Green group execs cashed in on their way out

By Robin Bravender | 04/11/2023 01:31 PM EDT

Executives who left their gigs leading major national environmental groups in recent years took home six-figure severance packages, the organizations’ latest tax filings reveal.

A closeup of a U.S. hundred dollar bill (Benjamin Franklin side).

Five prominent environmental groups reported paying severance to two dozen environmental group officials since 2019, according to an E&E News review of tax documents. The bulk of those payments were six figures. Adam Nir/Unsplash

David Yarnold didn’t leave empty-handed when he stepped down from his turbulent stint as leader of the National Audubon Society.

Instead, Yarnold, Audubon’s president and CEO for a decade, received total compensation of $1.3 million in 2021, the year he left the organization amid complaints from his staff and internal auditorsaired in POLITICO coverage at the time — about what employees called a toxic workplace culture at the prominent conservation group. That included $600,000 in separation pay divided between 2021 and 2022.

Yarnold was far from alone.


Five prominent environmental groups reported paying severance to more than two dozen environmental group officials since 2019, according to an E&E News review of tax documents. The bulk of those reported payments — 18 of the 25 — were six figures.

The documents, which nonprofits are legally required to make public, offer a glimpse into the finances of green groups that have in recent years witnessed turnover in their executive ranks and workplace turmoil fueled by factors including the Covid-19 pandemic, the #MeToo movement, a unionization push and a broad reckoning on race and diversity issues.

The details of employees’ separations aren’t publicly disclosed in those tax forms, but organizations pay outgoing employees for a variety of reasons. Those severance packages can result from layoffs or terminations. They may also be awarded as bonuses to departing employees or as payments made to fulfill contractual obligations.

National Audubon Society

At Audubon, the board of directors determines the CEO’s compensation and severance, said Ingrid Milne, the organization’s chief financial officer.

Audubon disclosed severance payments to two other high-ranking executives in its latest tax filing. Former Chief Operating Officer Stephen Meyer received $376,723, and former Chief Field and Strategy Officer Rebeccah Sanders received a $355,350 separation payment. Meyer and Sanders both left the organization in July 2021.

Those separation payments were based on preexisting commitments from former CEO Yarnold, Milne said.

Yarnold declined to comment for this story. Meyer and Sanders did not respond to requests for comment.

Audubon also paid severance to the leader who preceded Yarnold.

Former Audubon President John Flicker received a $315,000 severance payment when he stepped down in 2010, the group’s tax filings show. Flicker’s separation pay was the highest of four Audubon executives whose severances that year were detailed in the documents.

“Severance payments are based on the former employee’s length of service with the company,” the filing said.

Other major environmental and conservation groups including the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund have also reported severance payments to outgoing executives in recent years.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy — the biggest U.S. environmental group by revenue — detailed severance payments to nine executives in 2019 and 2020, according to its tax filings, as that group saw turnover in its upper ranks.

The group’s then-CEO, Mark Tercek, announced his departure in 2019, soon after three other senior employees stepped down in the wake of an investigation into sexual harassment and workplace misconduct (Greenwire, June 10, 2019).

One of those employees, former Nature Conservancy President Brian McPeek, received a separation payment of $700,000 in 2019 and another separation payment of $350,000 in 2020, the group’s latest tax filings show.

In total, McPeek received $1.2 million in salary and other benefits from the group in 2019 and $503,302 in 2020, the year after he stepped down.

An internal investigation in 2019 concluded that McPeek had inappropriately kissed another staff member in 2010, E&E News reported at the time.

The Nature Conservancy’s internal investigation also concluded that two executives — Mark Burget and Kacky Andrews — had not properly disclosed their romantic relationship. Burget and Andrews stepped down, although they disputed the accusations at the time, according to news reports.

Burget, who was the group’s executive vice president and North America managing director, received a separation payment of $728,876 in 2020, the tax forms show. Andrews, who was executive vice president of global strategies, was paid $487,500 in severance that year.

Andrews and Burget, who went on to found the firm Tumalo Creek Partners LLC, did not respond to requests for comment.

Tercek received $248,383 from the organization in 2020, the year after he stepped down. That number reflected deferred compensation to the former CEO, according to Nature Conservancy spokesperson Rachel Winters. Tercek did not respond to a request for comment.

Other senior employees at the Nature Conservancy who received severance payments in 2019 and 2020: Chief Development Officer James Asp ($600,000), Chief of External Affairs Glenn Prickett ($250,000), Regional Managing Director Karen Berky ($224,900), Regional Director Charles Bedford ($150,000), Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation Heather Tallis ($97,115) and Chief Information Officer Marc Touitou ($40,000).

Asked about payments to former executives, Winters said, “Due to confidentiality reasons, we are unable to discuss details regarding any individual.”

Sierra Club

Former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who resigned in 2021, received a $156,000 severance payment that year, the group’s tax filings show.

Brune, who had led the influential environmental group for more than a decade, also stepped down during a challenging period for his organization and the environmental movement more broadly.

He wrote a piece in July 2020 that denounced Sierra Club founder John Muir as a racist. Brune said he wanted himself and other Sierra Club leaders, staff and volunteers to be held “accountable whenever we don’t live up to our commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization.”

When he resigned in 2021, Brune said that the organization’s “transformation is not yet complete and I regret that I was not able to do more” (Greenwire, Aug. 16, 2021).

Brune declined to comment for this story.

At least seven other senior Sierra Club officials received severance payments in 2021 and 2020, according to the latest tax filings.

They included 2021 payments to National Program Director Jesse Simons ($135,192), Legal Director Patrick Gallagher ($116,250), Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Trahan ($58,371), General Counsel Phil Eager ($90,150) and Chief of Communications Maggie Kash ($79,615).

The group’s former chief financial executive, Louis Barnes, received a $115,000 severance payment in 2020. Nellis Kennedy-Howard, the organization’s director of equity, inclusion and justice, received $51,765 in severance after she left in June 2020.

Gallagher accepted an early retirement incentive that the organization was offering at that time, he said in a recent interview.

“I was bought out as part of an early retirement package that was offered to many employees at the Sierra Club,” said Gallagher, who was 63 at the time of the buyout.

Natural Resources Defense Council

Former Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh received severance payments totaling $645,544 after she stepped down in 2019, the tax forms show.

Suh led the organization from 2015 until 2019 after she served in the Obama administration’s Interior Department.

NRDC’s 2019 tax filing shows that Suh earned a total of $680,598 from the organization that year, including salary, benefits and deferred compensation. That amount included a severance payment of $368,144, the document says. Suh received another severance payment of $277,400 in calendar year 2020, the filing shows.

“It is our longstanding policy to not share details about people’s earnings, beyond what the IRS requires,” NRDC spokesperson Mark Drajem said in an email.

Suh did not respond to a request for comment.

Her predecessor on the job, Peter Lehner, also received severance pay, the group’s tax filings show. Lehner, who led the group from 2007 until 2015, received $355,100 in severance in 2015.

The filings did not include any details about severance payment to Gina McCarthy, who took over after Suh’s departure but stepped down in 2021 to join the Biden administration as White House climate adviser. Additional payments to McCarthy could be reflected in tax documents that cover 2021, still yet to be released.

Another former NRDC employee, former Chief Development Officer Anders Yang, received a settlement payment from the group of $370,000, according to the organization’s latest tax document.

Yang sued NRDC in 2018, alleging that he was wrongfully terminated and that the group had subjected him to disparate treatment based on a medical condition. NRDC denied his allegations. The case was dismissed in 2020.

An attorney for Yang, Darci Burrell, said that neither she nor Yang could comment on the resolution of his case.

Environmental Defense Fund

The Environmental Defense Fund has been run by the same leader, Fred Krupp, for nearly four decades.

The group has, however, seen some turnover among its leaders in recent years, and its tax filings show severance payments to four senior employees since 2019.

Those included $248,601 in severance paid in 2020 to Daniel Dudek, who left his post as vice president of Asian operations in August 2020. David Festa, EDF’s vice president for ecosystems, received $145,392 in severance when he stepped down in September 2020. James Marston, who worked on climate and energy at EDF until September 2020, received $208,104 in separation pay.

In 2019, EDF paid $156,608 in severance to Jessica Isaacs, who was chief administrative officer until August of that year.

EDF did not respond to requests for comment.