The Nature Conservancy has announced the appointment of board member and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell as interim CEO, effective September 3, following CEO Mark Tercek's decision to step down — one in a series of departures of senior executives in the wake of a sexual harassment and workplace misconduct investigation at the environmental organization.
First reported by Politico, the internal investigation focused on allegations of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct by three senior officials and led to the resignation in late May of executive vice president and North America managing director Mark Burget and executive vice president of global strategies Kacky Andrews. Conducted by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, the investigation revealed, as Tercek wrote in an email to staff, that female employees believed the environmental group's "culture can make it difficult for women to thrive." Two days later, Tercek announced that Nature Conservancy president Brian McPeek — who had been at the organization for sixteen years and named president a year ago — had agreed "that the best way for TNC to move forward at this time is for [McPeek] to resign" — followed a week later by his own resignation.
According to Politico, the investigation by McDermott Will & Emery faulted the organization for failing to adequately investigate anonymous claims made through its employee hotline, insufficiently training employees how to conduct themselves — especially off-site and in the presence of alcohol — and providing too little reporting about harassment complaints to the board. The investigation found that "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 allegations included sexual misconduct by one executive and the delayed disclosure of a romantic relationship between Burget and Andrews, which raised issues of conflict of interest.
Tercek, who left Goldman Sachs to join the Nature Conservancy in 2008, had brought Wall Street-style practices to the organization, forging partnerships with some of the world's largest multinational corporations, wealthy donors, and several foreign governments; in 2018, the organization took in $1.3 billion in revenue. According to Politico, Tercek, who had recused himself from the investigation, was criticized for his handling of the workplace culture at TNC by staff, many of whom were angered by his initial decision to keep McPeek in his role.
Tercek will serve as an advisor through September to a board subcommittee responsible for overseeing management of the organization that includes Jewell, board chair Thomas Tierney, and board member Frances Ulmer, who will succeed Tierney as board chair in November.
"Last year marked my ten-year anniversary with this great organization," Tercek wrote in an email announcing his decision. "At the time, I started thinking very hard about the best timing for TNC's next leader to step up and continue the momentum we've built together over the past decade. In my view, now is the right time to start the search for that new leader. I am confident that this is the right decision for TNC and for me, and I know that the organization will benefit from a new leader to tackle the huge opportunities and challenges ahead."
In a sign that complaints about a toxic workplace culture reach well beyond the Nature Conservancy's Washington, D.C.-area headquarters, this week the organization announced internally the immediate departure of Luis Solórzano, executive director of its Florida-based Caribbean chapter. According to Politico, Solórzano's departure comes after it submitted detailed questions to both him and the Nature Conservancy about allegations of a divisive and abusive management style that included racial and homophobic slurs, sexism, and whistleblower retaliation.
"Now more than ever we need a diversity of voices at the table," Vera Agostini, a former employee who had worked under Solórzano, told Politico. "What's happening at the Conservancy is eroding that and does erode their ability to have real impact."
"I am humbled and pleased to step forward to support this important organization through its transition, following eleven years of dedicated leadership by Mark Tercek as CEO," said Jewell in a statement. "The Nature Conservancy is unique in its global reach, effective through its vast network of local chapters, dedicated trustees and on-the-ground relationships, and creative in its engagement with the business and global finance communities. Our strength has always been in our people, and we recognize this comes with great responsibility to provide this team a supportive, open, and inclusive work environment so everyone can thrive."