"Attention, Home Depot shoppers! Aisle 12 has lumber ripped from the heart of old-growth forests!"
Mike Brune, a California environmentalist, got the idea to make shocking announcements like that during what he calls his "intercom campaign." He acquired the access code to Home Depot intercom systems—just punch in *80—and he and his operatives pulled it off. The theatrics established Brune as a famous green prankster during the 1990s and also helped persuade the giant Home Depot chain to sell lumber that is logged at least somewhat sustainably.
Brune has made a career in creative civil disobedience and leveraging consumer action to reform corporate practices. He went to work for Greenpeace in 1993, shortly after he graduated from college, then signed on with the Coastal Rainforest Coalition, then shifted to the Rainforest Action Network in 1998. He estimates that he's been arrested 10 or 12 times for trespassing and other protest-related offenses, but he's also known for negotiating pleasantly with corporations. He was Rainforest's executive director from 2002 until recently. On March 15, he'll take a new job as one of the world's most influential environmentalists: executive director of the 700,000-member Sierra Club.
Brune's latest career move is notable for many reasons. He vows to jazz up the Sierra Club's efforts to battle fossil fuels, back renewable energy and protect habitat threatened by climate change. He also represents a trend in generational handoffs. At age 38, he's replacing Carl Pope, who's worked for the Sierra Club for 37 years, including the last 18 as executive director.
Similar changes in top leadership are occurring in at least seven other environmental groups active in the West: the National Audubon Society, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (which organizes hunters and anglers), Trout Unlimited, Earthworks (which campaigns to reform mining), the Montana Wilderness Association, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace-USA.
"There's a big class of baby-boomer types [running nonprofit groups] who are moving toward their sunset years. We'll see a growing trend of [leaders] stepping down," says Rick Johnson, the Idaho Conservation League's executive director. But Johnson adds, such changes are "nothing strange."
The average leader of a modern nonprofit group stays for only four or five years before stepping down or moving to another group, according to many studies since 1999. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, in San Francisco, helped survey 2,000 leaders of groups in 2005 and found that "three quarters don't plan on being in their current jobs five years from now, and nine percent are currently in the process of leaving." The reasons included "frustrations with boards of directors," low pay and the constant pressure to raise money from foundations and individual donors.
Today's economic recession, which has made fundraising even more difficult, adds to the burn rate of executive directors. There's even a new field called "executive transition management," as experts try to help groups recruit and prepare for "a large wave of leadership transition," the CompassPoint study reported.
Then there's the political dynamic: "Everybody was hunkered down during the Bush administration, focused on the fights at hand," says an environmental-group consultant in Seattle, while the greener Obama presidency creates an atmosphere for career moves. Many environmentalist leaders are getting new jobs working for Obama, and others feel free to take jobs with different groups or retire because they are less worried about abandoning their missions.
Some groups seem to stick to existing paths with their leadership changes. Chris Wood, the new CEO of Trout Unlimited, has been with that group for nine years and led its efforts to be more vocal standing up for habitat during the Bush administration. Wood will likely keep that group active politically.
But new leaders always bring possibilities of improvements, and some of the groups clearly have an eye on adjusting their strategies to be more effective. Without revealing his exact plans, Brune told San Francisco radio station KQED that he wants the Sierra Club's campaigns to be more "creative, fun and exciting"—more appealing to the general public as well as to activists. It's an exhilarating time for those who think that the environmental movement needs new blood and more experimentation.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior editor in Bozeman.