Big Green

Audubon's upward digital journey: CEO David Yarnold

David Yarnold, CEO and president, Audubon Society
Camilla Cerea/Audubon
David Yarnold, CEO and president, Audubon Society.

The Audubon Society appears to be doing everything right in social media and marketing. It’s got apps, maps, a buzz on social media, an engaging website and a funny blog. It's hip to crowdsourcing and citizen science: In just one weekend, 163,000 of its volunteers recorded on smartphones their sightings of more than 5,000 bird species. Audubon said its digital platforms reach a million people, a staggering climb from just 35,000 a couple of years ago.

Much credit for this goes to David Yarnold, CEO and president. He joined Audubon in 2010 after a long career in journalism at the Pulitzer-winning San Jose Mercury News, and a stint as president at the Environmental Defense Fund.

When he started, Audubon had hundreds of chapters and no strategic plan. Yarnold was able to see that as an opportunity. Using the language of someone well-versed in Silicon Valley metaphors, he explained.

Elsa Wenzel: How was Audubon "broken" when you came onboard?

David Yarnold: We're 111 years old and there was good work being done at our 463 chapters and at our 23 state offices. But it wasn't aligned around a vision. ... Audubon had strayed from its core values and its mission and had not taken advantage of technology. ...Audubon hadn't had a staff-written strategic plan for more than two decades before we wrote one in 2010.


An Audubon tweet comparing flamingoes with ballet dancers

A recent tweet from the Audubon Society is a classic display of a sense of fun with a call to engagement.

Audubon had this amazing distributed network that had been viewed as a burden and a nuisance, because Audubon's structure is a pre-internet structure of a series of almost freestanding state offices and chapters. ... But really in an internet-rich era, a distributed network was a gift.

All we had to do was to fire up that base with a shared vision.

Wenzel: Step me through how you established the vision and then how you got people fired up, what kinds of tools you used, for example?

Yarnold: So in search of that vision, I spent my first month on the road. I went down the Mississippi, up the Atlantic, down the Pacific to Mexico, and I just listened to people tell me the story about Audubon. And they told me the story about the four superhighways in the sky that go up and down the U.S., the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways they're called. ...

Underneath these superhighways there are rest stops and homes for migratory and non-migratory birds. And there are 2,700 places that we call important bird areas, and they are America's network of biodiversity, and our job is to protect the tipping points.

And so I learned that story and I synthesized that story; I did what any reporter would do. ... And then when we went to do a strategic plan in 2010, instead of starting with a whiteboard we started with a hypothesis around the flyways of the Americas. We adopted this strategic plan with a set of conservation priorities.

What happened that was magical was that everybody in Audubon, whether they were a chapter in Lexington or Wenatchee or San Diego or Tallahassee or a state office or a nature center, everybody saw themselves in that strategic plan. They knew that their ruby-throated hummingbirds were connected to South America. They knew that their shorebirds migrated from the Arctic down to Chile.

First of all, people have a tremendous sense of ownership and connection, an emotional connection to birds. And so the flyways were a way for people to connect with something larger than themselves. That's a deep human yearning and that also talks to the way people who love birds think about birds, that they're travelers and that they're heroic. And so the flyways vision worked way better than we had any expectation that it would.

By bringing on technology through one of our key partners, the Environmental Systems Research Institute ... by using their data, we were able to look at the most important places to preserve for birds.

And what that did was it gave us a scientifically valid look at a much larger landscape than the artificial boundaries that state boundaries create. ... By following science and by following the data, we were able to begin to overcome some of the silos that had grown up over a period decades.

Wenzel: Now the Audubon Society — when you think of ... stereotypes or images associated with people involved, you might think of older folks in tennis shoes and librarian types ...

Yarnold: Floppy hats.

Wenzel: You have this great history of citizen science that maybe wasn't called that.

Yarnold: Yeah, we've been crowdsourcing data for 116 years. We operate the longest running, largest animal census on the planet, the Christmas Bird Count, and millions of people have taken part in it. Audubon was at its formation a social network; it was created by primarily women in the Northeast and the Southeast who wanted to stop the slaughter of birds for their feathers for hats. ...

Most important is when you look at our metrics, people spend three times as much time on our social media sites as on average. So we don't just go for quantity, we go for quality of engagement.

The great thing is we have this marvelous window onto nature called birds, and people take birds personally. They have ownership. And if you have a brand, what you most want is for people to feel that they're invested in the brand, right? When the National Audubon Society tells you that your grandkids may not see a loon because of climate change, and it's time to take action so that that doesn't happen, you pay attention.

Interviewer: How did you make that [digital] transformation? How much of it involved recruiting new people and how did all this happen?

Yarnold: We had three people doing communications plus a magazine staff that published on a bimonthly schedule. ... Now we publish on multiple platforms; it's everybody's job to publish online and in print. We have tailored publications. We hired people to do social media. We had to hire an almost new leadership team. We were not afraid of making change, and we had a supportive board. ...

What we wanted to achieve first was to make sure that we were getting the message out about what Audubon was. ... We had a lot of really unsexy things to fix, like finance and HR.

Wenzel: And you got a lot of people from for-profit companies to join?

Yarnold: We did. In the hardcore conservation arena you want conservation professionals, but when it comes to the business practices, when it comes to marketing, when it comes to communications, we went outside of the conservation and environmental world and hired people from the consumer and for-profit space.

Wenzel: How many people are on your communications team now, or teams?

Yarnold: At headquarters in New York ... I'm going to say 20, 22. And then there are communication specialists out in the field. And one of the things we're really excited about is that this summer we have four fellows in communications whose job is to reach out to a younger demographic. 

Wenzel: What are some sectors that you think desperately need a communications makeover?

Yarnold: Most of the non-profit world.

I haven't studied the for-profit world very intensively. One of the things that I look at in the for-profit world is where sustainability fits into organizations. Is it something off to the side or is it integrated into an organization's operations?

I actually was recruited for the sustainability position at one of Silicon Valley's biggest names, and they had no idea where that person would report functionally, and it ended up not reporting into an operations role. It was going to make the sustainability officer the badgerer-in-chief, and I don't think that's a really great job.

Wenzel: Can you talk about some of Audubon's work with corporations? For example, there was Toyota TogetherGreen in 2008. 

Yarnold: So the Toyota TogetherGreen partnership lasted for seven years; it was a great run. And we touched nearly a million people in communities across the country. Every year, 80 people either got yearlong fellowships or grants. So that was an eight-year, $25 million partnership. ... We did everything from cleaning up streams to teaching kids how to make biofuels to preserving bird habitats.

Right now we have a great partnership with Aveda where we earn $4 on every bottle of an essential oil that Aveda sells and it's called the Aveda Love Composition Oil. ... This is a company that believes that doing good in the world is as important or a close second to making a profit.

ESRI, our technology mapping partners, has given us millions of dollars worth of software and support so that we can sit at the table with oil companies and county planners and talk to them using maps and visual storytelling and help create visions of the future for communities and massive regions like the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Audubon has never put enough of a premium on corporate partnerships, and that's something that we plan to pivot towards in the next year.

Wenzel: Is there any danger appearing less sincere or authentic when aligning with a for-profit entity? Any pitfalls from your side?

Yarnold: You always have to be aware of the possibility of greenwashing. And we have agreements with all of our partners that talk about how the brand gets used, how the name gets used. ...

So even with all that people recognize that the millions of people who love birds and appreciate Audubon's brand are engaged, they're smart, they're good customers and they're loyal. So, that stereotype, Jane Hathaway in the floppy hat ... she's a terrific member. But I've also met Audubon members who have lightning bolts shaved in their heads and they're 20 years old and have nose rings.

The Roseate spoonbill
Nancy Bauer

Yarnold's favorite bird, the Roseate spoonbill, described as "gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close" by the Kaufman Field Guides.

The face of birding is changing and it's kind of cool to be a geek right now, right? All you have to do is look at our Facebook page and look at the hundreds of thousands of people who look at our osprey cam or want to know how to make hummingbird food.

Wenzel: How much of your growth in traffic from social media to your site or app is from younger people, say so-called millennials?

Yarnold: It's a lot. ... One of the things I'll do every now and then is casually stalk the people who comment on our Facebook page. What you see is that that's a broad range of people. ... But there's no question that we're marketing hard to millennials.

And one of the things that I'm really excited about is that this fall, we're going to launch a database that will enable you to find the native plants that are best for birds in your county. ... 

One of the things that amazed me about Audubon was how many people love birds. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that there are 47 million people in America who like birding. That's second only to gardening as a hobby.

Wenzel: Do you have a favorite bird?

Yarnold: That's like asking me do I have a favorite kid. All right, so the answer is yes. I love the Roseate Spoonbill... I mean, who would not like a big pink bird with a big spoon-shaped bill, right?

Wenzel: Birds have been kind of a political pawn. ... People complain that we're trying to save these species and impeding progress, whether it's for wind power or what-have-you. You're doing work on making sure renewable energy developments don't harm habitats.

Yarnold: Audubon is fully committed to the idea that we need to create a clean energy economy, because climate change is the greatest threat to birds and people. But we want to do that in a way that minimizes harm to wildlife. ... But we're really challenged by that because the wind industry tends to talk a good game, but at the end of the day it acts out of self-interest. We're not afraid to say that when it happens.

It's urgent for America to have a clean energy economy. And I think it's equally important to do that in a sensible way that protects wildlife and our natural heritage. Why not?

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