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The Nature Conservancy

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LAST UPDATED: June 27th, 2019
The Nature Conservancy is the largest charitable environmental organization in the United States. The organization is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia and was founded in 1951. The Nature Conservancy has a membership structure, wherein members pay for a monthly or annual membership and dues are used to fulfill the organization's mission of conserving land and water resources globally. It can do this, in part, by its partnerships with local and national governments as well as with large corporations.

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The Good

  • Strong donor communication
  • Award and recognition
  • Financial transparency

Total Income

In 2015, the total support and revenue reported by The Nature Conservancy was $947,555, down from $1,114,279 in 2014. The organization reported $1,114,279 in 2013.

Administrative Expenses

Of The Nature Conservancy's revenue in 2015, 17.3 percent went to administrative costs. The highest-paid executive in the organization, as reported on IRS Form 990 (2014) was Regional Director, Charles Bedford, with a salary of $437,239. Sixteen individuals had salaries of over $100,000 as reported on the same form.

Donor Communication

The Nature Conservancy has an extremely robust communication with its members. Those who have donated as well as those electing to follow the organization on social media or opted into receiving the company's regular newsletters. An area of which the organization is criticized is its use of paper mailers soliciting donations, being that these efforts are not considered "green." Those electing to become a member of The Nature Conservancy receive six issues of the organization's magazine, Nature Conservancy, a monthly e-newsletter and regular updates on conservation in the member's home state and invitations to special events.


The Nature Conservancy's investment unit, NatureVest recently was recognized for efforts in restructuring the Republic of Seychelles' sovereign debt with the 2016 FT/IFC Transformational Business Award for Achievement in Transformational Finance. This award was sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The restructuring of the republic's debt has been seen as a way to use innovative funding to help developing countries preserve their natural resources and restructure their governmental indebtedness. Mission The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to protect the natural environment. The organization focuses its efforts into protecting their global priorities of land, water, climate, oceans and cities. There are conservation projects which have been accomplished as well as being in progress in each of the 50 states, in over 60 countries, and on six of the seven continents. The Nature Conservancy has a long history in its work and is often called upon by The United States Congress as an expert during congressional hearings involving the environment. Many have dubbed the organization "nature's real estate agent," or something similar. Ways to Support The Nature Conservancy There are several ways to support The Nature Conservancy. One can become a member with a minimum gift of $25. The Nature Conservancy accepts honor or tribute giving as well as gifts from one's estate. Financial Transparency Perhaps due to the IRS audit and congressional investigation into the management of funds and conservation, The Nature Conservancy is very transparent with its records online. If one should desire, the organization's annual reports and IRS forms are published online. By going through these records, potential and current supporters of The Nature Conservancy are able to see data about how revenue was spent. There is not an itemized list of all projects in their reports, however. Breakdowns of executive salaries can be found in the organization's IRS Form 990. Independent Charity Monitoring Organizations The Nature Conservancy has been recognized by as an accredited charity. The organization has received three of four stars from Charity Navigator, which indicates their transparency and practices are demonstrative of best practices by nonprofit agencies. Additionally, the organization is named as a "Top Rated Charity" by the American Institute of Philanthropy. The Nature Conservancy states that it has a current A- with the institute, but that is not accurate; the current rating (August, 2016) for The Nature Conservancy from the American Institute of Philanthropy is B+, which is the lowest grade a "Top Rated Charity" Status can be awarded.

The Bad

  • High administrative costs
  • High fundraising expenses
  • Low project delivery percentage

Fundraising Expenses

An area which has generated some criticism of The Nature Conservancy is the percentage of revenue spent on fundraising and membership, which some feel is excessive-11.5 percent. The biggest source of complaints about fundraising is that the organization sends "junk mail" soliciting membership, which according to most, ends up in the landfills, destroying more trees and creating a carbon footprint from printing, etc.

Program Percentage

According to The Nature Conservancy's 2015 annual report, 71.2 percent of its annual revenue is spent on the organization's programs, preserving land and water worldwide. There is no breakdown in the annual report of what percentage goes for preserving land versus waterways, etc.

Accessible Financial Information

Finding annual reports and financial statements on The Nature Conservancy's website requires a little searching and a few clicks, but the page itself is comprehensive, with links to the organization's annual reports(2007-2015), IRS forms 990, and 8453-EO (fiscal years 2012-2015). Annual reports are also available in Spanish, which is unusual among charitable organizations.

Negative Press

There is much that is said about The Nature Conservancy, with many allegations that the organization's policies and relationships with large corporations, stating that these are both questionable and contrary to the mission of The Nature Conservancy. After the massive BP Oil spill in 2010, there were several demands that the organization sever ties with BP, which it did not. Additional allegations have surfaced stating that The Nature Conservancy profits from oil drilling on its conservation land in Texas. The organization does have some oil drilling on their land sites. Additionally complicating these activities is some lack of transparency and some people's conspiracy theories which allege that The Nature Conservancy helped change endangered species acts on its conservation land holdings in Texas to allow oil drilling on these sites for a profit. There is a general lack of trust between a small group of people and The Nature Conservancy, which stems from an IRS audit and Congressional Hearings on the organization's management of funds in 2005. Contradictions between Mission and Practices The Nature Conservancy is the subject of much criticism. The common thread in these critiques is that there appears to be a disconnect between the mission of the organization and how it practices in real-life applications. Perhaps the most damaging to a nonprofit are allegations of mismanagement of funds (e.g. high executive salary), followed closely by not allocating funds wisely or not supporting the cause which the organization purports to address. While there are some complaints about high executive pay by former donors, the biggest area The Nature Conservancy needs to address, according to former donors is some contradictory practices in conservation efforts. Hunting and Fishing Policies Some supporters of The Nature Conservancy expect that their donations should be used to conserve nature, at all costs, which would not include hunting or fishing; however, there are some conservation sites that use controlled legal hunting or fishing as a way to balance the wildlife population in these areas. There are many environmentalists who are adamantly opposed to these practices, and are angry about The Nature Conservancy's position on this method of population control and their role in conserving the environment.

The Bottom Line

In spite of an admirable mission, there are several concerns which have been introduced by critics of The Nature Conservancy. Connections with big industry, while not solid evidence of wrongdoing, are nevertheless suspicious. The organization has slipped in its support over the last few years, which signal that donors are either not able to continue to contribute to the organization or that they are no longer willing to do so. The organization is transparent with its financial information, but added transparency of its individual conservation projects would increase the confidence for those supporting it.
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