Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Investing to protect Florida's environment: David versus Goliath … by Alan Farago

Let's say you have a charitable foundation and want to invest to protect Florida's environment. You are willing to spend a million dollars a year, over a ten year period, for that purpose. What do you do? How do you spend the money?

For starters, if you have ten million dollars of money tucked away, it is likely in a foundation restricted in its giving. To benefit from tax credits, the foundation can't participate in political campaigns. Second, you are not likely to do it yourself.

If you have gotten this far, you already have a board of directors. They are busy people (and presumably, smart in a business-like way) and not necessary attuned to the most important prerequisite of progress on the environment: political change.

So from the outset -- if you haven't already -- you ought to reconsider the benefits of IRS qualified donations against the results one can reasonably expect based on past performance.

So you hire hire your own staff to administer grants and ensure, one hopes, accountability. Staff for charitable environmental organizations are rarely cultivated from the political ranks of change-makers. When they are politically experienced, however, they come from the mainstream. In other words, finely tuned to lessons of compromise that consigned the environment to lower rungs of political concern in the first place.

Now, you have a line of charitable organizations that come with their plans for how your money will be well-spent through good works, according to guidelines you established and their respective missions.

On a deeper level, however, your opposition has already lined up to exploit the loopholes in state and federal campaign laws. Instead of a spigot, they have multiple pipelines of dark money flowing to oppose environmental causes and actions.

So while you veer from prohibited activities because the opposition (builders, developers, rock miners, sugar barons) are all waiting for you to trip on your bows and arrows, the opposition is armed and loaded with howitzers and smart bombs. All is not lost, yet.

So you want to save the panther. You invest in an educational campaign: why the panther. (Or manatee or wood stork). You invest in a campaign to put more land in public trust, to save the panther habitat. You find an organization that gets people together around a particular stretch of land or marsh. Save the panther. You sue an agency. Save the panther.

As the donor, you ask your staff to report back on the success (or not) of the yearly investment. The grantee dresses up a report, has a meeting, and applies for more money to cover programs, staff salaries, and expenses.

But then you find you might have done a good job on the east side in county X, but there's been an explosion of suburban sprawl in county Y, exactly where panthers need to roam. Or, the highway that your charitable organization friends fought in county W (and lost) proves to be the one that causes road kill of panthers like a flame hitting moths.

Sure, there are state-wide environmental groups. Their staff is stretched tighter than a first violin's bow. You find at the end of the day, the best way to save panthers is in cages to be shown at children's' birthday parties in Sweetwater.

If you can't do politics, politics does you.

Every environmental rule or regulation is based on politics. So why are Florida environmentalists so bad at politics?

This is a big question. The short answer is that outcomes are heavily, heavily weighed on the side of polluters and those who have everything to gain from gaming water management or other rules and regulations. I call it "The Growth Machine", with all the gears -- from the big ones in Washington -- right down to the lobbyist corps at the local county commission.

There are many longer answers, but the one I want to focus on is this: that donors to environmental groups entrust the political work -- to the extent it exists -- to the same organizations enmeshed in compromises for conservation.

For example, in Florida the Audubon Society is the best funded of conservation organizations, with affiliates in many counties throughout the state. Its leadership on conservation policies is well-established.

From outcomes, Audubon can't be pleased by what is transpiring or expiring in the Everglades. Incremental progress is overwhelmed by insider domination of processes. Yet in Florida Audubon is the charitable organization regularly invited inside the Big Closed Tent in the state capitol where all things to do with Everglades are fluffed for public consumption. That's the Big Closed Tent that is zealously guarded (redistricting) by the GOP.

In Audubon's defense, the organization and its leaders are engaged in the art of the possible. And if you were to listen in on staff meetings, you might often hear about the perfect being the enemy of the good. If compromise is the mother's milk of politics, that is where we belong -- or words to that effect.

But once again -- look at the results and judge accordingly.

On Lake Okeechobee, the smartest and most qualified environmentalists are Audubon staffers. They know what they are talking about. And what they are talking about when it comes to the causes of polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee -- mainly benefiting the growing of sugar cane south of the Lake -- we knew about thirty years ago. The wreckage stretches to the horizon.

So if you are a donor to environmental causes in Florida, you have to ask some hard questions. Your IRS qualified grantees are very worthy. How much of what we are investing, is kicking the can down the road? Maybe part of our investment should be kicking the can down the road, but maybe these should only be part of our investment. The people keeping the ball in play shouldn't be the leaders recruited to weaponize environmental issues in Florida.

The bigger part of the donor investment shouldn't be in conservation at all. It should be persuading donors to make political contributions to go for the jugular. That is how the other side does it.

Name one political enemy that the environmental movement in Florida has succeeded in ousting. (I'm waiting …)

Here is the point. With your charitable organization, you've designed a square peg to fit a round hole.

When you decide to fight Goliath, you can't put the slingshot in the hands of those whose persuasion skills have been learned in Palm Beach agency meetings or hotel conference rooms. In the perception of agency bureaucrats who oversee environmental rules and regulations, these emissaries are either lambs or easy marks to use for dragging moral issues into the deep marsh of "complexity" where they are drowned.

So how do you weaponize environmental issues that pollsters will say are a lower order of priority for voters?

It is not easy sorting out the alliances that Florida environmentalists need to develop in order to be politically effective. They are not, however, insurmountable.

Take the sugar issue, for example. Environmentalists have made token headway against Big Sugar despite serial victories in federal courts that ought to aim politics in the direction of cutting every single constituent of pollution and development in wetlands, eliminating subsidies and reinforcing the economic benefits of restoring the Everglades.

Why haven't Florida environmentalists forged alliances and campaigns with those aimed to close the trillion dollar hole in our health care crisis: the over-consumption of sugar? No one from the Florida's charitable environmental community has even tried in the most likely direction to energize a broad swath of the voting public.

The bottom line for my hypothetical ten million dollar donor: spend to save the panther but invest in politics for the environment. When you do, you can't put lobbying or political money with the same groups or leaders that do conservation as the art of compromise.

You have to make clear: enemies will be punished and friends, protected. Audubon couldn't protect Ray Judah, the county commissioner from Lee County who stood up for the Everglades alone among cohorts, but the group could give an award to Ken Pruitt, the former well driller and president of the Florida Senate who did the bidding of the Great Destroyers and is now hauling down a multiple six figure income in a public job for which he doesn't have requisite qualifications while lobbying for Big Sugar. Old Guard Democrats? Don't get me started.

With sea level rise on the horizon, the time for a muscular environmental movement in Florida is now. It is not about wind mills and solar panels, or punishing friends and rewarding enemies. It is about a focused political strategy that begins by knocking just a few holes in the seamless, high walls built by polluters around Tallahassee and Washington, DC.


Anonymous said...

This sums it up better then I could - if you want to save the environment a donation to a charity is probably not going to help - investing in quality local/national candidates with environmental track records is a better investments. If you think groups like the Everglades Foundation who most recently featured Lynda Bell is your friend, you're kidding yourself and turning a real blind eye to the reality.

As I just posted in a previous blog, Tallahassee is basically filled with Koch brothers Rick Scott rubber stamps. There's not one moderate GOP legislator in the bunch for fear they will lose their dark money campaign contributions. The only way to literally clean house is help candidates individually, otherwise, we're going to lose more people like Ray Judah who was left to his own while "foundations" were collecting funds and fighting individual battles with zero net gain.

As to Eric Draper and Audubon big sugar con, it's a disgrace and a whole other blog unto it's own.

Anonymous said...

Environmental groups would be smart to form a PAC. They've severely handicapped themselves while everyone else is happily collecting funds, endorsing candidates, and funding campaigns.

Geniusofdespair said...

I want to know why I am never invited to the Everglades Foundation Gala Events.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The entire environmentalism teeters on the edge of bourgeoise hobby. If it were for real we'd be concerned with our ridiculously high level of immigration. If you look to how population got factored out of the equation I=PAT you'll probably find out why we have lots of environmental NPOs and little environmental politics.

Anonymous said...

This is a very long post.