Getting a Little TNC Can Make You Think

Published July 3, 2018
Lessons from The Nature Conservancy

Charleston District DDPM Lisa Metheney talked with a leader at The Nature Conservancy about some of the things the two agencies had in common and gave her an interesting perspective on what she needs to prepare for in the years to come.

As I discussed in my last article, I wanted to bring some focus to the more informal learning that we get from interactions with businesses and organizations outside of the government. Last time, I touched on some of the things I learned from the 41,000-employee-company Chick-fil-A. Now I want to focus on the insights I gained from visiting with The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization with 3,500 employees worldwide.

Throughout my tenure with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TNC has worked with the Charleston District and other Corps offices on a variety of projects. Some of them were their projects and some of them our projects, but it wasn’t until I visited with Mary Conley, the southeast director of marine conservation, that I found out how much TNC and the Corps have in common. Our discussion of our similarities and differences really started me thinking about our District and our missions in the future.

Though approximately 10 percent the size of the Corps in number of employees, just like us, TNC has a worldwide presence and name recognition. Like the Corps, their headquarters is in the District of Columbia, albeit in Arlington rather than downtown D.C. Their chapters are mostly aligned by state or overseas by country and they have divisions that cover a multi-state area. Like the Corps, they are primarily a project-funded organization. Unlike the Corps, they have a board of trustees who are volunteers that provide leadership to the organization and have a philanthropy group that must fund raise to provide the revenues TNC uses for its work.

One aspect of our organizations Mary and I talked at length about was the area of human resources; everything from who and how we hire, how long folks stay, and what hiring challenges we face were all fair game for discussion. Again, we found exponentially more similarities than differences. Many people think non-profit organizations are full of fresh out of college individuals who come and work for a few years before they go on to a job with a more lucrative paycheck. In the case of TNC, this is not true. They have many employees within the organization who have been there more than 25 years. They do hire interns, both for short-term projects and on a long-term basis, but they also hire seasoned personnel from other government agencies, the business sector, and governmental relations personnel who have worked on Capitol Hill or with lobbyist organizations. Their turnover varies mostly along generational lines (as it does with the Corps).

As Mary and I commiserated about the impact high housing prices in Charleston are having on hiring and the changing workplace and staffing considerations associated with the millennial generation, she said something that became the first nugget of thought from my visit with TNC.

“We have a relative ease in recruiting,” she said. “We are a well-recognized name in the environmental community. People want to work somewhere that has a solid mission and is a trusted organization.”

I put an asterisk by that comment as we moved on but it would stick with me.

Good leaders focus not just on the here and now, but on the future and what challenges that may bring. Mary was open and forthright about what she sees are challenges TNC must deal within the coming years. This was an area I didn’t think we would have as much in common due to their fundraising-based business model. Mary talked about the challenge of TNC taking the successes they have had recently, such as their Living Shorelines program, and moving that forward to where it is recognized as a best practice and becomes a regular way of people doing business and thinking about resiliency instead of just “a project” that TNC does. She spoke about the need to further develop initiatives that combine the public and private sectors and non-governmental organizations as a way to solve issues and leverage funding. Her final challenge she outlined brought me my second nugget of thought.

“How will we [TNC] make our story and our mission relevant to the next generation and our next generation of donors?”

And there was asterisk number two.

Following the visit, the two asterisked statements kept coming back to me. I think it is because they are so related to each other. The Corps has a long history with a mission dedicated to the well-being of the nation. That mission may have grown somewhat since the days of George Washington. Could Washington have imagined all that the Corps would be doing for the nation in the future? Building barracks and dining facilities for our nation’s soldiers; probably. Building waterways for commerce; most likely. Serving the nation in times of disaster, possibly. Designing and constructing dams that would not only reduce flood damages but would also provide power to people from the east coast to the west coast; doubtful. Restoring power to Puerto Rico; probably not.

Like TNC, our employees come to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because we have a solid mission and are a trusted organization. However, looking into the future, how do I ensure our mission is relevant to the next generation of employees and the next generation of taxpayers? What are the missions we are going to have that I, like Washington, haven’t imagined yet? I’m not sure I have all the answers to this question yet, but I think the start is to continue to focus on providing our customers, stakeholders, partners, and the public with the best solutions to every problem we are asked to solve and to continue to hire, train, and support the 215 highly skilled employees of the Charleston District. Our mission remains to deliver engineering solutions for the nation’s toughest challenges. I hope you find us relevant in your world.