $1 million contribution to them immediately.
Mark Tercek: I argue in my book Nature’s Fortune that focusing on nature as an investment opportunity can get people who may have been viewed as opponents of the environmental movement on our side, provide a source of capital and an opportunity to scale up. What risks and opportunities do you see in this approach?
Steve McCormick: The problem is that markets don’t reflect the true costs of natural capital. The concept of externalities isn’t new, but until markets incorporate these costs we’ll continue to see investment decisions distorted by artificially high returns. So-called impact investing won’t be of sufficient scale to have sufficient influence on the overexploitation of natural capital.
Mark Tercek: Looking back, what is something that you’ve been wrong about in the past? How has that changed your thinking today?
Steve McCormick: Gosh, I’ve been wrong about so many things. Frankly, one of the things that I was “wrongest” about was trying to bring about substantial change in TNC. I tried to change too much, too fast. What I learned is just how profoundly hard it is to change big, established organizations.
As president and a trustee of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Steve McCormick leads the foundation’s work to turn bold ideas into enduring impact in environmental conservation, science and patient care. Since he became President, Steve has led the creation of new strategies for the Science and Environmental Conservation Programs, and the formation of the Patient Care Program.
Steve has devoted his career to the nonprofit sector. He began working for The Nature Conservancy in 1977 as western regional legal counsel, and became executive director of TNC’s California program in 1984. In that role he led an organization-wide effort to create “Conservation By Design,” the guiding strategic framework for TNC. Steve eventually served as TNC’s President and CEO for seven years. Steve also helped found Resources Law Group, which offers strategic expertise in designing programs to conserve natural resources.
Steve has served on many boards, and is currently on the boards of Independent Sector, Sustainable Conservation, and the California Wildlife Officers Foundation. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Chevron Conservation Award, the Edmund G. Brown Award for Environmental and Economic Balance, the John Pritzlaff Conservation Award and the California League of Conservation Voters’ Conservation Leadership Award.
Steve graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and Hastings School of Law.