And Tercek saw the world changing, according to interviews with dozens of current and former staffers: Defending a plot of land in the Adirondacks or the Catskills matters, but those are piecemeal approaches in the face of the widespread environmental degradation accompanying global climate change.
So Tercek introduced a revised strategy: He brought in Wall Street-style data-crunching to measure the effectiveness of The Nature Conservancy’s projects, a change that mirrored the processes he’d used in his investment banking background. He appealed to the Conservancy’s corporate donors by harnessing market-driven formulas, including one called “impact investing,” to boost the group’s funding so it could work on a global scale.
He also helped recruit a board of directors that reflected the corporate approach, including Chinese billionaire and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, ex-Dow CEO Andrew Liveris, JPMorgan CEO of commercial banking Douglas Petno and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman.
Tercek set the tone for this new culture: The conservancy held corporate-style senior manager meetings at locales around the world and boasted an ever-expanding executive team with lofty salaries. (Tercek earned $819,000 in 2018, according to the organization’s Internal Revenue Service filings). It also began approving first-class flights for “key people” in certain circumstances beginning in the 2010 fiscal year, it told the IRS.
As the organization would come to discover, that culture also brought a management structure that, according to current and former staff, shrugged off the complaints of lower-level employees and women in senior roles.
Tercek, according to many of his underlings, didn’t much concern himself with employee morale. They described him as aloof and awkward, saying that for all his everyman, Rust Belt persona — marked by a flat, nasal Midwest accent — he bristled at criticism and didn’t form relationships with colleagues easily.
Tercek arrived a few years after McPeek joined the Conservancy from the influential consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and at a time when corporations were looking at stark changes in Washington. The newly elected Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress were talking about taking on climate change with cap-and-trade legislation, which would offer economic incentives for oil companies, power utilities and other businesses to reduce their greenhouse gas production.
Ignoring the continued criticism about corporate “greenwashing,” Tercek forged even closer ties to big business.
When you decide to run the nonprofit like a business, you get the scumbag behavior of leading corporate parasites:
“It was not long after I had started working there that in a team retreat the phrase ‘penis protection plan’ was mentioned,” said former staffer Bessie Tassoulas, sharing a term that she said female employees used to describe the company culture.
“It was not the last time I heard that phrase,” added Tassoulas, who in May left the organization’s main offices in Virginia. “It was tossed around our headquarters in Arlington sort of flippantly as a joke, but there were undertones that this was a widely known practice.”
Senior manager meetings, held around the country, were often a source of problems, former staffers said. Hundreds of staff every year flew into the events, where alcohol was plentiful, meetings were often conducted over dinner, and former staffers reported seeing people dancing on tables and testing the boundaries of appropriate collegial relations.
Staffers around the world shared other unpleasant experiences — men reacting aggressively to women’s opinions or ignoring them; superiors isolating them when disagreements arose; senior male officials cutting female counterparts out of meetings or keeping them in the dark about projects and strategy. In a focus group about gender relations in the mid-2010s, one woman said she had gone to her manager to report harassment — only to have the manager turn the issue against her by asking: “What did you do?”
“I think women have always felt undervalued and underrepresented at TNC,” a female senior staffer said.
In one case, staff had for years complained to the highest levels of the organization about problems with Luis Solórzano, who led the group’s Caribbean office near Miami, said ex-staffers such as the office’s former science and conservation director, Vera Agostini.
But, as POLITICO reported last month, Solórzano remained in his post for years despite numerous formal and informal complaints accusing him of creating a divisive workplace, making uncomfortable comments to women and using racial and homophobic slurs. Solórzano and the organization parted ways June 10 as POLITICO questioned him and The Nature Conservancy about the allegations.
Solórzano did not respond to several attempts requesting comment about the complaints.
In theory, the work TNC does is really valuable. Protecting small plots of land from development that would never get picked up by the national parks has tremendous ecological value. But the organization is completely broken.