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TNC's Mark Tercek: Protect, transform and inspire

The Nature Conservancy's CEO shares why it's expanding its worldview through connections with Dow, Rio Tinto and dozens of others.

It’s tempting to measure The Nature Conservancy’s recent accomplishments in terms of land protected.

From its latest annual update (PDF), we’re talking 3.7 million acres and counting in Colombia (that’s three times the size of Yellowstone National Park); 1,000 square miles of Cuban coral reefs; and a modest island in Lake Michigan critical for the survival of 100 migratory bird species. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

But these days, the 63-year-old nonprofit’s influence extends far beyond buying up or preserving endangered acreage.

On the ground in more than 30 countries and all 50 U.S. states, TNC’s rallying cry centers on three central themes: Protect; transform; and inspire.

For its 2014 fiscal year, it raised more than $1.1 billion including gifts, grants and other income. What’s more, some of its most transformative work stems from long-term corporate partnerships — with the likes of Dow Chemical, JPMorgan Chase and Rio Tinto — that prioritize responsible economic development in emerging nations.

“I think more businesses are prepared to be bold, transparent,” said Mark Tercek, president and CEO, during a recent interview about the NGO’s evolving strategy. “They want to invest in the long view. Those are the kinds of projects, the kinds of things we want to do.”

That word “invest” resonates deeply with Tercek, the former Goldman Sachs investment banker who left the financial world in 2008 for his TNC post. 

Practically speaking, he believes alliances speed projects, force closer attention to detail and encourage documentation of best practices that can be shared around the world. “If I say to a business, ‘Invest,’ they expect a really precise report,” Tercek said. “I really welcome that; it makes us better.” 

TNC’s partnerships are shaped by three primary missions:

1. An interest in building nature’s value into corporate supply chains.

2. Funds that can achieve large-scale conservation goals.

3. The need to build mainstream awareness for environmental causes.

There is no neat formula to the NGO’s partnerships, but one could describe TNC’s worldview as one of perpetual compromise, of relationships approached through a “cautious wariness,” as Tercek describes it.

Sometimes, TNC’s legacy can be a challenge in forging these ties. “When we announced the relationship with Dow, there was a lot of skepticism,” Tercek recalled. “Most of the questions, however, have become diminished, because they are doing what they said they would do.”

Dow’s recent move, for example, to account for natural capital as part of its ongoing business planning  and to create $1 billion in new value for the chemical company in the process  is the sort of innovation it’s difficult to refute.

In Tercek’s world, some of TNC’s most impactful assignments are those aimed at encouraging proactive land management policies that prioritize low-impact development. A vivid example is TNC’s relationship with Rio Tinto to protect the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. The organization was consulted upfront by the local government, which was concerned about guiding development from the onset.  

The result is a regional landscape policy for mining created with an eye to holistic habitat preservation. Since this development was going to happen, it was in TNC’s interest to minimize the damage. To be clear, TNC is looking for “truly transformative assignments,” not a portfolio of consulting gigs. 

“By giving Mongolia’s scientific community a clear picture of the various threats — including development, climate change and unsustainable herding — confronting the country’s ecosystems, the Conservancy will support decision-makers in steering development away from biodiversity hotspots and devising mitigation opportunities,” TNC wrote in its case study about the project, begun in 2010.

TNC’s closest corporate allies — the ones willing to share ideas — are members of the organization’s Business Council. Again, some names on the list are controversial, such as BP America and Monsanto.

But Tercek said the group’s advocacy influence is not to be underestimated. He wants more businesses to know what’s not working.

“It’s a good way for them to familiarize themselves about what’s going on in other sectors. Smart people spend time with each other, try out ideas on each other,” he said.

Looking into the future, Tercek believes TNC’s most powerful weapon in preserving biodiversity will be encouraging deeper diversity, in both thought and connections.

“Diverse experiences and talents are very useful when you’re trying to do new things, if you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. That includes gender, national background; it also includes diversity of experience,” he mused. “NGO careers benefit from private sector experience. Social scientists, economists, they benefit from people with private sector views.”

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