Audubon's CEO Breaks Down the Non-Profit's New Look and Vision

In an in-depth interview with GreenBiz, David Yarnold reveals how a series of strategic changes has made all the difference.

In the world of non-profits, there's always something new to look forward to. Or at least, that's Audubon's ambition. And with a recently revamped strategic plan, the organization is looking to speed up its evolution even more.

Last week, during a discussion with GreenBiz Managing Editor Elsa Wenzel, our CEO and president David Yarnold delved into the changes that Audubon's adopted over the past six years. The topics ranged from the organization's public profile, to its emphasis on citizen science, to the general struggle most non-profits face with evolving media. 

Here's a rundown of highlights from the interview. To read it in full, head over to the GreenBiz website. Or listen to the sound bites in the GreenBiz podcast.

On communication as the nadir of sustainable businesses:

Elsa Wenzel: What are some sectors that you think desperately need a communications makeover?

David Yarnold: Most of the non-profit world.

I haven't studied the for-profit world very intensively. One of the things that I look at in the for-profit world is where sustainability fits into organizations. Is it something off to the side or is it integrated into an organization's operations?

I actually was recruited for the sustainability position at one of Silicon Valley's biggest names, and they had no idea where that person would report functionally, and it ended up not reporting into an operations role. It was going to make the sustainability officer the badgerer-in-chief, and I don't think that's a really great job.

On extricating conservation goals from for-profit interests:

EW: Birds have been kind of a political pawn. People complain that we're trying to save these species and impeding progress, whether it's for wind power or what-have-you. You're doing work on making sure renewable energy developments don't harm habitats.

DY: Audubon is fully committed to the idea that we need to create a clean energy economy, because climate change is the greatest threat to birds and people. But we want to do that in a way that minimizes harm to wildlife . . . But we're really challenged by that because the wind industry tends to talk a good game, but at the end of the day it acts out of self interest. We're not afraid to say that when it happens.

It's urgent for America to have a clean energy economy. And I think it's equally important to do that in a sensible way that protects wildlife and our natural heritage. Why not?

On Audubon's partnerships with Toyota, Aveda, and ESRI:

EW: Is there any danger appearing less sincere or authentic when aligning with a for-profit entity? Any pitfalls from your side?

DY: You always have to be aware of the possibility of greenwashing. And we have agreements with all of our partners that talk about how the brand gets used, how the name gets used . . . 

So even with all that people recognize that the millions of people who love birds and appreciate Audubon's brand are engaged, they're smart, they're good customers and they're loyal. So, that stereotype, Jane Hathaway in the floppy hat . . . she's a terrific member. But I've also met Audubon members who have lightning bolts shaved in their heads and they're 20 years old and have nose rings.

The face of birding is changing and it's kind of cool to be a geek right now, right? All you have to do is look at our Facebook page and look at the hundreds of thousands of people who look at our osprey cam or want to know how to make hummingbird food.

On reaching out to new, impassioned generations:

EW: How much of your growth in traffic from social media to your site or app is from younger people, say so-called millennials?

DY: It's a lot . . . One of the things I'll do every now and then is casually stalk the people who comment on our Facebook page. What you see is that that's a broad range of people . . . But there's no question that we're marketing hard to millennials.

And one of the things that I'm really excited about is that this fall, we're going to launch a database that will enable you to find the native plants that are best for birds in your county . . .

One of the things that amazed me about Audubon was how many people love birds. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that there are 47 million people in America who like birding. That's second only to gardening as a hobby.

On fessing up to his biggest bird crush:

EW: Do you have a favorite bird?

DY: That's like asking me do I have a favorite kid. All right, so the answer is yes. I love the Roseate Spoonbill . . . I mean, who would not like a big pink bird with a big spoon-shaped bill, right?

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