Nature — The Smartest Investment You Can Make

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A city-raised, former Goldman Sachs partner knows just the right investment for the future — nature.

Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, told the Michigan Ross community that bringing a business approach to conservation, along with reaching the hearts of people, can accomplish conservation goals on a big scale.

“I believe in the importance of using your mind, innovation, sound science, business principles, and using those principles to invest in nature,” he said. “Just as important is using your heart, your compassion for future generations.”

His visit was part of the Erb Institute C-Suite Speaker Series and took place in a packed Ross Colloquium.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization known for its focus on collaboration and finding solutions that benefit people and nature. It’s big — more than one million members in 34 countries — nonpartisan, and has a business focus.

Tercek, who joined the Conservancy in 2008 from Goldman Sachs, is an advocate for natural capital. To him that means valuing nature for its own sake as well as for the good it does for society — such as clear air, potable water, productive soil, and stable climate.

When he joined the Conservancy, Tercek knew using business principles would help reach partners who might not otherwise listen to an environmental message and could address big-scale projects. For example, conserving and creating forests can often be a more effective and cheaper method of preserving water, cleaning the air around a factory, or protecting a city from flooding.

But he also discovered changing the tone and appealing to people’s morals is just as important.

The market principles allowed the Conservancy to buy and protect 164,000 acres of forest in Montana and Washington, for $140 million, using mostly funds from impact investors, and a mix of low-interest financing and donor money for the rest.

“In other words it was an LBO for nature,” he said.

But another initiative showed how important it was to connect with people. The Conservancy assisted on 27 ballot initiatives in 19 states in the last election cycle to raise funds for things such as open spaces, water protection, and parks and trails. Many of the ballot proposals were in red states, and the last election wasn’t favorable to the kinds of things the Conservancy usually champions.

Yet those ballot proposals successfully raised $29 billion.

“What did we do? We had to build diverse constituencies,” Tercek said. “You can appeal to people, find common ground and appeal to their sense of doing the right thing and thinking of future generations. That’s powerful, too.”

Tercek said conservationists in general need to be mindful of their dialogue.

“We’re so sure what we’re doing is important that sometimes we get carried away by our passion,” he said. “Sometimes we criticize people who don’t see it our way or even demonize. That’s not a good way to grow our progress or our constituency.”

Tercek said the conservation movement also needs more people from various sectors to be successful. His own transition from Wall Street to conservation wasn’t easy, but was definitely worth doing.

“In order to achieve success at the scale we want to do it at, we need more mobility between sectors,” he said. “People tend to overrate the risk of things and underrate the opportunity. Was my transition easy? No; but, boy, was it worth it. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. The field is so ripe for people who can go from sector to sector.”

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