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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Audubon: The Flicker Years

OK, so John Flicker has resigned from leading Audubon after 15 years at the helm. I first met him right after he came on board. I had been an intern in the DC Audubon office earlier that year (1995) when Peter Berle was on his way out as Audubon president. I was trying to set up a North American birding big year birdathon as a fundraiser for Audubon, and trying to get Audubon backing for the venture. I took a bus from Austin out to Cape May to meet with John Flicker about it at the Partners in Flight meetings in October 1995. He was new on the job, and for whatever reason, my project didn't really float his boat, and two months before I was to start the birding big year I got word that Audubon wasn't going to support it. I was young, inexperienced, and a bit dispirited and so I put the birding big year dreams on hold.

I interned in the Southwest Regional Office of Audubon for a little bit when I first arrived in Austin. One of Flickers first moves as president of Audubon was to shut down the regional offices and create state offices. They opened a state office in Austin, and when they ran out of money a couple years later let almost everyone go, then started over again, leaving a lot of us wondering what was going on.

A few years later I was the Executive Director for Travis Audubon in Austin. John Flicker came out for meetings at Hornsby Bend. He had announced his 2020 vision that included building 1000 Audubon nature centers by 2020. We had an old 1916 farmhouse at Hornsby Bend that we wanted to renovate as a nature center, but he didn't like that idea so much. He wasn't making a lot of friends in Texas, but I still didn't really know him.

In 2004 I was hired to work in the Audubon Science office. I got to spend a little time with John Flicker over the last few years, including an afternoon with him and Richard Louv at the Aullwood center in Ohio, and some birding trips in Utah, but we weren't ever close. I really liked his 20/20 vision--focused on nature centers and the creation of state offices, but those expansion efforts seemed to be stalling out. Budgets were tight and morale was often low.

John Flicker did help Audubon start to focus more on birds after a couple decades of trying to be a flavor of the month environmental organization. You can read Flicker's own statement about his legacy here. He was a polarizing figure for many, and was accused of not understanding Audubon's chapter level grassroots. A Take Back Audubon movement even tried to depose him at one point. I have my own take on all this, but am more interested to hear other perspectives on Audubon: The Flicker Years.

What were the good and bad from the John Flicker years, and what changes if any should Audubon consider under new leadership?


Anonymous said...

I heard that the Aldo Leopold family approached John Flicker about turning Leopold's famous shack into an Audubon nature center but he turned that opportunity down too. Too bad if true. You wold think that the birthplace of ecological restoration and wildlife ecology should have been good enough for some kind of Audubon center.

Anonymous said...

I have dealt with Audubon on many levels, for a long time, and in essence have found the organization to be extremely dysfunctional. As the (former) top dog, at least some of the administrative, organizational, and directional woes must be blamed on Flicker.

They seem to have a penchant for hiring poor people, and when bad personnel decisions are pervasive, it often reflects back on the talents of top management.

The state office that Flicker established in Ohio was finally disbanded last year, after it fumbled around failing to articulate a mission for ten years. While its Important Bird Area program was managed by an excellent, well-respected person, some of the other front-line staff left a lot to be desired. It's probably no coincidence that the grassroots Take Back Audubon movement was largely founded in Ohio. That state office probably did more to disenfranchise the state's various chapters than it did to bring them together. The one shining light is the creation of a new Audubon Nature Center, but to hear the people involved tell it, that success was accomplished in spite of the state office's incompetency.

The most effective "Audubon" organizations in the country seem to be those which have NO affiliation with National Audubon.

National Audubon seems like a sinking ship, and if it is to right itself and improve, it seems like a complete overhaul at the hands of a competent Director will be required.

John B. said...

I can say that there was a lot of unhappiness at the chapter level when Audubon decided to change the funding model for chapter activities. Chapters are the way that most people interact with Audubon and shouldn't be left to atrophy in favor of national or state programs. The previous commenter is right that the most vital local Audubon organizations seem to be ones that are either independent or semi-autonomous, though some chapters are quite active. I hope that the next president will do more to revitalize the local chapters.

During the past ten years or so, Audubon (working with other groups like NWF) did good work in forestalling some potentially disastrous federal legislation. However, I would like to see someone – whether Audubon or another organization – be more effective at organizing birders as a political force to achieve positive results, like stronger protection for threatened species and important habitats and funding to manage public lands for passive wildlife recreation and not just hunting.

birdchaser said...

More on the Take Back Audubon movement here:

birdchaser said...

No major news source has covered this resignation--perhaps an indication of Audubon's relevance these days?

Anonymous said...

I like John as a person (totally charming), but he had no real vision for the organization. I was at a big National Audubon meeting in Baltimore (I was on staff) and there was open ridicule at the Nature Center idea. Nature Centers? They were already built if needed, but the world was not going this way in any case. Visit a few and you will know. But John Flicker and his advisors did not particularly care, because the theory was that you could raise BIG BUCKS from from the U.S. Government (pork from politicians) and foundations, thereby converting public assets (tax dollars) into private Audubon assets. This was the plan, and this was why "think small" and/or fix up what was already there (even if was an Aldo Leopold historical site) was never in the cards. You needed a "big ask" for Congress.

In my opinion,, Audubon needs to focus on birds (ALL BIRDS) where it could have a competitive edge, rather than do the "flavor of the month" environmentalism you mention.

The issue of local chapters and state affiliates is complicated by history. This is an old structure for old times and does not work well in the 21st Century. That was a burden for Flicker and it will remain a burden for Audubon into the future.

Frank Gill is a good man, and a birder. I wish him well (and John Flicker too).

John B. said...

One thing I should add to my previous comment is that Audubon would benefit from a social media operation on par with NWF's.

Regarding local chapters, I don't see why these should be considered obsolete. A national organization cannot be nearly as effective for education (of both adults and children) and organizing action at the local level as a chapter can be. It also provides an additional way of disseminating information about national events like the CBC or GBBC. Many chapters could be much better than they are, perhaps some should be eliminated, and the relationship between the local and national organization needs work. But they are still a unique aspect of Audubon that makes it more than just another advocacy organization. I probably wouldn't join Audubon unless the dues were benefiting a local chapter.

Anonymous said...

The last poster is 100% correct -- Audubon has NOT joined the computer era (much less social networking) and has not even tipped its hat in that general direction. Audubon has been, and remains, an organization well-prepared for 1983, which is why it has lost so much of whatever relevance it once had.

For the record, NAS had the chance (and the financial resources) to do the right thing once upon a time, but they simply let it slip through their fingers as they flushed Foundation money down the rathole of Nature Centers and a bumbling "grassroots" program that had no clear mission other than to calm the waters of state chapter dissent back in 2000-2007, etc.

The good news is that the opportunity still exists to build an online social networking system. The bad news is that understanding the NEED for that structural investment requires leadership and vision, and so far Audubon has struck out in that arena repeatedly.

Newspapers are not even mentioning this leadership change at Audubon? No real surprise there. John Flicker was invisible in the press when he was in office at Audubon. You never miss what was never there to start with.

birdchaser said...

For the record, I supported the 2020 vision, at least as it was written up in Flicker's Audubon: The second century, connecting people with nature (a must read for those wanting to understand Flicker's vision and game plan).

But it's really tough to raise $5-10 million to build and endow a huge nature center, and impossible to do that 1,000 times in 25 years. If Audubon had gone small maybe it could have hooked each of it's 500 or so chapters up with a nature center and been half way to 1,000 by now.

As for state offices, that can be a good thing too. If used to unite and support the chapters, address statewide issues, and bring national priorities to the local level. But they can get in the way if they function more as independent fiefdoms or alienated the chapters. They are also really, really expensive.

Maybe a couple examples of Vision--Great, Implementation--Not so Much?

Anonymous said...

Here in Portland, Flicker seriously damaged relationships within Audubon when he set up a state Audubon office over the objections of the local Audubon Society of Portland, and hired away the ASOP ED to head up the office!

Mike said...

Rob, I'm really enjoying your insights into the Flicker years. As you know, I've been disappointed with Audubon's rejection of its rightful position as the national organization that should organize and represent birders.

Will Audubon under new leadership focus more on grassroots organizing and education through local chapters while addressing the specific concerns of U.S. birders? I sure hope so. What about you? What are the odds?

birdchaser said...

Good questions Mike, and impossible to know. That's the fun part about transitions like this. But if Audubon chapters and members want a renewed focus on the grassroots, perhaps they should make that clear to Audubon leadership during the upcoming president search.

Anonymous said...

Did Audubon membership really go down during "The Flicker Years"? What is the current membership, and what was it when John Flicker arrived?

birdchaser said...

Hard to know true membership numbers. Best number to use might be number of Audubon magazine subscribers, which are what most "members" really are. Latest report from Audubon magazine online claims 375,000 subscribers.

I don't have access right now to old subscriptions numbers. Perhaps a reader with old copies of the magazine from 1994 or 1995 (when John Flicker was hired) can find the subscription numbers published in the magazine?

Shorebird said...

Hi, Rob! First of all, thank you for your terrific blogging, listing and tweeting -- PA, and PABirds, are lucky to have you (back).

Thanks to you, I finally understand why I dropped my membership in the National Audubon Society years ago. I didn't realize how much of it was Flicker's doing, but I knew it was no longer an organization that felt relevant to birding, or to me. It was a shock to learn that the NAS was no longer supporting the great, local AS chapters.

It sounds to me like Flicker's goal was Audubon-as-Big-Business. So much of birding centers on "small": small creatures, walk-or-hike-able-sized areas, local populations (of people and birds), that his concept seems totally counter-intuitive. It certainly left me cold.

By contrast, organizations like Cornell's Citizen Science, Feederwatch, and Nestwatch Programs, have been doing a far better job of involving and educating the public on birds.

Some of the best birding experiences I've had were connected with local nature centers. I cannot imagine how the head of the NAS could justify turning his back on same.

To return to relevancy, the NAS needs to reconnect with and support the local AS chapters. They are a logical focal point for nature-education, something this country desperately needs more of.

There is also, evidently, an immediate need to "discover" the Web, and social networking, and all they can accomplish. Twitter has become my primary source for birding news and photos.

Thanks again for all you do! Best regards...

birdchaser said...

Thanks Shorebird. It may be possible to attribute some of John Flicker (and Audubon's) disassociation from the local grassroots with his background coming from The Nature Conservancy. When John Flicker came on board he may have wanted to remake Audubon somewhat in TNC's image--with strong state-level offices and a large professional staff (rather than relying on local volunteers to get the conservation work done).

Along with that, there was a separation of duties that I think John Flicker saw--TNC "does conservation" by protecting land, Audubon "does education" through nature centers. One of the first controversial moves John Flicker made was to claim that Audubon was a nature education organization (rather than a nature conservation organization). That was published early on after he came on board and was roundly criticized, and some effort was made to step back from it.

But John Flicker always had a strong interest in "education" though that was seldom if ever really well defined on the ground--nature centers were all left to come up with their own programming, depending on the backgrounds and interests of their staff and what they could get funded locally.

I don't want to go too much further into all history and internal controversies about Audubon education strategies--but really you can't understand The Flicker Years without understanding the huge emphasis that was placed on education--either on trying to build 1,000 centers, or more recently on global warming programs--they dominated Audubon activities, energies, and attention for the past decade.

Even conservation programs like Audubon At Home and Citizen Science programs like the Great Backyard Bird Count were turned over to the education division, because it was thought that education had the most support from and influence with the leadership of Audubon (ie. John Flicker).

Anonymous said...

audubon is a sinking ship. in louisiana, they are contemplating allowing offshore drilling in one of their preserves - yet, at the same time, in florida, they are hanging their policy and fundraising hat on stopping offshore drilling. this same florida state organization bled over a million dollars last year, thus mandating that every employee take a huge pay cut.
it's sad. their science folks are top notch.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that Audubon recently laid off national science and policy staff, but no national education staff? If so, what does that tell us?

Anonymous said...

Audubon lost me when they decided to become a climate-change group instead of a bird group. I care about climate change as much as anyone, but it seems like Audubon is chasing funders instead of empowering activists. Cripes, Audubon won't even oppose wind turbines in an IBA. I'd like to see some of that money spent on urban "nature centers" go toward protecting the unbuilt environment. Kids do not need fancy buildings to learn about nature!

Anonymous said...

I was part of the strategic planning process in 1994-1995 that was conducted by McKinsey and led to Peter Berle's "retirement" and John Flicker's hiring. From the get-go John was on a short list because he appealed to the interests of the then current Chairman of the Board. McKinsey modeled the strategic plan on TNC because it was state oriented and staff driven, two things Flicker was familiar with and led every one to believe he could manage.

When Flicker came on board and bumped up a regional person to take over the "transition to state offices," signaling that any policy work whatsoever was going to be demoted, many of the good staff left. And since Audubon did not have the track record of finding funding for 50 state offices, much less the ability to compete with TNC, I think Audubon became fragile. The turmoil in the development office (how many heads of the office did Flicker go through?) is a key indication money was not coming in.

Last year, after years of failing to follow federal law on this issue, employees who were vested in the retirement plan finally received notice of the fund's status. No surprise that it has not been fully funded in years. My sense is that during the Flicker years money was moved around quickly...and then there was the issue of the loan from Audubon to Flicker for a new co-op or condo in Manhattan...

So when Carol Browner left (she was the chair of the board and a Flicker friend) I began to wonder when Flicker would be asked to leave.

It was a great place to work in the early 1990s. Lots of fabulous staff, bright folks, many who have gone on to do great things. If it focuses on birds and uses declining birding populations as a fulcrum for good policy work, it could be a force. I frankly have always believed Audubon's foray into the "nature center" concept was conceit at best and financially reckless at worst.

Anonymous said...

Here's info on Audubon's potentially illegal loan to John Flicker in 1997 News

Anonymous said...

From 1990 to 1995 the membership numbers were fairly stable (and withstood the magazine audits) at around 550,000. There was a time, around 1993, that Sierra Club was in financial trouble, having over spent their direct mail money they received in all the anti-James Watt mailings, and the rumors and speculation were that National Audubon and Sierra Club would merge, with NAS taking control. Now, it would not surprise me if the reverse happens. Look at all the state offices that are shells of what they were several years ago.

In running the numbers, back in 1995, when Flicker came, the annual budget was around 42 million, from the most recent 990 posted on the NAS web site, it looks like their annual budget is a little over 100K, meaning Flicker only grew the organization $4,000 a year! Yet, the expenses seem to have grown even more than that...

Did anyone see this coming?

Anonymous said...

I've been involved with my local chapter for 18 years now. We're struggling because it costs more to produce our newsletter than we now get from National Audubon for membership dues. That did not use to be the case. Illinois never did get a state office, and our regional office went bye bye a long long time ago. Meanwhile, all grass-roots support disapeared as well. Forgive me if I do a little 'thank God John Flicker is gone' dance ...

Anonymous said...

I'm looking at the 990 for 2008 and it looks like total revenue was over 113 mill - $113,666,373. So not sure where you got "a little over 100k" - given that "k" means 1,000, not million. And I don't know about you, but where I come from $13,666,373 is not "a little." Of that, $71,156,452 was spent on program services.

That being said, it does seem as though they've let the chapters to wither on the vine and some have thrived, others have remained the small mostly-bird-club groups they always were. I am always surprised that the chapters don't secede en masse and go their own way. That Flicker lasted as long as he did is due in part to the fact that the chapters talked (Take Back Audubon) but didn't walk.

Anonymous said...

Oops, you're right, it was 100M not 100K. But it you compare it to TNC's annual revenue, it isn't much and the growth over 15 years still wasn't sustainable for the programmatic and capital campaigns Flicker envisioned. In just perusing the various state office web sites it is clear some of them are still going strong while many others are nature centers with a few staff.

Again, though, this financial issue must have been lingering for awhile, so why such a sudden departure for Flicker?

Anonymous said...

Flicker had pretty much hand-picked board chair Carol Browner in 2001, and she was not known for being very engaged as the head of Audubon, giving Flicker more or less free reign. She was an EPA big wig waiting out the Bush administration. When she was tapped by Obama to be the energy czar Flicker found himself without his biggest supporter. Flicker's number two, Bob Perciasepe, also an EPA expat, recently left to rejoin EPA, leaving Flicker without support at that level too.

Word on the street is that without Browner and Perciasepe, Flicker didn't have the support he needed to stay on board--especially after years of deficit spending and the ugliness around the current budget losses and staff layoffs.

But only the people in the room for the meetings between Flicker and the Audubon board know the full story, and so far, they're not talking.

birdchaser said...

Carol Browner was brought on the Audubon board in December 2001, but didn't chair the board until December 2003.

New board chair Holt Thrasher has been on the Audubon board since 2008, but was on the Audubon Connecticut board before that (since 2001). I don't think I ever met Thrasher, and don't know much about his work in Connecticut--but Connecticut has been one of the strongest state Audubon programs, so I'm sure he saw and learned a lot about Audubon there, and he was respected on the Audubon board for his work on the Planning and Finance Committee.

BTW, I didn't want to open up this conversation to totally bag on John Flicker. He gave 15 years of his life to Audubon, and Audubon is what it is today because of his leadership. What I do appreciate are the comments that help us understand how Audubon got to where it is (for better or worse), and suggestions for what might be done differently to help Audubon become an even more effective and powerful advocate for birds under new leadership.

Anonymous said...

Perciasepe was (is) a truly talented individual and they were lucky to have him. It's a shame that he left. Chosing Browner to head the board was a bone-headed move. It guaranteed that the door to the Bush Administration would be shut firm, and indeed it was until the last couple of years. Not to say that anyone could influence the lousy Bush Admin policies. But there is a lot more to dealing with an Admin besides policy, and there is also a lot of low-profile policy that is really important.

There isn't much point in comparing NAS to TNC, though. They are too different. The same point would be better made by comparison to American Bird Conservancy, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 15 years, when it was founded (also by a TNC alum). They are still small by comparison, but the growth has been astonishing. Only a few years ago, they were barely over 1 mill in revenue and now they are north of 6 mill. And they have a huge raft of on-the-ground projects all over the Western Hemisphere, excellent people, and they are very visible. If I had a dime for every time someone said, in the past dozen years or so, "what is Audubon doing" I'd be really really rich. And often, what Audubon was doing was following on what ABC had already started (e.g., the pesticides program). And then the insane fight over the BirdLife partnership - just what they needed - helping to support BirdLife and the ugly corollary fight over the Important Bird Areas. Though admittedly that finally became a visible activity and seems to have finally acquired some scientific merit. But what a black eye, having that ugly discussion in public.

Maybe a merger with ABC would serve bird conservation well. And when that happens, birders will report seeing flocks of pigs.

birdchaser said...

I don't see ABC and Audubon merging, but agree ABC has done some really great work, often on issues like cats or pesticides that Audubon didn't want to touch. I love ABC. ABC was founded in a large measure to fill a void left by Audubon when it moved away from birds. So the ABC-Audubon relationship is part of the legacy of the Flicker years as well. Lots of ABC-Audubon stories here if someone with more of a background on this wanted to share!

Anonymous said...

During the strategic planning process in the mid-1990s that resulted in Flicker's hire, McKinsey (the consultants NAS retained) used TNC as the model: strong state offices, focus fund development on "place" (in this case nature centers), staff model v. volunteer/chapter model. Flicker was hired, in part, because the Board at the time was told Flicker could raise tons of money and change Audubon into a more staff structured organization like TNC.

I frankly don't think the chapter/volunteer model is outdated. If all politics are local, lots of great work protecting and conserving habitat can be done on that level.

It's true of any NGO, that if the CEO is having problems, particularly financial, and they lose their benefactor on the board, chances are they will be asked to leave.

I think Audubon's strength is in it's ability to have a local presence that can be diverse (a strong political chapter like Portland Audubon or a birding chapter). The key, I think, is to provide services at the national level that helps chapters accomplish what they want to accomplish. To do this will take a lot of work, though. You've now got this complex organization with several strong state offices (California, Florida, CT, NY). The problem is those state offices are now absorbing grants and donors that could be used at the national level. And those strong state offices also have constituencies that want to protect the staff and the good work they do. Whoever the head hunters find for the CEO position will have a lot of work, won't make many friends, and will have to think long and hard (with the board) over the 2020 vision.

Erik said...

I'm a little late but I'll add my $.02. I'm fortunate to be a VP of a mid-size chapter that is doing well financially due to donations from a handful of wealthy members. We are able to support education and conservation programs that are on par with, and in some cases better, than the big city chapters in our state. The level of support we receive from NAS is pathetic. Many of our board and the big money donors have let their NAS memberships lapse and are going with chapter only memberships. At least we know something positive is being done with the money.

Unless NAS makes some significant changes under the new leadership, especially in how they support their chapters, they will continue down the path to becoming an irrelevant organization on the national level.

inchirieri apartamente cluj said...

I agree with Anonymous when he says that the has "found the organization to be extremely dysfunctional".
When you as an executive don't know how to manage your administrative departments in order for them to become a synergy that's your fault for not having these skills. And it's no wonder that now the "National Audubon seems like a sinking ship".
You Rob probably know a bit better since its an aquaintaince of yours how is Flicker in reality.

Anonymous said...

6 years later from this original post and I am a graduate student at Prescott College, I am thankful that this blog was left up as it provides insight to our current situation with John Flicker at the helm.

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