In May 2020 Jennifer Morris MIA ’97 became CEO of the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental NGO. For the past 25 years, Morris has dedicated her career to protecting the environment. She brings decades of leadership to the organization and its priorities—ensuring healthy oceans, freshwater and lands, and tackling climate change. Jennifer recently spoke with SIPA News about the organization’s biggest projects and culture, how she’s settling into her new position, and the way her background at SIPA and in international development informs her work and hope in the movement.
Congratulations on becoming the CEO of the Nature Conservancy! A lot of students at SIPA are very proud that you are representing the world’s largest conservation NGO. I’m sure it’s a big responsibility to handle so many wide-ranging campaigns of the organization. How would you describe your management approach?
The key element of success in my two-decade-long career since leaving SIPA is the idea of radical collaboration—recognizing that the challenges that we have, whether they’re climate change or global biodiversity loss or some other environmental cause—require not only those of us who believe what is happening to sit in a room together and nod our heads, but for us to work with organizations, companies, and governments who don’t agree with us so that we can find common ground and make inroads. Without that essence of radical collaboration, we won’t achieve what we need to. This is true in how we work with each other within the environmental sector as well. The nonprofit environmental movement is one of the most hyper-competitive movements; there is a lot of competition for scarce resources. But because of the urgency of what we’re trying to do and because we only have about 10 years left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, I’ve recently seen a growing willingness to work across the aisle with presumed allies and competitors in the space. This gives me hope.
At the personnel level, I make sure to hear from a wide range of voices to include those working in the field and not just people who directly report to me, which can create an echo chamber. It is really critical that we don’t limit our conversations to just our direct lieutenants or direct senior team. You lose so much genius by not talking to people who are on the front lines of your organization, whether they’re coordinators in Mongolia or Montana. Of course, at the end of the day, I need to be decisive and make clear decisions. It’s not necessarily a full democracy at the Nature Conservancy, but I try to make it as inclusive as possible.
Finally, I think a successful leader is someone who is humble and someone who listens, who doesn’t assume that they have all the answers. Whether it’s from an Indigenous community or my own frontline teams, I practice deep listening and learning. It’s also important for me to stay curious and constantly read to stay at the top of my game, no matter how senior I am in an organization.
Many climate analysts believe that a well-designed carbon pricing mechanism would greatly lower greenhouse gas emissions and incentivize new technologies that accelerate a transition to cleaner energy. The Nature Conservancy supports the imposition of some form of carbon tax at the national level, but the issue is getting the legislation passed. How do you work to build support for this kind of legislation?
A pricing mechanism will definitely be the most impactful in terms of the speed needed to achieve our Paris commitments. The Nature Conservancy promotes a carbon pricing model at the state, regional, and federal levels in the United States. Of course, anything that goes from economics to policy comes with a lot of political nuance. We are supportive of carbon pricing mechanisms, but we’re also ready to address various political levers and constituencies that help us get as far along on the emissions reduction curve as possible. This includes the array of carbon price programs, tax schemes, and dividend plans that we are supporting together with our allies, both in Congress and in the private sector. We will soon know more about what is possible under a Biden administration.
Nature-based solutions is another component I want to raise. A little-known fact is that if the entire energy sector, to include all of transportation and manufacturing, went 100 percent carbon neutral tomorrow, we still would not achieve our collective goals under Paris. In order to do so, one third of global emissions reductions must come from the nature-based sector by 2030, which includes farming, agriculture, and forestry. This is why nature is often called the forgotten solution to climate change. We must remember that decarbonization is also about land use, and if we don’t address nature-based solutions, we’ll never be on track with Paris. The Nature Conservancy, like many of our allies such as Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and [Environmental Defense Fund], puts a big focus on how to ensure that nature as a carbon sink achieves the most benefits for our global climate.
As you mentioned, natural climate solutions are an important part of the decarbonization toolkit. How is TNC helping establish reforestation incentives and regulatory mechanisms to address major sources of global deforestation like cattle ranching in the Amazon or palm oil production in Indonesia? And how should we develop policy that engages local communities with an economic dependence on unsustainable forest clearing?
We forget that nature has perfected a carbon sequestering mechanism over millions of years: trees. But it’s not just about planting trees. It’s about bringing life back to land. That includes making sure that trees we reforest are Indigenous, that they’re originally from those areas, and that you can plant them in a way that builds local economic incentives to ensure that the trees are not only planted but that they grow, survive, and become a stable source of carbon sink. The Nature Conservancy does a lot of reforestation and afforestation work in this area, whether it’s in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil or with mangrove systems in the Pacific or coastal communities around Virginia in the United States.
Regarding Indigenous peoples, this is at the heart and soul of what we do. We believe firmly that nature-based climate action needs to prioritize local people creating local solutions for themselves. We work with Indigenous people from Native Alaskan communities to Peru to Chile and many other countries all over the world to create land preservation, economic, and ownership solutions that allow for agency over their lands. One such initiative is in Canada’s Clayoquot Sound, where we are partnering with First Nations to support sustainable land-use plans across nearly 250,000 acres of old-growth forest—plans that will blend conservation, economic development, and local stewardship.
On the other end of decarbonization: Further development of clean energy resources is needed to lower emissions, increase consumer choice, and create jobs. But to effectively deploy these resources—and to meet increasing demand for electricity without further harming the environment—the electric grid has to be modernized and scaled. How is TNC working to develop the use of clean, efficient energy resources that improve resiliency, security, and sustainability, both from the investment and legislative perspectives?
The Nature Conservancy recognizes that philanthropy alone cannot achieve our climate targets. To get there, we need to harness the power of the commercial private sector. We’re doing that in many areas around the world. For example, our impact investing unit, Nature Vest, which is funded in part by JPMorgan Chase, is working on renewable energy projects that generate clean power and can provide a long-term source of funding for land protection and Indigenous community programs.
We also work on legislation at the state level to get jurisdictions to commit to certain emissions reductions targets that include renewable energy in the mix. In West Virginia, for example, we’re working in coal communities where the industry has gone bankrupt. There, the mountaintops have been denuded as a result of coal production, but they are relatively close to the grid which can be connected with solar and wind energy. The Nature Conservancy is working in a bipartisan nature with local and state governments of the region to develop a series of economic solutions that can create more renewable jobs in traditional coal country. We’ll work with anyone who wants to drive change for nature. Our approach in West Virginia in particular is about job growth and a sustainable future for all. No one can argue with that.
As you were just mentioning, unlike some other more oppositional environmental organizations, the Nature Conservancy has some ties to large companies, including those in the oil, gas, mining, chemical, and agricultural industries. Why do you think this is the more effective approach to combat climate disruption, and what is your response to critics who argue that TNC shouldn’t engage or partner with big emitters?
There are admittedly lots of companies that are not doing anywhere near enough for the environment, but in many situations, firms have advanced further and faster than a lot of our governments. You’ll always have the real leaders who will lead and will attempt to achieve clear targets, and others that won’t until they’re regulated to do so. The Nature Conservancy believes we need to engage all leaders who can motivate people to work toward the sustainable future of this planet.
Of course, we deeply cherish organizations that are outside the boardroom pushing for change, but we also see a need to be inside the room with a seat at the table. At the end of the day, the Nature Conservancy does both. I spend a lot of my time working with CEOs and C-suite folks to capture hearts and minds and help them find solutions to the big problems for job creation and long term sustainability.
The oil and gas engineering firms, agricultural, and other companies also understand now that to attract the best and the brightest talent, they have to be best in class. Increasingly, the employees are the ones that are becoming activists, the employees are the ones that are standing up to the C-suite and saying that “we need to be as clean and green and sustainable and forward thinking and resilient as possible—or I’m going to go find a company that that that aligns more with my values.” Also, with Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms, if you do something wrong as a company, everyone’s going to know about it really fast. So while you don’t have to have all the answers from the beginning, you need to prove you’re invested in a better future for your shareholders, employees, and your clients.
You came into the office after both the former CEO and former president were forced to resign for reasons related to sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. Particularly with regard to the #MeToo era we’re living through, how are you and your leadership style changing the culture of TNC and developing an environment where all women can thrive?
Thank you for that question. I’m trying to lead by example of being the first female CEO at the Nature Conservancy and showing up every day in a way where I can demonstrate my values, which includes transparency. They include a deep listening within groups who feel that they have been marginalized.
We have a whole series of listening sessions with outside facilitators where we talk about issues related to gender discrimination as well as for issues of race. As you know, the environmental sector traditionally has been very white and very male. I’ve spent a lot of my time and effort and energy around the cultural fabric of the organization and how we evolve it in a way that is inclusive for all colleagues. How do we ensure that our board of trustees, our senior leadership, reflect a changing world and reflect the society that we want to be a part of, one that not only looks different, but also listens differently and really respects everyone’s point of view? We’ve already made great strides but will continue to look at issues related to gender and other aspects of diversity to ensure that we’re best in class. I want part of my legacy as the first female CEO of TNC to be that we had an organization reflective of society overall and one that pushes the envelope in terms of leadership, both for women and people of color.
You walked the halls of SIPA 20 or so years ago. What were some of your most defining experiences or people and professors that you connected with that, as you look back, still hold a special significance for you?
There are so many people I met at SIPA that I’m still quite close to, including my husband! We’ve been together now for almost 20 years. That’s certainly an important person for me. There’s also a professor in particular who I often think about: a gentleman named Patrick Heller, Professor Heller. What I liked most about his classes was that he pushed us to question everything, to always be curious, to go deep into the readings to debate in a constructive and intellectual way, where you don’t let emotions get the best of you but put yourself in the other person’s shoes. He did a lot of his PhD work in Kerala and India, and would often bring stories of experiences he’d had with people with a completely different life experience. His classes really impacted me as I began my international development career and still to this day.
In addition to your role now as the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, I hear you’re an avid traveler, and that you love to hike and backpack. Where have been some of your favorite places to visit, whether in the United States or internationally?
I have been very blessed to see a lot of amazing places. I love, love, love Bhutan. It is a really special place with a beautiful landscape and culture. Another of my favorite places is where I lived for a while that is a great place to backpack: Fish River Canyon in Namibia, on the border of Namibia and South Africa. There’s a great trek that’s right on the river that you can take as a four-day backpacking trip. It’s hard to get to, though, and at the time I didn’t have a car, so we hitchhiked there. It’s the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon with hardly anybody around, or at least there wasn’t in the mid ’90s. Namibia in general has unbelievably beautiful landscapes.
Last Question: Is the Nature Conservancy hiring?
We are! We’re the largest environmental NGO, we have 4,200 staff in 72 countries, we’re in every single U.S. state and we’re almost 70 years old. And we’re continuing to grow.
This interview, conducted by Christina Sewell MPA ’21, has been edited and condensed for clarity.