Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: And tonight, we will be going to Park Avenue South in Manhattan and to the offices of the Environmental Defense Fund. Their mission for over 50 years has been to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends. We’ll start with their CEO Fredd Krupp and then hear from some of the other members of the team.
Fred Krupp: Our corporate culture is grounded around five values: respect, results, innovation, optimism, and integrity. That’s really central to everything we do. We have these values posted on our wall. We give them to new employees. We do everything we can to practice those values. We’re also very entrepreneurial. Even as we’ve grown projects like the MethaneSAT, our evidence and models for how we want to approach the world…. keep looking for the new big idea because these problems are so damn big, that’s the only way we can responsibly attack them.
Defined by Mission
Jon Coifman: So, a word or a phrase to describe EDF, I think, is the one that’s actually on our business cards: finding the ways that work. The organization is pragmatic and solutions-oriented. It’s noticeable how much we don’t jump on the bandwagon or leap to the obvious and easy conclusions or involved in conversations around complicated issues where the science, the economics, the technology– it may be emerging, may not be super well-understood. It’s our willingness to leap into things as much as our insistence really on holding back and being a little bit cautious and waiting till we’ve got evidence.
Kendra Hughes: I also just love where EDF is in the environmental community. We’re kind of just such a unique voice. We’re not really on either side. We’re trying to find the middle ground, and it’s going to be cliché, but we’re really trying to find the ways that work because I’m thinking on the political side, we know that we can never get a policy solution forward unless it’s bipartisan… because Congress is always going to switch; it’s going to be someone new in the White House, and so I just love that we’re really the group that’s working to find those solutions and bring everyone together
Jon Coifman: Again, it’s a transparency issue for us, and I think most people in this organization, on any given day, know where they’re going. They know where they’re headed, and they can answer the question – and this is a piece of sort of EDF jargon – What is the theory of change? Why are you doing this? What is this activity, this project going to do to make a difference?
Rick Vellue: One thing we all have in common is how driven everybody is. We are a culture of Type-A, hard-driving, demanding, bossy, perfectionists. I’m sure I’m leaving out some words. And that’s really good. Everyone really cares about the mission. We are a data-driven organization. We’re this army of lawyers and scientists and economists and communications professionals who are really goal-oriented and results-oriented. But it also is a double-edged sword. There’s a phrase that we use around the MarCom shop, which is “Don’t EDF it up.” Sometimes we get in our own way… that we want to go over the detail one more time; we want to have six more people proofread the thing. We want to really ask five new questions and maybe extend the deadline five months because we want to make it really good. And sometimes we have to be careful not to EDF it up and remember to be nimble and responsive and at times, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Matt Pieper: Actually, when I was first hired as an intern, I was told that it was just a six months position, but then things just worked out… that position became available at the exact right time. At that point, I think I had done my work well enough that I was trusted to take on that role. I don’t think it happens for every intern, but I think it happens a lot more often at EDF than other organizations… that interns get to continue on into a job.
Jon Coifman: As somebody who came to the organization at a fairly senior level, I had to go give a two-hour talk in conversation with a 12-person team that I was “auditioning” to work with. Again, that gave them a sense of clarity of who they were going to be welcoming into their crew; and it gave me a sense of whether “I now said what I’m going to do, what I think is important.” It then creates a sense of direction when you get your feet on the ground and come to the door. It is a rigorous and sometimes slow process getting into EDF, but it pays off in the long run.
Kendra Hughes: Everyone here is just so focused on their job because it’s so important — climate change, oceans, everything’s coming – I feel like it’s kind of hard for people to take a step back from that and say “I have to look at this equity, diversity, inclusion issue as well because that’s going to affect my work, but also it’s going to affect me as a person.” And so, I think just trying to making that culture shift is what we’re working on, too, so that we can have more of those trainings and kind of just ingrain it in all of our lives.
Jon Coifman: The notion here of grappling with the diversity challenges as an organization and something any organization has to wrestle with across a whole bunch of different measures or character, whether it’s race, age, economic… what I think has set us apart or at least strikes me as kind of uniquely effective here is that we’re able to talk about and consider those issues very much as part of our mission, and it’s baked into the day-to-day work. There was a time in another organization where I worked where somebody would wake up late in the process and say “We need to get some African American supporters on our bill or our thing. Who do we call? Can we call up the NAACP?” entirely as an afterthought. That does not happen here.
Rick Velleu: There’s a lot of talk of diversity now at EDF, but I want to talk about one specific part, which is generational diversity. I’m really struck. I’m one of the older members of EDF. What I love is I get to work with… it’s just a whole spectrum of age, ranges, and experiences here. I think there’s a lot of mentoring up and mentoring down across generations here, and I just find it fascinating. So I’ve been around the block a few times… and with that, as members of our generation now comes wisdom and some sort of sense of calm in certain situations and experience and how to do things. But my younger colleagues just have this whole host of talents and skills and viewpoints and perspectives and fresh ideas that they bring to what we’re doing, and I just think it’s a really wonderful arrangement of generations working together, of respecting each other, of learning from each other. It makes every day really invigorating, and you feel very creative and refreshed. At least, I do.
Matt Pieper: what I really want to talk about is how the culture is communicated during onboarding at EDF. I think that was a big thing for me when I first started here– trying to find a group of people that I really fit in with. During the onboarding, they talked a lot about the various groups that you could join at EDF. It’s actually kind of like after-school programs, and it’s great.
Nancy Raditz: I think everybody probably feels like they’re part of multiple different teams. There’s not a team that encompasses all of your work life. It’s a pretty heavy matrix sort of arrangement here, which can be complicated, but it also means you work with a lot of different people. So, for example, within the Oceans Program, I think of the Oceans team– the people who are working on our fisheries issues, the scientists and project managers; and that team is my core team, but I also work a lot with our finance team, our HR team, the other program areas. So, we talk a lot here about trying to find ways to continue to break down those silos and find those connecting threads. I’m not sure we’ve found the exact “secret sauce” to that yet, but it’s something that we talk about and think about a lot, and I think just acknowledging that… that’s something to be proactively thinking about is important.
Personal Training & Development
Madeline Lesser: I cannot talk about my growth at EDF without talking about the mentorship that I have– not just from my direct manager, but from the development department as a whole… and the strong leadership that we have, and also the team members that I have worked with on other teams. That not only has helped me to grow but it gives me a huge sense of purpose and knowing that I have a specific value within the team, but that I am part of a larger force that is moving something either to the next step or conclusion.
Karly Kelso: I took actually a “manager 2.0” class, where they had a consultant come in and talk about team dynamics and how to be a better manager, how to help mentor people that you are managing… but also how you could upper manage if need be. So there are definitely opportunities. They are not required, but there are definitely opportunities to learn skills that could help you become a better manager and help you work better on teams.
Matt Pieper: I’ve always been very clear on my path at EDF and what the options available were to me. I think it’s a very important part of the culture because that makes you feel more empowered to do your job well and to know exactly what to do in order to get to those next steps. It’s very clearly laid out with all the supervisors. I’ve had at least, and maybe I’m just lucky, but I think it’s organization-wide that this is a pretty common thing, of people just knowing where they’re going and enjoying the whole process of it. That’s a lot of the reason that people stay here for so long.
So it’s really great to know that I’m not the lucky one and that everyone at EDF is the lucky one… because we’re all getting the same opportunities of growth. This culture of advancement is something that I’m really happy to be a part of.
Madeline Lesser: Something unique about our culture takes place during the All Staff retreat each June, usually in Maryland, is the All Staff Awards. It usually encompasses about five folks who are recognized for their work at EDF. Usually, they’ve been here for a certain amount of time and have had the opportunity to really make an impact on the organization. It’s an entire evening of foreign event. So, we all as an organization stand up each time someone is recognized. They give a speech, and we all say, “ Thank you for everything you do and for your service.” I think it’s a really nice way to share the different accomplishments across EDF because we’re huge, and we have folks working remotely. We have global offices and people around the world. So, it’s a way to connect– everyone to each other– and feel good about what we’re all doing.
Nancy Raditz: In addition to those Personal Staff Awards, there are a lot of opportunities at the staff retreat to hear from your colleagues about what’s happened with their work, the progress that they and their teams are making, and there’s usually kind of a sort of like “highlights reel” almost of things that have happened across the whole year. It’s easy to forget in the course of a whole year all the great things that have happened… and to just be focused on what’s next, what are the challenges… so I really appreciate those opportunities. I think it’s a strong reflection of the core value of optimism that we have at EDF.
Karly Kelso: So the opportunity to get together with your team and make plans to really ensure that we’re achieving what we want to achieve, that we are true to our mission, and that we’re able to continue forward and make great progress to make the world a better place.
Anouska Cheddie: So I’m going to talk about life-work balance because I think we should talk about it. I would say it’s tough. The organization believes in it, believes there are opportunities for you to have life-work balance, but I will say with the issues that we’re working on, especially something like climate change, we have a limited amount of time that we can fight this. So I think there’s also a very fierce sense of urgency that we all have to do the best that we can to make sure that we’re making the changes that we want to see in this country, on this planet, and doing it as quickly as possible.
Karly Kelso: I want to take on work-life balance. So I am on the Oceans Team, and I work mostly with Asia-Pacific teams so I am on calls early in the morning sometimes 7: 00 or 8:00 a.m. and even sometimes at night from like 7:00 to 10:00. What keeps my sanity is the fact that I have really good, strong communication lines with my manager, where I am held accountable to my deadlines and what I need to accomplish. But I’m also not held to my desk at 9:00 to 5:00 and then also expected to be on the phone from 7:00 to 10:00. There’s a trust in between that I’m going to get what I need to accomplish/ finish by the agreed time, and there’s also transparency on what I’m working on and what I am working on with colleagues.
Jon Coifman: Rituals. EDF, at the staff retreat, does a “Follies” show every year where we have everything from very snappy AV, digital, fully-produced pieces you could see on Saturday Night Live, to somebody bringing ethnic or a national piece of music or dance or poetry to these things. It’s a stunning array of talents. We’ve got Broadway singers here, it turns out, and some mediocre comedians. But the fact that everybody is able to get up and do that every year, I think, is a real community-building piece of what this organization is about.
Nancy Raditz: I think a lot of what we’ve talked about today has just highlighted the strength of EDF’s culture, but we’ve been growing tremendously, and we have work going on in over 20 countries around the world now. We have staff on the ground in many of them. We have almost 800 staff, which to some companies might sound small but for us; it sounds big. And so I think that it’s going to be even more important– and I’m really glad to see EDF putting a proactive focus on maintaining the strength of the culture as we continue to grow and expand. We started a campaign called One EDF a couple of years ago that I think really embodies the idea of bringing all of those new ideas, new cultures, and new perspectives into the organization, but also maintaining the essence of who we are at the same time. I just appreciate that EDF is thinking about that and is planning consciously around how to achieve that.
Denver: I’d like to thank Ryan Hamilton for organizing my visit and to all those who participated in this piece: Jon Coifman, Matt Pieper, Madeline Lesser, Karly Kelso, Nancy Raditz, Rick Vellue, Anouska Cheddie, and Kendra Hughes. To hear this again, read the transcript or see pictures of the participants and the EDF offices, just visit denver-frederick.com and we’ll have posted there my full interview with Fred Krupp, the Chief Executive Officer of the Environmental Defense Fund.
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