The Business of Conservation

By: Tom Wood

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 T he 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.
Steve Orr and Mark Tercek In Studio 

"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."
Look out for future Innovation Institute conversations.  OAI looks forward to sharing new strategies emerging from nonprofits at the forefront of social entrepreneurship that disrupt "business as usual" and drive dramatic philanthropic growth.

OAI is excited to be partnering with  Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. Southampton has long provided a continuum of high quality clinical services to meet the evolving needs of its Eastern Long Island community.  Following its recent merger with Stony Brook University, Southampton is now working with OAI's team to lay the groundwork for a fundraising campaign to realize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented by the merger to redefine healthcare in Eastern Long Island, including the construction of a brand-new hospital.  Our team will be collaborating with Southampton on various aspects of campaign preparation, planning, and implementation.

OAI has recently begun working with New Profit , a venture philanthropy organization that focuses on breaking down barriers to opportunity in America. New Profit works with visionary entrepreneurs, philanthropist s and other partners to transform the way    America educates its children, propels people toward social and financial stability, and creates healthy communities. As New Profit approaches its 20th anniversary, the team is assessing the progress and impact of their work to date and exploring what it will take to drive even bigger change in the next 20 years. OAI will collaborate with New Profit to identify ways to strengthen and broaden its network, as well as define what resources will be required to make their longer-term vision for impact a reality.

KaBoom! is the national non-profit dedicated to giving all kids- particularly those growing up in low-inco me commu nities in America - the childhood they deserve, filled with balanced and active play, so  they can thrive. Established in 1996, KaBOOM!  is firmly committed to the principle that playgrounds build social cohesio n, a sense of community and neighborhood safety. They have embarked on an  exciting new partnership with the New York City Housing Authority and The Fund for Public Housing to build new playgrounds within public housing communities.  OAI has partnered with KaBOOM! to refine the case for support, create a fundraising road map for this initiative and supply a major gifts team to secure funding.

Tri State YMCAs Conference 

On October 2nd, Orr Associates VP, Craig Shelley, presented to the YMCA Tri-State Conference on Philanthropy, focusing on transitioning from transactional to transformational donors and the role of CEOs in Major Gifts cultivation. Touching on the how and why of transforming the donor landscape, Craig compared and contrasted the two categorizations of donors while identifying the importance of Board Members and CEOs and how they can utilize their platform to increase donor engagement.

AFP NYC Senior Leadership Conversation

On  October 26, OAI is proud to be co-hosting, with the A ssociation of Fundraising Professionals, New York Chapter, a Leadership Conversation featuring Philanthropists Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros. This invitation-only event will gather a group of leading CEOs and CDOs of nonprofits in the City to listen to the Soroses discuss donor engagement, and the gifts that have been the most meaningful to them. OAI looks forward to our participation in this event, and gaining and sharing insights to help nonprofit fundraisers be more effective.

Responding to the increasingly complex burdens on nonprofit leaders, OAI has developed a transformational approach to fundraising and strategy consulting.  Our teams of experienced professionals seamlessly embed themselves with nonprofits to fundraise, to recruit and improve board leadership, to build consensus and direction through new strategies, and to provide executive, fundraising, and financial leadership.  With offices in Washington, DC and New York City, OAI has partnered in our clients' success for more than 25 years, helping more than 600 nonprofits raise hundreds of millions of dollars for their causes. 


See how we can help you today at www.oai-usa.com.   



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