Defenders of Wildlife Workplace Culture Seen by Some Employees to Need Improvement


“I’ve never, ever quit a job that quick,” said one former Defenders of Wildlife employee. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); NordWood Themes/Unsplash (laptop); dit-kieferpix/iStock (woman)

Greenwire had an interesting story about Defenders of Wildlife with the headline:

Environmental group staffers say it’s a ‘nightmare’ to go to work

Some staffers and others in the environmental movement see the internal strife at Defenders as a microcosm of a larger battle that’s playing out at other environmental organizations and in workplaces across the country.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement have prompted calls for a drastic overhaul in how workplaces function. Defenders was part of a wave of environmental groups that unionized last year (Greenwire, Dec. 22, 2021).

“Generations coming up are expecting their progressive values to be reflected in what they consider to be a progressive organization, and I think that’s forcing generational conflicts,” said a second former Defenders staffer. “I think the good organizations, the effective ones, are able to adapt and transform and listen and share power essentially when it comes to unionization,” that person said.

Clark and other leaders at Defenders feel like they’re backed into a corner, that person said, where they feel like they’re losing if they give something up to the union.

“I think there’s this feeling that [Clark] had to be tough and hard-nosed to make it there to break that glass ceiling,” said the second former Defenders staffer. She’s an “old-school female leader who’s now kind of playing a conservative role that maybe doesn’t reflect all of those values that we would associate with that.”

That ex-staffer said Clark and other leaders at the group are facing a test on whether they can adapt to the current moment.

“Something has to change there,” said a third former Defenders staffer. “The true problem is that there’s so much drama at that place that it’s challenging to have the energy to do your work.”

I’m always curious about “old-school” female leaders and what “values we would associate with that.”  Having known pretty much the “oldest school” female leaders in the Forest Service, they were a pretty heterogeneous lot.  Is it OK in this day and age to call out a person’s femaleness and age to blame for management problems?  Cause it seems to me that stereotyping other folks is not a “progressive value.”It’s absolutely OK to want different leadership, because what was a fit is no longer a fit, or perceived by some to not be a fit, for whatever reason.  And I wonder what the Board’s role in all this is?

In an apparent attempt to improve its workplace culture, Defenders has hired three outside consulting groups in recent years to interview staff and analyze the organization, as E&E has previously reported.

The most recent firm hired — meant to address issues like diversity, equity and inclusion — broke off its relationship with Defenders earlier than expected (E&E News, May 24, 2021).

After surveying 144 Defenders staffers, the consulting firm Avarna Group produced a report last year saying that “fear,” “culture of fear” and “afraid” were mentioned over 50 times, primarily by staffers who weren’t in leadership positions. Those staffers said they were afraid of being fired or reprimanded for bringing up issues like “the lack of an inclusive culture,” the report said.

“When asked who staff were afraid of, the primary source of fear was not immediate supervisors, but specific individuals on the Executive Team, including the CEO,” the Avarna report said.

Following Defenders’ split with the Avarna Group last year, supervisors from within the organization sent an anonymous letter to Clark that accused her and other leaders of failing to take responsibility for the “culture of fear” within the organization.

“Neither Defenders’ dedicated staff nor our mission to save life on earth is served by executive leadership that disrespects its employees and stifles the cultural transformation necessary for our success,” the supervisors wrote to Clark.

The group’s annual revenue continued to climb throughout the pandemic. Defenders raised about $33 million in 2019, $34 million in 2020 and nearly $43 million in 2021, according to financial documents posted on the group’s website.

It would be interesting to hear the other side of the story, but they were not forthcoming- for personnel reasons.

Clark declined E&E News’ request for an interview. Defenders did not answer a list of questions about turnover, morale and specific concerns detailed by current and former staff.

Rachel Brittin, the group’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email that, “as a policy, we do not share personal information about individual staff members or HR actions. Many of your questions cannot be answered without divulging personal information about current and former staff.”

Defenders “takes staff concerns seriously and maintains processes and policies to uphold our high standards of workplace fairness while respecting the privacy of our current and former staff,” according to Brittin’s emailed statement.

“We recognize that, like many organizations across the country, there is more work to do in improving and enhancing our workplace,” the statement said. “We will continue to listen to our staff’s concerns, seek to enhance our workplace and advance Defenders’ important conservation mission.”


20 thoughts on “Defenders of Wildlife Workplace Culture Seen by Some Employees to Need Improvement”

  1. I frequently be experienced working for female leaders to be tougher than some (not most!) male leaders. As described here, I also concluded that the work environment forced those women to “out-male” their male counterparts, creating a more strict and “by the book” management style. This was not an “old school” dynamic.

    I do not criticize – just offer my experiences.

    • Thanks, Tony! I know you don’t mean to criticize and we all have to be honest about our experiences. As you can imagine, as the first professional female forester in many things, I had lots of experiences. There can also be negative female-female energies that I think are less understood due to the prevalence of men in management literature for so many years. And there’s also the major role of Personal Chemistry, which I couldn’t find in any management book.

  2. What do they expect? An org that makes a practice of sueing wildlife biologists who are doing their jobs, and measures success by how many donations they pull in, of course they’ll have prima donnas working for them. Being recent college grads they’ll have learned that the most important things are intersectionality, equity, and language policing, and those three things are never complete but need to be before they can get down to the serious business of saving big eyed puppies.

    Jamie should just start throwing staplers at them if yelling isn’t effective. Good grief. I wasn’t real happy with some of the rulings coming down from the Supremes this week but if they could rid us of the scourge of NGOs all would be forgiven.

  3. Friday night, after 2 glasses of wine, and I should know better than to post anything on this incendiary topic. So, I’ll try to keep it light.

    My first intro to Defenders of Wildlife was circa 1982. As a timber industry lobbyist, I had arrived tardy to a western Oregon BLM public meeting on forest planning. The only seats remaining in the crowded room flanked a woman — a rare member of her gender in an otherwise male-dominated room. So I sat down next to her. We struck up a pleasant conversation during the otherwise dull meeting.

    Next day, my boss motions me into his office. “The BLM’s district manager called me this morning. He complained that you were seen consorting with a Defenders of Wildlife staffer. What have you got to say for yourself?”

    Clutching at straws and trying to figure out the score, I responded instinctively: “She was cute!”

    He guffawed. “Take it to the tavern after the meeting, Andy. The BLM has a thin skin for fraternizing with the enemy,” he counseled.

    Ahh . . . those were the good old days, when men were men, women were women, and the federal land management agencies knew what side their bread was buttered.

  4. All, I heard third or fourth hand (hearsay based on hearsay, so take it for what it’s worth) that this is ultimately about the desire of some in management to return people to the office. And that the Board is aware of the claims, so there’s that.

    • History will show that those groups/companies who push the return to office so hard, will flounder and fail. If that is the case, here.
      Interesting that a progressive NGO such as this, would possibly be pushing back on such a progressive cause.

      • A- The reason I put “progressive” in quotes is that I honestly don’t understand what are the criteria for, and who determines what is “progressive” and what is not. And perhaps we don’t have that discussion often enough. Is “not returning to the office” a progressive cause? What makes it one? IMHO the problem with dividing issues into progressive and not is that the middle ground and the discussion thereof seems to be lost.
        As I said about something else, if you can’t say it, in some cases you can’t see it, and of course that exacerbates divisions.

        • The cynical yet realistic side of me says, progressive is defined by Millenials vs everyone older than a millennial vs everyone younger than a millennial who think they, at age 23 and a year into their career, what everyone older than a millennial has.
          However, you have pointed out a very important question, that I do not have a good answer for, about what is “progressive”.

          With that said, I do fully believe that any group, including within the realm of forest management and policy, who take a hard line on “return to office”, will wind up part of the archaeological record of history.

        • It’s nothing but an ambiguous term that centrist democrats love to throw around to co-opt leftists. I’ve railed against its use for years now. The term comes from a very short era of left populist politics. See Teddy Roosevelt’s “square deal” policies as an example. Largely, it was about pushing back against elite class policies, and has, as I said, been co-opted by wokester liberals to mean whatever they want it to in the moment.

          • “Progressive” means eager to use the coercive power of government to make life more fair by redistributing wealth from those who have it (but don’t deserve it) to those who don’t have it (but are intrinsically deserving). Those who have it are presumed to have ill-gotten gains. Those who don’t are presumed to have suffered from the cruelties of systemic fill-in-the-blank.

            “Liberal” means to be free from the coercive power of government when it tells you how to live your life, e.g., dictate who you can marry or which country you can buy cool stuff from.

            “Conservative” means return to the 1950s when white men monopolized all positions of power.

            • Hi Andy: As a fellow white male, I’m surprised at your racist, sexist definition of our ilk. Maybe it’s because I’m a libertarian rather than a conservative, but I’ve never thought the definition of conservatives was so demeaning — and probably inaccurate. I can remember the early 1950s with no TV and no homeless people on our streets, but I always thought women and minorities could be conservatives, too, and that they were far more interested in current politics and the future than a time before they were born. I’m also guessing by your definition that you are not a conservative, despite your race and sex.

            • Now now Andy. You seemed to have skipped the entire theoretical underpinnings of who is, and is not, deserving. Nobody “deserves” to become richer than Creusus by preying upon the public sphere where competition doesn’t work. See … power provision monopolies, healthcare monopolies, educational monopolies (ie Ivy League) etc. etc.

              Again, socialize the necessities and privatize the luxuries. Make a better spaghetti sauce and one “deserves” their gains. Do it on the backs of people’s health and you don’t.

              Thank you for the opportunity to fill in those gaping holes.

          • Eric, people who are progressive call themselves progressive, not me (a centrist Democrat).

            I don’t think progressive now is much related to the Teddy-era policies.

            I agree with you it means whatever people want it to mean, which is why I always ask “who decided what was a progressive position? if we don’t know who decides, how can we be sure that it is?”

            Is anyone is the keeper of progressive ideology? Or is it whatever anyone says it is, which seems kind of meaningless.

            • Yeah, I get it. That’s the part I rail against. It’s so ambiguous as to mean nothing. I rail on leftists who use the term because it’s so easily co-opted due to said ambiguity. From my perspective, I lobby for those leaning left just to use the generic term ‘leftist’, which is so historically charged that anyone running toward centrism is terrified of the term and less apt to use it to co-opt traditional leftist class arguments.

  5. I have worked closely with several managers at DoW. They are great people and never hinted to me that there is any workplace hostility or that they feared losing their job. If anything, their demeanor and actions demonstrated confidence in the security of their jobs.

    Clark’s salary does seem exceedingly high for an NGO that is not a greenwashing group associated with an industry lobby. Are her insider political connections really worth over half a million a year?

    • I’m not an expert on this, but I picked NRDC randomly and found this…

      Top Salaries
      Learn more about Top Salaries
      Name Title Compensation
      1 Rhea Suh President $566,996
      2 David Hawkins Senior Attorney III $401,220
      3 Mitchell Bernard Executive Director/Chief Counsel $367,215

      Who knows what NGO payscales are based on? I’d think the logic would be “we need lawyers and they could make much more money elsewhere so..” but beyond that..???

      • Uh, no. It’s “we need Ivy League lawyers” because everyone knows you’re not really a member of the PMC unless you have an Ivy League education. I didn’t look, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts Rhea, David, and Mitchell are all Ivy Leaguers. You don’t get to lobby the right people unless you’re in their “League.”


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