By Frank Young
The WV Highlands Conservancy has endured for more than a half century. For an organization operated almost exclusively by volunteers, many “professionals” in non-profit organizational management training would have long ago written off WVHC as based on an unsustainable operating model.
WVHC’s operating model has been one of management of volunteers and volunteer committees by an unpaid board of directors elected from the organization’s membership. Board members are not recruited for their particular expertise in fundraising, nor litigation expertise (though some few have been lawyers), nor other expertise. Mostly they bring lay experience in advocating about environmental issues near and dear to their hearts.
WVHC has avoided (at least partially because of its economic limitations) the business model of hiring an Executive Officer or other staff to “direct” the affairs of the organization. Its staffing has been limited to a paid Membership Director and Editor of its monthly publication, The Highlands Voice.
The energy of the organization derives from and through various issue committees recognized by the Board of Directors and the President. These committees develop and function through the passion of people who are “riled up” about this or that issue- be it energy production related environmental issues (i.e.- coal and natural gas production contamination and destruction of natural features and systems), overall water quality, concerns about timbering in special places (i.e.- Blackwater Canyon), public lands management, construction of highways, and a plethora of other environmental concerns that often boil down to concerns about the overall quality of life we expect to enjoy in ‘Wild and Wonderful’ West Virginia.
Those passions have served to fuel this organization for more than 50 years, and without the need to hire professional executives to direct the organization.
I became President of WV Highlands Conservancy in 1998. My biggest initial concern was that I might stumble and steer the organization into a ditch, thus destroying its effectiveness. But I soon learned that we were not so fragile that a single board member- not even a President- would likely steer the organization into disorganization to the point of overall dysfunction. That’s because we run primarily on the passions of our committee activists and not on the “expertise” of a single Executive Director or President.
We sometimes liken WV Highlands Conservancy to a “platform” from which people with environmental concerns can launch their specific issue campaigns using WVHC’s existing organizational structure, limited budget and well established public credibility. The job of its Board of Directors and its officers has been to maintain the organizational “platform”. The energy to function on various issues comes from the issue committees staffed by volunteers with passion on those issues.
In late April we spent a day in a facilitated discussion about how WVHC might function and thrive into the future. It could be asked why we are having this discussion on the future of WVHC when we recognize that our first half century operating model has served us so well? Frankly, perhaps the simplest answer is that our pool of active board members and committee activists is graying (a euphemism for getting older) at a pace faster than younger people are coming on board to carry new torches and passions to assure the health of the organization into the future.
As stated by WVHC President Larry Thomas in the May Highlands Voice, the mission of WVHC is that it “promotes, encourages and works for the conservation – including both preservation and wise management – and appreciation of the natural resources of West Virginia and the Nation. We focus primarily on the Highlands Region of West Virginia, but our work is for the cultural, social, educational, physical health, spiritual and economic benefit of present and future generations of residents and visitors alike.”
We agree that to fulfill our mission, WV Highlands Conservancy engages in five key activities:
- We advocate for specific environmental concerns, including clean air & water,
preservation of public lands, wise management of natural resources, and the
health and welfare of our residents and visitors.
- We ensure our natural resources are being protected by monitoring compliance with laws, agreements, and best practices associated with oil & gas, strip mining, and other activities that impact our state, and including initiating litigation to enforce compliance when necessary.
- We partner with other organizations that support the preservation and wise management of our state’s natural resources by sponsoring events, education, and activism, including our long-term partnership with the Spruce Restoration Project.
- We support lobbying efforts to raise awareness of environmental concerns and issues.
- We educate residents and visitors on environmental issues through our monthly publication, The Highlands Voice.
So how does WVHC continue its mission in the face of an aging Board of Directors and without sufficient younger faces beaming with energy and idealism coming on board to pick up and carry our torches?
Throughout the facilitated discussion in late April, the outside facilitator suggested that what is needed most is for the organization to hire a Director or some other staff to help us carry on our work. We would need to expect such a Director to be paid a reasonable salary and with employment benefits. Having a professional Director would change the way the organization operates. That is why we are carefully considering it before we take any action.
At the April board meeting, the board reflected briefly on the discussions of the previous day, when we had a long, facilitated discussion on the future of the organization, possible hiring decisions, etc. Board President Larry Thomas appointed a committee to consider issues raised by the discussion, particularly policy on hiring decisions. It will consider how many people (one person with multiple duties, several part timers, contracting out some functions, etc.), job descriptions, and finances. Committee members are Marilyn Shoenfeld, Larry Thomas, Frank Young, John McFerrin, Beth Little, Jackie Burns (with possibly limited participation) and Hugh Rogers (resource person because he supervised our most recent hiring decision).
Stay tuned to The Highlands Voice. We will strive to keep members up to date on pending staffing and other basic organizational changes, if any.