Alert-Nonprofit Brands at Risk! BP Funds Environmental Orgs

Update: May 25, 3pm: TNC’s CEO and director of external affairs did an excellent job facilitating their live chat with supporters and critics. They answered some very hard questions.

But my core question remains — is TNC fulfilling its brand promise in accepting BP funding? If not, that brand is busted. They’ll need to reach out to their base to take their pulse.

Update: May 25, 2pm.  Good listening on TNC’s part, which is a crucial component of crisis communications. I received an email from a staffer on TNC’s digital media team at 12:13pm– just over an hour after this post went live–making himself and colleagues available for additional questions. We’re deep in conversation and I’ll keep you posted.


Just when I thought I was done writing on how vital it is for every  organization to stay true to its mission and values  and the brand that conveys them in its actions, The Washington Post blows the cover on BP’s funding of top environmental organizations.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was highlighted in the article but the Post also reported that other leaders in the field–from Environmental Defense Fund to Conservation International–have benefited from BP dollars as well.  And although TNC responded quickly with a blog post from chief scientist Peter Kariva, and invited supporters and others to participate in an online chat this afternoon with CEO Mark Tercek, the comments on Kariva’s post (accumulated in just 24 hours at this point) showcase the anger felt on the part of TNC supporters.

This is brand gone bust big-time; far bigger even than the Komen-KFC cause marketing debacle since it’s all-organization and long-term rather than a single campaign.

There’s simply no way an environmental organization should be funded by a natural resources mining company–their key principles are radically opposed.  Yes to pragmatic consultation as a productive partnership. No to taking funding and participating in BP’s greenwashing campaign. Not that it’s black and white at all, but on these fronts — I think it should be. At least if TNC sticks to its mission and values, as expressed by its tagline Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.

Conversation on this mess is passionate, with emotions running high. Because all of us who’ve supported the environmental movement don’t understand how or why these organizations we’ve supported in multiple ways have betrayed us. And betrayal is exactly what it feels like when an organization we’ve supported and counted on for years (never more than now, with the oil spill tragedy underway) proves to be something other than what we thought (and it said-via its brand) it was.

The web is full of conversation on this story. Twitter friend Pam McAllister, a former TNC staffer, is deep in conversation with me and asserts that TNC has integrity, supporting its definition of its relationship with BP as “constructive engagement.” Katya Andresen asked me what TNC’s PR folks should be doing and blogged on it.

What’s your take on TNC’s (and the other organization’s) funding relationship with BP? Please comment below or email me to share your thoughts. I’ll share the conversation out with the community.


P.S. TNC should have followed these guidelines for guarding its brand and developing the right partnerships. Hindsight.

Nancy Schwartz on May 25, 2010 in Branding and Messages, Crisis Communications, Partnerships | 12 comments
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  • Pam McAllister

    I posted a comment on Katya’s blog and tweeted a few thoughts. One more …

    Critiquing environmental groups on this distracts from the real issues: radical deregulation of the oil industry (and many others) due to the right-wing domination of politics in this country, and the associated failure to make rational energy policy.

    How about we stop blaming people who are trying to do the right thing and start focusing on political change?

    As a 501(c)(3), TNC is 100% precluded from engaging in partisan politics. But those of us who care about the Earth had better get serious about it.

    Wow, I’m ranting these days. This oil disaster has me a bit fired up …

  • Richelle Morgan

    I do completely agree that criticizing the environmentals serves mostly to take the heat off BP, their extractive industry cronies, and their political allies. Worse, it gives the public the idea that no one can be trusted, so why should they bother caring at all?

    BUT…as a writer for nonprofits, I don’t take on a client whose mission I’m 100% against, and I expect the organizations I support — either with my time and effort, or with my charitable dollars — to have similar standards. I have no problem with a nonprofit working with their “enemies” to find common ground or push for better behavior. That’s admirable. But as soon as they take the money, they’ve compromised their effectiveness.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for sharing your p.o.v., Pam. I certainly agree with you that we (as citizens) need to focus on political change as you describe.

    But, as citizens, I do believe we need to be able to count on those organizations who represent us doing so in a way we believe in (and that follows through on their brand promise).

  • Nancy Schwartz

    That’s how I see it, Richelle. The funding from BP drove me review TNC’s mission statement and come out of that review questioning why they’d accept funding from an entity with radically different values. I just don’t get it.

    TNC is doing some good basic crisis communications now. They emailed me within an hour of this blog post. But I think they really need to live their brand, or change it to something that more representative of how they really work.

  • Holly

    Well, I’m going to be on the other side of this, but I don’t think their goals and objectives are completely opposed. Neither BP nor the Nature Conservancy wanted to have a big oil spill.

    As a corporation, BP likely was playing the role of “good corporate citizen” by supporting the community. And, I’m sure that supporting the environment was seen as a natural fit. By supporting the Nature Conservancy they were effectively making this difference in the community that they deemed necessary. The Nature Conservancy runs environmental programs and they need money to do this. BP met that financial goal.

    If the Nature Conservancy had never taken BP’s donation or sponsorship, they might not have been able to run their programs and do environmental good. The world wouldn’t have been a slightly better place.

    If funding from BP (or other natural resource companies) was refused from all environmental organizations, there could be a significant impact on the capacity of these organizations to work. Instead, BP would invest elsewhere in the community. In no way would their corporate giving likely impact their practices to mitigate any environmental harm. And again, the would wouldn’t be a better place.

    While I recognize that this argument is somewhat simplistic, whether or not an environmental organization takes funds from someone who you consider to be a “betrayal” doesn’t change how that company practices. And, in theory, it shouldn’t change how the non-profit operates either. We can do more working together than by working in opposition.

  • Hi Nancy, et al.
    This is Dave Connell, the staffer from The Nature Conservancy that Nancy’s been talking to. First, I want to say thank you for the really interesting comments and questions that have come up here and that Nancy herself has raised.

    As we are engaging with our members and answering questions, we’ve been tuning into this blog and some others that have been covering our response to gauge how people think we’re doing.

    Nancy has asked me some specific questions that I want to take some time tonight to respond to, but I wanted to let you know what we’ve been doing so far to respond to people’s concerns.

    Before I do that though, I think it’s important to note we never tried to hide our relationship with BP and were very upfront with those commenting on our blog about exactly what that relationship is and how much money we’ve gotten. If you look at the comments on our blog that I and others have made, I think you’ll see that.

    So how have we handled this from the outset?

    Our first step was to issue a blog from our Chief Scientist explaining in real terms how we work with BP and the true nature of that relationship (which we don’t think the Washington Post did a good job characterizing). There have been lots of comments to that post and others from members expressing a variety of views — mostly hostile — on our relationship with BP and we’ve tried to answer them quickly and honestly. I definitely stand by the work we’ve done in that space.

    You can see that conversation here:

    We also monitored and responded to comments and questions on twitter and our facebook page as they’ve come in. I’d invite you to check our our Facebook page here to get another barometer on how our members are feeling:

    Taking that a step forward, we hosted a live chat today with our CEO and Director of External Affairs who answered a host of tough questions on our relationship with BP and other corporations. Here is a transcript of the chat:

    I think our response thus far has been successful, transparent and respectful of the truly legitimate debate that is going on. I’ll have more to add here tomorrow.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to chime in.

  • David Guy Fetzer

    Two appropriate phrases come to mind regarding this matter. First, politics truly DOES make strange bedfellows. Second, charity is often the last refuge of a scoundrel. Keep up the good work, Nancy.

  • Hi,
    My name is Dave Connell, I’m an employee for The Nature Conservancy working on our response to the questions about our relationship with BP. I’ve exchanged a few emails with Nancy and she’s asked me to put together some responses to two questions. Those questions and my responses are below. I want to thank you all for the great discussion here and especially Nancy for engaging us directly and offering us a chance to share our experience.

    Beyond good listening and conversing with upset supporters, what are TNC’s plans going forward — on your crisis communications strategy and on the BP funding stream (will that continue)?

    Listening to our members’ and supporters’ concerns and responding to them openly and honestly is the best thing for us to do right now.

    For me, holding the live chat yesterday with Mark and Glenn was critically important, as it allowed is to do two things: First, it enabled our members to talk directly to our leadership and air their concerns. Second, and just as importantly, it demonstrated that our leaders are thinking about these issues deeply and are engaging them head-on, giving supporters a glimpse into this process in a way that a blog post and statements can’t.

    Our members don’t get to see how seriously we take these issues; how thoughtfully they are debated daily; how important our members are to these discussions. I think the chat provided a sense of that ongoing debate. Going forward, we will continue to engage concerns on our blog, facebook page, Twitter, other blogs and forums like this one. We will continue to not only be good listeners, but also try to articulate our true relationship with BP as best we can. In the short term we need to continue the dialogue — as you note, it’s not just about good listening, it’s about communicating and clarifying our message.

    For the longer term, we are continuing ask ourselves tough questions about the vision of this organization, the core of our mission, and the right way to engage the corporate sector and other controversial players. We know we won’t shy away from tough decisions, and we are certain we have to engage businesses and others if we want to seriously address the threats facing our planet. But as this article indicates, this is not easy to do – nor is it popular. It would be much simpler to declare business as “bad guys” and turn our backs. But would that be the right thing to do? We don’t think so.

    But we have to explain these decisions more effectively to our supporters. This type of work is has long been core to what the Conservancy does and will continue to be, in one form or another, going forward. It should not come as a surprise to anyone. As communicators for the organization we need to learn quickly from this experience and make the necessary adjustments in how we talk to our members and supporters — especially online — about who we are and what we do.

    Nancy’s second question here, on the BP funding stream is frankly well above my pay grade, but we heard pretty clearly from Mark and Glenn that we will continue to engage with corporations when we feel we can achieve firm conservation goals. Up to this point that has very much been the case with BP. We’ve worked with them on wind and natural gas siting issues in the West and they’ve funded pioneering forest conservation work in South America where we are testing real and verifiable carbon sequestration projects (I have more on this project below). At the same time, we did hear from Mark that we will continue to examine at our relationship with BP as the situation in the Gulf unfolds.

    As a communicator for the Conservancy, my job is to help communicate the policies set by our leadership through our online channels clearly and honestly. The question I’ve been asking myself several times over the last several days is, “Have I done this as effectively and clearly as possible over the last couple of years?” When I answer honestly, I think there is some work we can do to better communicate how the Conservancy works differently from groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and NRDC.

    All of those great groups bring something unique to the table when it comes to protecting and advocating for our environment — and we do too. We need a diversity of voices and approaches if we are going to resolve the crises facing our planet. We all go about our work in different ways, and we at the Conservancy need to do a better job communicating the work that we do to our audience.

    How do you see accepting funding from BP as being in sync with TNC’s core values, as expressed by your brand (as expressed in the tagline “Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.”)?
    I would turn that question on its head and ask, “How can we be serious about solving the crises facing our natural resources and not engage companies like BP?”

    The work we’ve done with BP is squarely in line with our core values and brand as a pragmatic organization committed to tangible, lasting conservation results. But, again, how that works out requires explanation, and we are now learning that we have to do a better job of that to our audiences.

    The work in the West with energy and wind siting balances the needs of planned development — such as wind power, oil and gas, mining, and infrastructure — with those of nature conservation. The approach supports decision-making on how best to:
    • Avoid conflicts between project impacts and conservation priorities;
    • Maintain biodiversity; and
    • Determine effective and transparent mitigation responses for the development, including compensating conservation actions.

    In South America, BP was a major contributor to Bolivia’s Noel Kempff forest protection project, which protects 1.5 million acres of tropical forest. This project is expected to prevent up to 5.8 million tons of CO2 emissions over 30 years. It doubles the range for species requiring large tracts of land including the Brazilian tapir and jaguar. It provides a community development program that educates community members on sustainable forest management and use of natural resources, as well as provides job opportunities in an adjacent national park.

    Through the creation of the Noel Kempff project, the Conservancy also assisted local communities in their efforts to attain legal status as indigenous people and secure land tenure, two crucial outcomes for the local communities there.

    BP also donated property to the Conservancy near Yorktown, Virginia. The property is a square mile of forested wetlands for Chesapeake Bay wildlife. The land is being transferred to the Commonwealth of Virginia as a state wildlife management area, open to the public. In this instance, the Conservancy is able transfer the land at no cost to the state. With land, especially in urbanizing areas, increasingly expensive, this donation was a welcome opportunity for the Conservancy to work with the state to provide public access and water quality benefits at a very low cost to us.

    All these projects are directly in line with our core mission and fit squarely within our brand.

    Now, does the BP oil spill negate all of this good work and make us reassess our relationship with BP? You heard Mark and Glenn say that they’ll consider that and all the other hard questions this oil spill has raised. My role is to ensure I’m providing the Conservancy’s membership with clear communications about our work and how we are different than other environmental and conservation groups.

    I really liked the way Mark put it in the chat yesterday:

    The way I see it, the environmental community is vast, with hundreds of organizations employing a wide range of approaches and tactics. There are organizations that accomplish a great deal through lawsuits and others that bring about meaningful change through boycotts and other market campaigns. And, there are organizations like ours that focus on on-the-ground, science-driven conservation action. Every approach has merit and is important.

    I truly believe in our focus on on-the-ground conservation and am pledging to do a better job communicating that mission to our members and supporters.

    Thanks again for offering me the space to respond to this important post

  • Andrea West

    Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and timely attention to this issue. Like so many others, I am heartsick at the images of what is happening in the Gulf. I too demand accountability for the clean up and greater oversight to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

    I think the BP-TNC issue is a bit more complicated and common than it might seem and it is not fair to single out these enviro orgs for their corporate funding strategies. I do understand that people may perceive the situation as hypocritical, and in many cases (particularly in the first-impression world of branding and marketing) perception is as important as anything.

    However, in TNC’s (and EDF and CI’s) defense, this type of corporate funding happens all the time. Moreover, BP is a huge company that is actually one of the largest investors in renewable energy technology in the world. Not that this does anything to improve the operations of their oil and gas division, but I would stop short at calling BP’s funding of TNC pure “greenwashing.”

    The world of non-profit fundraising from corporations is complicated and potentially damaging to public perception (a risk we are always trying to manage), but I think TNC’s decision to accept that funding is completely defensible. Once you start investigating the origins of all of the dollars you raise, it’s hard to find any that are completely clean.

    Before we target these environmental groups for their ostensibly shady fundraising practices, remember that lots of groups accept corporate dollars and it’s not TNC’s fault that their corporate funder happens to be responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters of our time. No one was too worried about this situation before the Gulf disaster, and I’d be willing to bet that BP has been supporting TNC for quite some time.

    I’d rather we focus our attention on what groups and corporations are doing to clean this mess up.



  • Chris Hamilton

    Dear Nancy
    I have followed this debate with interest having argued this topic endlessly for years. I have invested a lot of time and money in various conservation projects and still do. But in relation to this discussion I found that one particular conservation agency (which I shall not name as it would not be fair to them) this subject of corporate funding was a very contentious issue. The environmental body’s roots went back 75 years and it was started and run successfully as a “membership based” organization with funding coming directly from members joining and paying a monthly subscription. It was considered a very strong conservation body that had a huge impact on government and corporate conservation policy.

    I was approached to help as they had declining membership numbers and wanted a better interface with the public, a medium to educate the youth and any actions that would increase the membership. I threw my heart and soul into the project on a pro bono basis but after some time found a resistance within the organization that I could not put my finger on. Until I had a clash with the pr/marketing person on an issue and discovered that the priority for the organization was not to raise membership but to raise funds from corporates. And that indeed they were doing it on a grand scale from Shell Oil, Mining Houses, Corporates and in my opinion some very large carbon footprint organizations.

    This became a huge conflict of interest for them when there was; for example a debate on the impact of dune mining on the coast and the corporate involved was funding the environmental body that was there to ensure there was no environmental impact! How on earth could they make an un-biased comment, no matter how well intentioned the average staff member was?

    Sorry these corporates have created large environmental damage and handing out small change to begging environmental bodies, as amends to appease their share holders, just does not cut it.
    kind regards

  • Christi

    I haven’t been an on top of the oil situation as I’d like, but I’m glad to know that BP had a network of nonprofits that it already had relationships with to address the problem it created and begin working together.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a BP fan. But why is TNC being condemned for working with corporations? It seems to me that partnering with them to keep an eye on their operations is exactly their mission. Isn’t that what advocacy is all about? TNC has to partner with them to represent their supporters’ values. I suppose TNC could be one of those groups that just points the finger and says “Bad evil oil company! We boycott you!” But that’s not really effective–I’d much rather they work together amiably to find solutions.

    I don’t know if it’s a branding issue but there is an education issue. Even in this age of knowing the nonprofits we support, the general public and donors still don’t really know how nonprofits operate to accomplish their missions.

  • I’d like to see more partnerships between small business and charity organizations. I just started an online webstore and have committed to donating 5% of profits to charity. I haven’t been able to find any resiurce to help coordinate and encourage small business charity donations.

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