Jesse Souweine spoke with Eve Bould about her experiences last summer working for The Nature Conservancy
Can you briefly describe the organization you worked for?
I worked for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in their San Francisco office.
The organization appealed to me because of its pragmatic, business-minded approach to conservation. TNC’s mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive,” and it seeks to accomplish this mission using variety of strategies, including real estate transactions and public-private partnerships. Conservation real estate transactions usually involve purchasing land that would otherwise be developed, or purchasing a conservation easement, which transfers development rights to an organization like TNC at a fraction of the cost of an outright purchase.
TNC participates in many large-scale public-private partnerships, such as a recent partnership with British Petroleum, American Electric Power, local NGOs, and others to preserve 2 million acres of forest land in Bolivia. The organization’s non-partisan, science-based approach has yielded impressive results. Since its founding in 1951, TNC has protected 80 million acres worldwide in cooperation with partners (12 million acres in the US), opened 400 offices in 29 countries, and attracted over 1 million members. It is currently one of the top 10 charitable organizations in the U.S., as measured by private funds raised.
What was your specific project and how did you apply your HBS skills?
I worked on three projects during my internship, which provided me with exposure to various facets of the organization including conservation programs, strategy, real estate, and finance. My principal project entailed creating a report evaluating potential conservation strategies for California’s North Coast. TNC was planning to begin working in the region but had no prior experience in the area. I was tasked with developing and vetting potential strategies, from traditional TNC strategies, such as land acquisition and conservation easements, to more innovative approaches, such as carbon sequestration and timber certification. The project was in some ways similar to a consulting project. I had to come up to speed quickly on various unfamiliar topics, such as various financing vehicles, California’s forestry regulations, and a range of conservation strategies. The hours of research (including almost fifty phone calls to internal and external experts) gave me an overview of the organization’s conservation programs, and I was able to use the synthesizing skills I gained at business school to cull the critical information for my final presentation to senior management.
My second project involved working with a regional team to develop an annual operating plan incorporating a major organizational restructuring plan. The CEO had developed an organization-wide plan for increasing the scale of TNC’s work from a project level to a regional and international level, and this project required implementing that plan on the front lines. My strategy and organizational behavior courses served me well, as I helped to craft a new matrix organizational structure and develop change management strategies.
My third project consisted of working with the Finance and IT departments to develop detailed design specifications for a new web-based project management and capital planning tool. The tool was intended to provide real estate project managers with an improved project tracking tool, while giving senior management a better picture of the financial state of the organization (i.e., capital needs projections, loan repayment schedules, etc.). I was responsible for coordinating the development of a detailed Request For Quote to submit to developers, which involved synthesizing all existing databases into a more user-friendly format and collecting input from functional staff and executives across the organization to understand their needs for the new tool. The project gave me a crash course in the land acquisition side of TNC’s business and allowed me to use both my finance and project management skills.
Why did you decide to take a nonprofit internship?
I came to business school with the goal of changing the focus of my career path from traditional business to the intersection of business and the environment. My prior work experience had given me a good foundation in business, but I had a desire to apply those skills to something closer to my heart – protecting the natural environment – through working for either a mission-driven business or a nonprofit. The Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship Program provided a great opportunity to try out the nonprofit sector in a relatively low-risk context.
How did the experience relate to your expectations?
The experience exceeded my expectations in almost every way. I was most impressed by the high caliber of the people I encountered at The Nature Conservancy and the professionalism of the office. Far from being the lone MBA in a sea of “nonprofit types,” I was impressed at the number of MBAs in the organization who had arrived at the organization via the private sector. In a similar vein, the experience debunked any stereotypes I had regarding nonprofit management style. The office was run like a professional services firm or a business, just with a different goal at the end of the day.
How has this internship shaped your thinking and future involvement in the sector?
My experience at The Nature Conservancy convinced me that a career incorporating business and the environment is the right path for me personally. I derived great satisfaction this summer from the knowledge that I was working toward something meaningful and important, beyond just the “bottom line.” With this experience behind me, I can feel confident pursuing my goal of working in either an environmental nonprofit or a mission-driven “green” business after graduation.