The Business of Conservation
Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), shares how his two decades of experience as an investment banker inform his leadership in the nonprofit world, and how he’s using business acumen to revolutionize donor relations.
In mid-September, OAI had the pleasure of welcoming Mark Tercek to an Innovation Institute conversation with Steve Orr. The discussion ranged widely, from the applicability of investment tools such as LBOs to nonprofits, to new strategies for donor solicitation. Please read on for some key takeaways that demonstrate the innovative approaches that have propelled TNC to become one of the most influential conservation nonprofits in the world.
The entrepreneurial spirit that created The Nature Conservancy back in the 1950s lives on in TNC’s President and CEO, Mark Tercek. Coming to the social sector with two decades of experience on Wall Street, Tercek has pioneered new strategies for both operational and programmatic growth.
Don’t call it Overhead!
Tercek leads TNC with an eye towards business operations. As a seasoned investment banker, operational concerns such as information technology, staffing, and infrastructure are never far from top of his mind. “It’s crazy calling this stuff overhead!” he told the Innovation Institute, before stating that his preferred term for such costs is “core strategic underpinnings to organizational strength.”
While nonprofits have been warming up to the conversation surrounding overhead in recent years, there continues to be a lingering taboo around the word. It is certainly not a topic that is generally emphasized in major donor cultivation and solicitation.
“Candor, backed by facts.”
Tercek’s many years on Wall Street – performing due diligence on companies he hoped to pitch to investors – taught him that the key to building relationships is honesty about organizational needs. “I think on all this stuff, candor is the answer” he said at one point.
Tercek went on to describe a game-changing conversation he had with a major supporter of TNC. When asked to describe how he would wish TNC to use a theoretical multi-year, multi-million-dollar gift, he responded honestly: ideally at least half would be used to support operational projects such as improving IT and building out staffing. While his philanthropy team urged him to pitch a different area of funding, Tercek’s bold approach yielded incredible results. “The donor made a transformative gift to our information systems, they made a transformative gift to our philanthropy team, and they helped us build a team to raise money outside the US,” he told the Innovation Institute audience.
This story is representative of the more business-oriented cultivation and solicitation strategy that Tercek has worked to implement during his time at the Conservancy.
“When I joined the TNC our thinking was… to understand what made [donors] tick emotionally and then provide them gifts that lined up with what they were interested in.”
Rather than catering only to the emotional and programmatic interests of donors, Tercek has adopted and promulgated a new approach based on where he believes a gift will have the greatest impact. He pitches this to donors in terms of the return on their investment.
It is a practice that keeps TNC aligned to its long-term strategy and allows the organization to bolster the programs that work best. By articulating the return on investment that philanthropic gifts can have, Tercek engages in an open and honest conversation with donors that ultimately leads to broader and deeper impact. “I think [these strategies] can profoundly change nonprofits,” said Tercek. “It raises the level of accountability and precision and understanding.”