Monday, December 3, 2007

Ted Turner vs. the Ranchers: Funny Anecdote or Serious Matters?

I couldn't contain my laughter when I read in today'sChronicle of Philanthropy newsletter that apparently there are people out there who are concerned that Ted Turner's real estate activities are actually part of some sort of nefarious conspiracy in which he is in league with the United Nations, trying to establish a wildlife preserve and that his PR people have had to refute those accusations by stating that no, no, he's just trying to make a lot of money, for example by charging $12,000 for weekend-long elk hunting excursions! In what alternate reality is the UN a bad guy and the establishment of a nature preserve an evil plot worthy of a cover-up? When did capitalism become a better motive than preservation and activism? What on earth am I missing here?

Well, the answer comes in the full text of the original article that the Chronicle of Philanthropy was paraphrasing, and suddenly it's not all such a laughing matter. Ted Turner is now the largest private landowner in the United States, holding 2 million acres in 11 states, mostly in New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota where he restoring all sorts of Plains flora and fauna, including buffalo, wolves and species of trout. So what's bad about this? Well, ranchers are worried that he will try to run them out of business, or that he is trying to control the entire Ogallala Aquifer, the world's largest underground water system. Even the ludicrous UN conspiracy theory has a darker side to it; if Turner did establish a wildlife refuge, the land would be turned over to the federal government and removed from the Nebraska tax rolls, resulting in a loss of funding to schools and services.

Despite what Turner's PR guys have said, his involvement with organizations such as The Wildlands Project, the World Conservation Union and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as the establishment of his own philanthropic offshoot, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, have ranchers feeling nervous and suspicious about their neighbor's motives.

So why am I writing about this in a blog about museums and philanthropy? The obvious first reason is because it caught my attention. But beyond that, it made me recognize some serious issues. The first had to do with transparency.

Transparency has become an over-used buzzword in the nonprofit world in the past couple of years, but these articles underlined for me why transparency is important, because at the root of the issue here is that the ranchers are on edge due to a lack of transparency on the part of Ted Turner. All the ranchers see is someone coming in from the outside and buying up all their land with no sense of what happens next. Organizations can run into that same sort of trouble when the public doesn't fully understand the reasoning behind a capital project, campaign or a ballot measure.

The second issue raised for me had to do with the relationship between nonprofits and their communities. I was raised to view nonprofit organizations and NGOs as inherently positive organizations;* these were the groups of people who were trying to save the world--in other words, the Good Guys. But when I think about it, that is a very simplistic view to take. The ranchers are demanding, as is becoming increasingly popular in the philanthropic world, to know exactly what kind of good these environmental organizations will do, not just in terms of meeting their respective missions, but for the ranchers themselves. Right now, the ranchers view the environmental organizations as a threat rather than as a benefit.

This is not new. The conflict between those who seek to protect the environment and those who make their livings from it is an old one. However, it occurs to me that nonprofits, as part of their outreach, have a duty to prove themselves and their worth to the communities in which they perform. An environmental group may see its audience and stakeholders as those who share the goal of saving the environment. But that is really only part of their audience, only some of their stakeholders. Nonprofits make a huge mistake when they target their actions at one group of people exclusively and especially when they neglect the concerns and needs of those people in the immediate community where they do their work. This doesn't hold true just for environmental groups working in the land of ranchers, it is equally valid for any nonprofit--including museums.

Ranchers and environmentalists don't need to be at odds. With a little transparency and communication, they can work together to achieve what Ted Turner says is his ultimate goal: "preserving animal habitat while ranching."

*In the name of transparency, I will state that I have a deep-seated bias in favor of the UN due to the fact that I attended the United Nations International School.

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