Deep Green (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine article)

  • April 30, 2008
  • By Marshall A. Ledger

The National Environmental Trust (NET) merges with the Pew Environment Group. The two bring complementary policy and advocacy skills to the work of protecting the world's natural heritage.

In 1994, many Americans felt stymied in efforts to protect the natural environment. Clearly, they were supportive. They joined environmental organizations—the 10 largest had a combined membership of 12 million people—they donated an estimated $3 billion to nonprofit organizations that supported environmental causes, and a Gallup poll found that some 66 percent of respondents called themselves “environmentalists.”

At the same time, with some exceptions on discrete issues, their passion, numbers and resources were not translating into an ability to shape national environmental policy in ways that reflected their potential influence.

This was the context when Pew and a small group of philanthropies established a nonprofit to help assist the efforts of the environmental community to advocate for stronger environmental policies at the national level.

After two short-lived names, the organization was called the National Environmental Trust or NET, and this past January its staff and operations were merged into Pew's Environment program. The consolidated team is called the Pew Environment Group, with an annual budget of more than $70 million and a staff of 80—one of the largest environmental advocacy forces in the country.

Trust turned to the group's managing director, Joshua S. Reichert, to describe the thinking behind the merger.

Trust: Did we characterize the situation in 1994 accurately?

Reichert: There are two additional elements worth noting. Opponents of environmental causes were improving the effectiveness of their efforts by hiring political consultants and sophisticated public relations specialists, employing all of the methods used by the burgeoning K Street firms that had been established in the 1970s to represent corporate concerns in Washington. They often succeeded in framing issues and the corresponding political debate to suit their own interests—remember “jobs versus owls”—and in ways that were often neither balanced nor accurate.

The environmental community needed to do a better job at ensuring that its message and point of view were fairly heard. Americans craved clarity and balanced information on the issues, and still do, because they don't want to stand by and allow the continued destruction and degradation of the nation's forests and wilderness areas, our coastal waters and the life they contain, our water supply and the quality of our air, among many other things.

At the same time, Pew's environmental campaign work in the early 1990s, which was primarily aimed at protecting critical forest and wilderness habitat in the western United States, had to be reinvented with each campaign. In other words, we, as a foundation at the time, had to ask each successive grantee to create the infrastructure needed for effective communications and media work, grassroots organizing and legislative advocacy. We quickly realized that doing it repeatedly from scratch was enormously time-consuming and inadvisable. It was far more efficient to build an organization that was singularly capable of doing this kind of work on a multitude of issues on which we were working.

Trust: And that was the role of what came to be NET?

Reichert: Yes. At NET, we brought together a core of highly skilled professionals trained in issue advocacy, field organizing, communications and government relations. They helped form coalitions of national, regional and state organizations and assisted them in the design and implementation of environmental campaigns to affect national policy. The point was to reach the audiences that most needed to learn about the issues and to stimulate action where it was necessary.

Many of the leading environmental organizations were staffed with very experienced and talented scientists, lawyers and policy specialists, but they often lacked the experience in largescale campaign management and implementation. NET was designed to fill that need.

NET helped coordinate campaigns, devise strategic goals and objectives, educate the public through targeted media and create opportunities for citizens to communicate their views more effectively to policy makers. We hoped that, if this effort was successful, it would not only produce significant policy achievements in its own right, but would also stimulate some constructive changes in the way the U.S. environmental community approached its policy work.

Trust: Did it?

Reichert: I do believe that, over the past decade or more, many environmental organizations have become more effective in communicating their perspective to policy makers, the public and the media, and that some of that positive change has been influenced by NET's work.

If you look at the results of that work over time, there are a number of notable achievements. Among other issues, NET was instrumental in the successful passage of the nation's strongest drinking-water and foodquality protection acts, in preventing passage of amendments that would have weakened the Endangered Species Act, in managing the defense of the Roadless Rule, in helping to strengthen the nation's principal marine fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and in playing a central role in building support for adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.

I think it's safe to say that NET met and in many cases exceeded the expectations of its creators.

Trust: How did NET accomplish that?

Reichert: It built a broad nationwide network of relationships with environment, public-health, energy and political writers, and this is why you find the staff cited frequently in the print media.

Its editorial team formed relationships with more than 125 newspapers and essentially constructed a model for editorial communications—which is an all-too-often neglected area for the nonprofit sector.

Its government-relations group earned a reputation for being highly bipartisan and effective and comprised individuals with long Capitol Hill experience who had working relationships with policy makers of all ideological hues.

And its field team developed a presence in nearly half the states and in every major region of the country.

Trust: What made the merger appropriate for Pew?

Reichert: When Pew became a public charity four years ago, we were freed from many of the constraints that apply to foundations, including the ability to operate policy campaigns directly and to lobby. As a result, a host of new opportunities were created that enabled us to dramatically expand our operating capacity and increase the scope and impact of our work.

But we also realized that, to do this right, we would have to increase our personnel across a wide range of areas and bring on staff with proficiency in communications and media, government affairs and field operations.

There were two ways to build this capacity. Buy it—that is, hire the people we needed one by one, which is a laborious and time-consuming process. Or acquire it. Namely, bring inside Pew the organization that we had created specifically for the purpose of running and managing campaigns in areas in which we were working.

Given that NET contained the human infrastructure that we needed, that it had effectively served as a campaign arm of Pew for many years, that by design it had worked primarily in the areas in which our work was focused and that we had had a close and extremely productive working relationship for more than a decade, this became a relatively easy choice.

Quite simply, incorporating NET into the Pew Environment Group was far more practical, cost-effective and efficient than re-creating it internally. And the Pew board agreed. As a result, we proposed the idea of a merger to the executive staff of NET and its board, and happily they agreed.

Trust: And what made it desirable for NET?

Reichert: Just as it was in our case, I think that the level of trust and comfort, built over many years of collaboration with us, was a significant factor in NET's decision. The staff of both organizations not only worked closely together, but shared common goals and had skill sets and professional backgrounds that complemented one another.

Second, a merger offered the staff of NET the potential of greatly expanding the scope and scale of its work, its geographical range, resource base and long-term effectiveness. All of this translates into greater potential to make a more significant contribution to conservation, which, after all is said and done, is what motivates us all.

Trust: The timing seems appropriate.

Reichert: Not only for the staff involved. I genuinely believe that we have reached a critical moment in our history with the natural world. For years, scientists have been warning of the potentially devastating impacts of human activity on Earth's terrestrial and marine environment as well as the global atmosphere.

The good news is there is a growing sense of urgency that has gripped the public, and governments throughout the world are waking up to the problems we face. We have a rather narrow window of time to address these problems and a corresponding opportunity to reverse course and begin to more sensibly manage our relationship with nature. Quite simply, this merger will make us more effective at doing that.

Marshall Ledger is editor of Trust.