Audubon Membership At Crossroads

By Tom Knudson
The Sacramento Bee

On June 14, an e-mail message flashed across Jeff Larsen’s computer screen, catching his attention. The sender was a board member of the National Audubon Society. The topic: money and power.

"Jeff, there is no way to get around the fact that (the National Audubon Society) and their state offices need to have people on their board who can raise money," the board member wrote. "Lots of money."

Larsen, an Audubon activist in Olympia, Wash., was skeptical.

"The current membership loses influence under the strategic plan and control is transferred to an elite group of financial backers," he replied, adding that the approach could "set in motion the demise of Audubon as an activist/grass-roots entity."

As one of the country’s most prominent conservation organizations, the National Audubon Society has long been known for its spirited activism on behalf of birds. But today, as it charts a less-controversial course emphasizing nature education, fund raising and membership growth, it finds itself swept up in a bitter and revealing internal conflict.

"Is this a race to see who can be the biggest environmental organization?" asked Marsha Cannon, president of the Wisconsin Audubon Council. "Or is this an effort to make a significant difference for birds, and people? I really sometimes wonder."

But there is more to the ruckus than a narrow dispute over conservation strategy. Many of the issues at Audubon touch other large national environmental groups as well, from the role of major donors to the proliferation of professional managers and fund-raising consultants.

"These are turn-of-the-21st-century problems for the conservation movement," said Roland Clement, a retired Audubon vice president. "It’s inevitable. When you grow, you become a bureaucracy – like it or not."

The Audubon conflict is noteworthy for its sharp battle lines.

On one side are Audubon leaders who say the group must find a new niche or decline. Nationwide, the average age of an Audubon member is 45. In Tucson, Ariz., it’s 60. Most are white and affluent. The solution, the organization believes: Branch out into education, targeting schoolchildren, minorities and others.

"We are interested in broadening out into ethnically and racially diverse communities so the face of our organization reflects the face of America," said Audubon President John Flicker, whose ‘2020 vision’ calls for establishing nature centers across the country by 2020.

"That is probably the biggest single challenge we face in the environmental movement."

On the other side are volunteer Audubon chapter leaders who say Flicker’s vision is a ‘top-down’ marketing strategy that weakens local activism by siphoning money from chapters and builds bureaucracies at headquarters offices.

Local leaders also chafe at a corporate style of fund raising that leans heavily on wealthy contributors, including Audubon board members, and raises money through other high-end strategies, such as a $36,950-per-person "Around the World by Private Jet" tour.

"The big question is: Can we live in the same house? Can this marriage be saved?" Cannon said. "I certainly hope so."

Conceived more than a century ago and formally organized in 1905, the National Audubon Society takes its name from the 19th century naturalist and bird artist John James Audubon. In the early days, its goal was simple: to rally against the slaughter of wading birds for their feathers, which were used to decorate hats.

Its efforts were so successful that Audubon made saving birds a niche. Today, its name is synonymous with birds and bird watching. With wings in real estate (bird sanctuaries), science (Christmas bird counts), publishing (Audubon magazine) and grass-roots activism (its 518 chapters), the society remains a green giant – one of the nation’s 10 largest conservation groups.

Yet as other environmental groups grew quickly in the 1990s, something unexpected happened at Audubon: Its membership stalled at 550,000. When its budget began to shrink in the mid-1990s, board members sounded an alarm.

They adopted a strategic plan calling for sweeping changes, including a more collaborative approach to solving problems. But the plan also advocated improving the group’s financial strength by creating an "organization of fund raisers" throughout the country, "starting with locations of greatest revenue potential."

Still, membership remained stagnant.

Last year, the subject came up again.

"Membership in the National Audubon Society is not growing and has not grown significantly for ten years," wrote Donal O’Brien, chairman of Audubon’s board of directors, in a January 2000 memo. "Membership growth is fundamental."

Audubon’s malaise has been blamed on a mix of things, from its old-fogy image to a foundering direct-mail campaign linked to Audubon magazine subscriptions. Enter the nature centers, described as ‘mission-driven’ by Daniel Taylor, executive director of the Audubon Society in California. "They will be local, community-based," Taylor said. "People will go there and be members.”

Nature centers aren’t new to Audubon. It already has more than 50, including one in the Marin County community of Tiburon and one in Orange County.

But now it plans to build the equivalent of one center a week for 19 years, to a total of 1,000 nature centers by 2020.

By offering hands-on conservation experiences, the centers are expected to reach one in four schoolchildren in America and help quintuple Audubon’s membership to 2.75 million.

"Our goal is to build the largest and most committed group of volunteer activists in the country," said Flicker. Centers "are a major push we are making to attract volunteers, to build the next generation of conservation leaders."

Yet the strategy is stirring conflict in the very territory it seeks to colonize: the grass roots. And one big problem is money.

For decades, Audubon has divvied up member dues and sent a portion back to chapters. But under a new policy, many chapters will get less, and Audubon national more.

Chapters feel spurned.

At Phoenix’s Maricopa Audubon Society, Treasurer Herbert Fibel complained of "little or no recognition of the uniqueness of Audubon chapters."

"My major complaint about this whole effort is its top-down nature," added Cannon. "It’s just being announced. That’s not how you deal with volunteers."

Taylor has heard such complaints. He is sympathetic, but committed to reform.

Audubon’s spending habits have done little to quell the conflict. Last year, fund-raising and membership costs reached an all-time high, $11.8 million, up from $6.6 million in 1990. Executive compensation has risen steadily. Last year, Flicker’s salary was $278,060, up 16 percent from 1999, federal tax records show.

"Enviros have to attract good people with reasonable salary offers," said Audubon spokesman John Bianchi in an e-mail message. "CEO salaries are far lower than VP jobs in similar-sized private-sector companies."

Flicker joined Audubon in 1995 from The Nature Conservancy, where he was known as a skilled fund-raiser. And while Audubon’s membership has yet to soar, Flicker has lived up to his fund-raising reputation.

Last year, donations to Audubon from foundations, businesses, individuals and other non-membership sources reached a record $52 million – up from $23 million in 1997. A close look at the source of that money, however, shows Audubon’s grass-roots image is underwritten by a small number of donors.

Tax records show 375 contributors – less than 1 percent of Audubon’s membership – gave the organization $41 million last year, $4 of every $6 donated, while membership dues contributed $10 million. The 10 largest givers (six individuals, three foundations and one anonymous donor) gave $21.3 million – more than a third of all dues and donations.

Flicker defended that as typical of nonprofits.

Taylor was less comfortable. "It’s inherently less stable," he said. "A diverse system is a more stable system."

Among Audubon’s donors are Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. ($1 million), Philip Morris Companies Inc. ($23,352), Phillips Petroleum Co. ($42,000), Chevron Corp. ($18,500), clothing designers Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger, and actor Paul Newman ($10,000 each).

Some grass-roots activists are uneasy. "The real problem is we are sort of jumping into bed with the enemy," said Andrew Mason, conservation chair of the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society in New York. "Contributions in many cases come from corporations and foundations connected to activities the organization is very concerned about: oil exploration, mining, timber."

But Audubon leaders said it is important to reach out widely.

"Why is it we can only hear one side of the issue?" said Dan Beard, Audubon’s chief operating officer. "The answer is there are some people who don’t want to hear the other side."

Taylor acknowledged that "Audubon is more corporate… more business-like." But, he said, the aim is "to create grass-roots conservation experiences."

There are also concerns brewing about how money is raised.

Last year Cannon, the Wisconsin Audubon official, attended a national board meeting, but a fund-raising gala left her in the cold. "I did not attend because the $350 price of admission was beyond my budget," she said in a report to Audubon supporters.

Flicker, though, said: "We’re trying to have many ways for people to get involved."

That includes an annual corporate gala that Audubon added to its fund-raising mix last year to honor companies that exhibit exceptional environmental stewardship. This year’s winner: McDonald’s.

"We try to recognize corporations that have done something right," said Bianchi, the Audubon spokesman. McDonald’s was honored for its recycling efforts.

Last year, in its first corporate gala, Audubon gave a leadership award to Roy Disney, vice chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Co. Disney was honored for its employee conservation program.

Disney and McDonald’s are contributors, though not the biggest. Disney gave Audubon $80,200 in 1999/2000, tax records show, and McDonald’s has contributed between $5,000 and $50,000 annually in recent years.

Such contributions "have nothing to do" with being honored by Audubon, Bianchi said.

Luxury eco-tourism is part of the fund-raising mix, too.

This year, Audubon is marketing its second “Around the World by Private Jet” tour, which includes stops in the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea and Africa. Activities include bird watching, hiking, and a visit with native tribesmen. Cost: $36,950 per person. Last year, eight people signed on for the ride.

"It’s high-end eco-tourism," said Bianchi. "But it is far from typical. Audubon offers a wide range of trips, including one to the Sea of Cortez and Baja California – eight days, $1,700."

Even Audubon board members are a budget item. Last year, they gave $1.3 million, a 37 percent increase from 1999, according to an internal report. All 34 board members contributed.

The largest board donation – $250,000 – came from Harriet Bullitt, a conservationist and former director of King Broadcasting Co. in Seattle, Audubon records show. John Anderson, a board member and farmer from Winters, donated $17,315.

Larsen contends that seats on Audubon’s board are for sale. "You buy your way on," he said. "The downside is you get directors who may not have anywhere near the same interest in the environment as grass-roots chapter leaders."

But Anderson, who specializes in growing native grass seed, disagreed. "I certainly didn’t buy my way into it," he said. "They pleaded with me to be on it."

Anderson said he contributed to help the organization, not because he felt compelled to do so.

Nine of Audubon’s board members are elected; the others are appointed by a nominating committee. Flicker said they are selected to meet various criteria, such as geographic distribution; racial, ethnic and gender diversity; and political and business skills.

"Giving capacity is one criteria," he said. "The fund-raising role of the board is important. It has to be."

But Flicker described the $1.3 million donated by his board as "extremely low. Most people would say that is lower than it should be for a healthy board, frankly."

The Bee’s Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or
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