Board Conflict at a Conservation Nonprofit: Denial of a Problem is Insufficient

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October 3, 2017; Mercury News

Can a board member serve two organizations with conflicting missions?

The answer seems obvious, but the executive director and some board members of the Sempervirens Fund don’t seem to think so. They’ve decided to allow former Assemblyman Rich Gordon to continue on the board of Sempervirens, a redwood forest preservation association, even though he just accepted an offer to head the California Forestry Association (CFA), a timber industry trade association.

Sempervirens Fund Executive Director Sara Barth denied the organization is changing its priorities. She told Mercury News, “We have 16 board members, 12 staff, and one of those board members who was on the board at the time happened to change jobs, that was it…We have no policy changes, no programmatic changes, no staff changes—nothing that should suggest to anybody that our long history and current approach to preserving redwoods is going to change.”

That’s not what happened, and even Gordon knew that. When he received the offer from CFA, the former Assemblyman notified the Sempervirens Fund board and offered to resign. (Obviously, they declined the offer.) Saying something blithe like he just “happened to change jobs” makes it sound like Barth is either unaware of the conflict (unlikely) or exasperated by scrutiny and trying to hasten the issue into obscurity. Either way, it’s not working for some of her constituents.

Betsy Herbert, described by Mercury News as “a 15-year board member who has a doctorate in forest management,” resigned her board position on Gordon’s first day at CFA. Other donors followed her out the door, including Gary Patton, an environmental attorney and former county supervisor. Patton, who has dealt directly with the forestry association in his lobbying work, said of CFA, “What they are charged to do is have state legislation to have the forestry industry be free to cut as many trees as they want to.”

Sempervirens’s mission is directly opposed to this goal. Their program service accomplishments include making “strategic land purchases that create, expand, and link redwood forests and parks. In most cases, the fund acquires fee title to land with the intention of eventually transferring it into public ownership, however, in some cases, it acquires and holds conservation easements that…prevent future timber harvesting.”

That seems pretty opposed to the goals of a timber industry group. Their mission is advocacy “to protect, promote, and grow our members’ businesses.” Although their website contains lots of language about sustainability and environmental protection, their official program goal language is all about “property rights and reasonable utilization of our timber lands.” They describe redwoods as a “renewable resource.” (While trees, technically, do grow again, it’s tough to replace that 2,000-year-old forest king.)

Patton, while opposing the conflict of interest on the Fund’s board, still vouched for Gordon’s character. And indeed, while an assemblyman, he consistently voted for bills that protected the environment, though none dealt specifically with forestry. He even supported state funding for open space preservation. However, he also took over $10,000 in campaign contributions from the forestry and forest products industry, including $4,736.86 from his future employer, CFA. Pro-environmental policy groups contributed just $1,100.

“This just isn’t a good idea, and I really think Rich Gordon should know that,” said Patton.

NPQ has written before about how even the appearance of a conflict of interest can be crushing to a nonprofit. Nonprofit boards are the first line of defense in maintaining our sector’s probity. With a group like Sempervirens, where the great majority of their funding comes from grants and donations, the organization’s reputation is a precious thing to protect. Even if Gordon is able to serve both missions wholeheartedly, the conflict he represents has already lost Sempervirens some important relationships. Even assuming the actors are well-meaning, writes Rick Cohen, “Add a few bad judgments, some uncontrolled self-interest, a dose of all-too-common egoism, and the result is a conflict of interest pit that can engulf otherwise good people and organizations.”

The fact that a number of board members are leaving in protest should be a clue that the optics are, at the very least, questionable. It’s time for the Sempervirens Fund’s board to take the opportunity Gordon offered them with his resignation and do the right thing. The trees, and the rest of the sector with its need for trusted donor relationships, will be grateful.—Erin Rubin