It was a rough year for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Morale took a hit as the environmental organization — one of the biggest and most influential green groups in the country — conducted a sweeping reorganization that included laying off dozens of employees. The layoffs came as NRDC orchestrated a broader reorganization that its leaders hope will streamline the group’s work and reset its strategy as NRDC and other environmental groups shift from fighting for climate legislation to helping maximize the emission reductions from the massive climate law enacted last year.
As 2023 draws to a close, NRDC’s Christy Goldfuss is hopeful that morale is on the mend and that the group is in a stronger position as it heads into what she sees as an “existential” fight ahead.
Goldfuss, who was promoted last week to be NRDC’s executive director, spoke to E&E News about the organization’s new configuration, the mood internally and what’s ahead for 2024.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you describe your new job?
The way we’ve divided it is I’m over advocacy … government affairs, communications, the science office and also [human resources]. I’m kind of the people and culture and advocacy lead for the organization. Manish [Bapna, NRDC’s president and CEO,] has the financial development officer, more of the financial aspects of the organization.
That sounds like a lot to do.
It is. We’re almost through with our reorg. In the beginning of January, people will be moving into a new structure that we’ve been working on for months now. It’s a pretty exciting opportunity because we will have a rational structure and org chart, which is a very unique thing for nonprofits. [There will be] new leaders in some cases, in some cases very seasoned leaders who will be in those roles. The opportunity to kind of start all over again in an organization that is as strong as NRDC is pretty unique.
What’s the vision of the reorganization?
The vision of the reorg is really to make sure that we can leverage all the various tools and advocacy opportunities we have across the organization.
People think of NRDC and they think of litigation and they think of science, but we are really predominantly advocates. Our advocacy staff … will be broken down into climate and energy, nature, environmental health, and then our international work, and underneath each of those streams of work, there are sectors. We also for the first time have equity and community partnership themes that are embedded in each of those major areas.
[NRDC is] trying to the best of our ability to look big-picture at the major crises that we really want to address: the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis and public health crises, and then make sure that we are organized in a way that we’re focused on those opportunities.
How is this different from how you’re structured before?
How we’re structured now is lots of different little individual projects. We have a people and communities team, which included some buildings work and some transportation work. And then we also have a climate and clean energy team, which includes some transportation work and some power work. We had work that was happening in various different projects that was in some ways duplicative at times.
Following the layoffs, can you describe morale and where you think you’re heading?
I’m hoping that we reached the lowest of lows in morale if you combine both the need to do layoffs plus the reorganization of a 700-plus[-person], 50-plus-year-old organization. It’s going to be tough. Every management book, organizational development book you read says that one of the greatest morale killers is a reorg. It’s just really hard.
And while there were certainly financial reasons for the layoffs, the primary motivation was the reorg and really how we’re looking at doing our work going forward and work that we wanted to stop doing. While it got attention, it’s really not that remarkable to phase out work in a large organization. It’s hard because you have to say goodbye to colleagues and people who’d been working at a place for a very long time. NRDC is really unique that way because people come and they stay for almost their entire careers. I think the impact of that is just crushing.
Hopefully people are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And not even just hopefully, I know from conversations as we’re closing out the year that people are excited about the new structure, having a rationality, getting through this difficult phase and really focusing on what we know the work is for next year, which is going to be really a tough year. It’s an election year. We have to be as coordinated internally and as united in our purpose as we’ve ever been before. That, to me, is a really good reason that although we moved quickly in 2023, it was necessary to get through this and start 2024 fresh.
NRDC wasn’t the only environmental group that had a tough year with layoffs and restructuring. How would you explain the broader trend?
I think this was really a moment of shifts in strategy. You had the decade that led up to the Waxman-Markey [climate bill] fight, then that really brutal loss and then 10 years that led up to Build Back Better and the Inflation Reduction Act. And the strategies around that were very specific and designed at getting the big win and getting the huge federal policy win. Now, the fight is far more about getting dollars on the ground into communities, getting things built — which has not been traditionally where the environmental movement has been focused.
Everybody was really organized … around all the climate wins in the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law. It’s natural that there’s going to be a resetting of priorities and resetting of strategy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It was a difficult year for the environmental movement regrouping, but I think it’s all for the better health of what we need to get done and positioning. Not only NRDC, but all the various groups across the climate and justice movement to be more focused, more able to partner and work together and stronger as we look at the fight ahead, which is pretty existential.