Top brass exit Nature Conservancy amid sexual harassment investigation

#MeToo strikes again. This time it is within the world’s leading conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy. The first to exit the organization due to an investigation into sexual harassment and workplace misconduct were Mark Burget, head of the group’s North American operations, and Kacky Andrews, who led global programs.

As an email announced the departures, the group’s president, Brian McPeek returned to his role after taking a “less active” role in the organization during the investigation. The plan at the end of May was for McPeek to remain as the president. The CEO, Mark Tercek, addressed the complaints from female employees.

The moves laid out in the memo follow the conclusion of an internal investigation of the organization’s workplace culture by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery. Tercek wrote that the investigation revealed that female employees believed The Nature Conservancy’s “culture can make it difficult for women to thrive.”

That investigation found that “[s]pecifically, in several instances where there were serious allegations of misconduct, TNC opted for no or minor discipline because TNC perceived the event as ‘he said/she said’ with no corroborating evidence. In these instances, the accused was given the benefit of the doubt,” the report said.

The report said The Nature Conservancy must update how it “approaches investigating these claims.” It faulted the organization for failing to adequately investigate anonymous claims made through its employee hotline, insufficiently training employees on how to conduct themselves — especially in the presence of alcohol and off-site — and providing too little reporting about harassment complaints to the board.

“[N]umerous employees who contacted the hotline or McDermott’s investigator reported that TNC is a male-dominated culture where it is difficult for women to flourish,” the report said.

The initial reporting caught my eye because up until all this was exposed, I thought of the organization as a solid, non-controversial kind of charitable operation. Founded in 1951, it’s known for doing good work to preserve land and water around the world while not going off the deep end like some other younger organizations who specialize in capturing headlines due to aggressive activism. (Looking at you, Greenpeace.) Its board of directors includes former politicians and public figures from both sides of the political aisle.

As happens these days, the investigation began after a series of tweets were posted about complaints that were made between May 2014 and March 2018 on the organization’s hotline. A victim came forward and was declared credible in her claim that an executive kissed her at a conference in 2010. The executive denied it. She was concerned that the Nature Conservancy ignored the complaints from her and other women. The law firm interviewed 34 people. 32 of the interviewees were former and current employees and 29 were women.

Also discovered by the investigation was a romantic relationship between two employees – identified as Executive No. 2 and Executive No. 3 – who didn’t disclose the relationship in a timely fashion as required by the organization’s policy.

McDermott also wrote that two other executives — identified as Executives 2 and 3 in the report — began a romantic relationship without disclosing it to The Nature Conservancy in a timely manner as the organization’s policy required. Executive No. 3 reported to executive No. 2, who was responsible for her performance review and recommended a 15 percent raise, which she received. Executive No. 2 also endorsed No. 3 for an executive committee spot, which Tercek granted, the report said.

The report found that both the raise and recommendation to the executive committee position were “a conflict of interest,” and that while the two eventually disclosed their relationship after a “thirteen-month delay,” they both were “dishonest about the status of their relationship.” Executive No. 2’s influence in executive No. 3’s executive committee post, review and raise came during the period when they were in an undisclosed relationship, the report said.

The next head to roll was President Brian McPeek who resigned two days after Burget and Andrews, who I assume are Employee No. 2 and Employee No. 3 because their lawyers deny that they didn’t disclose their relationship properly. CEO Tercek emailed the staff to announce McPeek’s exit.

“Brian McPeek and I jointly agreed that the best way for TNC to move forward at this time is for him to resign. We both think this decision is in the best interest of the organization as well as Brian and his family,” he wrote.

It’s all quite a web, right? Well, hold on. There’s more. Friday CEO Tercek resigned, just a week after McPeek’s exit.

Tercek joined The Nature Conservancy in 2008 from Goldman Sachs. He sought to bring Wall Street-style practices to the massive environmental organization, which racked up $1.3 billion in revenue in 2018 and holds billions in assets. Under him, the group cemented partnerships with some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations as well as wealthy donors and several foreign governments. It also earned bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill for its conservation work.

“It’s been an honor to lead this great organization and its world-class team,” Tercek said in a statement. “In my view, it’s the right time for The Nature Conservancy’s next leader to step up to amplify the momentum we’ve built over the past decade.”

The #MeToo movement seems to have taken a back seat to other news stories lately. The headlines have certainly died off since the beginning of the scandals surfaced. Now we see that there are stories still unfolding and the movement is alive and well.

I’ll end with a little nugget I found. Friday Mary Kay, Inc., an original glass ceiling breaker among corporations offering opportunities to women, announced it has partnered with the Nature Conservancy in a program called the Texas Fisheries & Coastal Resilience Program. (Mary Kay was founded in Dallas and corporate headquarters are still there.) The program “aims to tackle problems like overfishing, habitat damage, and bycatch—the incidental capture of non-target species during commercial fishing.”

“Mary Kay has long worked to impact change that will sustain the earth for generations to come, and we’re proud to be partnering with an organization so aligned in mission to double down on our work in ensuring a healthy and thriving Gulf ecosystem,” said Laura Huffman, Texas regional director of The Nature Conservancy. “This investment in our program will not only move the needle in terms of science, policy and community-collaboration, but will help us prove that we don’t have to choose between ecological health and economic prosperity – what we’re doing is helping people and nature thrive, together.”

Not to sound cynical but it’s a clever move by the Nature Conservancy to partner with such a well-known business that caters to bettering the lives of women as the organization deals with its #MeToo problem.

UPDATE: A representative of The Nature Conservancy contacted us and provided the following statement.

“The Nature Conservancy in Texas and Mary Kay have a long-standing partnership in conservation. In fact, Mary Kay has supported the Conservancy for nearly 20 years, helping us impact change in local communities and address the highest priority conservation needs across the state. The corporation’s first gift was made in 1997, and a second gift was made in 2000. Since then, Mary Kay Inc. has made a gift to the Conservancy every year, totaling 35 gifts to further conservation work in Texas.”