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Bringing Women to the Fore in Environmental Work


Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Deb Markowitz, director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.

Deborah Markowitz
Deb Markowitz, courtesy of Deb Markowitz

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I come to the position of director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts after a long career in public service. I was in my mid-30s, with three very young children when I was first elected Vermont’s Secretary of State. After serving for 12 years, I ran for Governor of Vermont, and although I lost the primary election by less than 500 votes, the person who won appointed me to serve as his environmental secretary. From this experience I learned a couple of things. First, if you stay grounded in mission and purpose, you can withstand the ups and downs of ones’ career. Second, nothing great is ever accomplished alone. Ask for help, cultivate trusted partners, and use your power and privilege to lift others.  

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Our planet faces the dual crises of a rapidly changing climate and biodiversity loss. Massachusetts is on the front line of climate impacts, with sea level rise, extreme weather and heat waves, coastal storm surges, and floods. And, every year, thousands of acres of land that provide critical habitat for threatened species is lost to development and degradation. But I am optimistic that working together, we can meet these challenges.

Now, more than ever, we understand our interconnection with nature and the importance of a healthy environment to our wellbeing and the success of our communities. At TNC, we are leading the way with on the ground, scalable solutions that use the power of nature to address climate change and biodiversity loss.

I have been deeply impressed by the way people have come together across Massachusetts, even as we became socially distanced from COVID.  During the pandemic each one of us made personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. I am hopeful that this same ethos will enable us to turn the tide on the environmental crises of our time.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

What excites me about TNC is that, as a global organization, we think at a global scale, even as our work touches down locally. Everything we do is grounded in science, and we think about our work and deploy our resources in ways that recognize that ecosystems and environmental problems don’t end at state lines. We are also always looking to scale solutions. As a practical matter, this means that it is not enough that each of our individual projects stands up on its own. We use what we learn to inform our global science network, and our ultimate focus is on scaling long lasting solutions to the toughest environmental problems we are facing on our warming planet.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Being a woman in leadership roles for going on 30 years has meant running into many people who aren’t used to working with women in positions of authority. I can’t even count the number of times I was the only woman at the table, or that I was told that my greatest asset was my smile, or when I was called by my first name while my male colleagues was addressed by their title. It’s frustrating, of course, but it also taught me that I could be both tough and gracious. As a result of my experiences, I have committed myself to helping other women succeed. One of my greatest pleasures has been to see my many mentees grow into capable, empathetic and empowered leaders who are making a real difference in the world. 

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

Quite simply, money talks. Foundations and individual donors can support gender equity by demanding that organizations they support with their philanthropy, and the financial institutions that manage their funds, have women in leadership positions, from the boardroom to the C-suite. It is just as important for this standard to apply to racial equity. There is mounting evidence that organizations that incorporate a diversity of perspectives and experiences are more effective in achieving their goals. So, when philanthropic supporters set a high bar for gender and racial inclusion, this not only helps to create a more equitable society, but it can also lead to improved organizational outcomes.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

It’s not enough to have women at the table. We must have women at the head of the table, setting the agenda, allocating resources and innovating. In the next decade, I expect to see more women, and in particular, women of color, in highly-visible leadership roles. I expect that the voice of authority will no longer be reserved for white men. That, in turn, can have a powerful influence over the unconscious bias we all share that has made it so difficult for women and people of color to achieve the highest positions of leadership.

More on Deb Markowitz:

Deb Markowitz is the State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. She was elected Vermont’s Secretary of State six times, serving from 1999-2011. After running for Governor of Vermont in 2010 and narrowly losing in the primary election, Markowitz was appointed Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) in 2011, where she served until 2017.

Before joining The Nature Conservancy, Markowitz served as the vice president of programs at Ceres, overseeing the organization’s Climate and Energy, Water, Food and Forest, and Capital Market System programs. Before that, she taught environmental policy and leadership at the University of Vermont and was the Director of Policy Outreach at the Gund Institute of Environment.

Deb Markowitz has been recognized nationally with a Lifetime Achievement Award from EPA, Region 1; an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellowship; and the Kennedy School of Governments’ Cahn Fellowship in Public Leadership. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Georgetown University Law Center, magna cum laude, and received a Certificate in Public Leadership from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.   

This interview has been minimally edited.

In The News

Author: Julia Travers


I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.
View all posts by Julia Travers



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Candid launches ‘U.S. social sector’ dashboard | Philanthropy news



Candid has launched a U.S. Social Sector Dashboard, a free resource designed to “demystify” the sector by providing data on its scope, constraints, and potential.

Developed with funding from Amazon Web Services and Vanguard Charitable, the dashboard offers key data and insights about the makeup and impact of civil society, including previously unreleased statistics on the racial composition of leaders and funding flows to charities. According to the dashboard, the social sector, which employs 12.5 million people, comprises more than 1.81 million nonprofit organizations: 501(c)(3) charitable organizations (80 percent), which include public charities (73 percent) and private or community foundations (7 percent); 501(c)(4) advocacy and social welfare groups (4 percent); 501(c)(6) business associations (4 percent); 501(c)(7) social and recreation clubs (3 percent); labor unions and other 501(c)(5) groups (3 percent); and fraternal societies categorized as 501(c)(8) and 501(c)(10) organizations (2 percent).

According to the dashboard, religious organizations currently make up 18 percent of public charities, followed by those focused on human services (17 percent), community and economic development (15 percent), education (14 percent), sports and recreation (8 percent), arts and culture (7 percent), philanthropy and nonprofit management (7 percent), health (7 percent), and the environment and animal welfare (4 percent). In terms of funding flow, in 2018 public charities received $292 billion in contributions from individuals, $76 billion from foundations, $40 billion from bequests, and $20 billion from corporations; $174 billion in government support; and $1.6 trillion in earned income.

And among reporting nonprofits, 60 percent of CEOs identified as white, 10 percent as Black, 5 percent as Latinx, 3 percent as Asian/AAPI, 1 percent as Native American/Indigenous, 3 percent as multiracial/multiethnic, and 1 percent as additional ethnicities, while 17 percent did not disclose. Among board members, 66 percent were white, 15 percent Black, 7 percent Latinx, 5 percent Asian/AAPI, 1 percent Native American/Indigenous, 2 percent multiracial/multiethnic, and 0.4 percent additional ethnicities, while 4 percent did not disclose.

“Candid exists to get people the information they need about the social sector to do good. Many of our tools focus on one organization, one grant, or one issue at a time; that kind of focus can be critical for decision makers,” said Candid executive vice president Jacob Harold. “This new dashboard builds on that focus by offering a fuller picture of the social sector as a whole. We hope that this tool will help people build a better understanding of the nonprofit and philanthropic ecosystem and its central role in our society.”

(Photo credit: GettyImages/Prostock Studio)



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UW–Madison receives $20 million for Letters & Science building | Philanthropy news



The University of Wisconsin–Madison has announced a $20 million lead gift from brothers and alumni Jeff Levy (’72) and Marv Levy (’68, JD ’71) in support of a new academic building in the College of Letters & Science.

Construction on Irving and Dorothy Levy Hall, named for the parents of Jeff and Marv, is expected to begin in 2023 and be completed in 2025. Once complete, the building will establish a unified home for the Department of History and nine other L&S academic departments, programs, and centers that currently are spread across eight facilities on campus. The five-story building will feature nineteen classrooms as well as a space where students can gather and interact informally with each other and their instructors to maximize collaboration.

The Levy brothers own and operate Phillips Distributing Corporation in Madison. Their commitment was contingent upon the Wisconsin state legislature and governor including the project in the 2021-23 state budget with $60 million in state support, which occurred earlier this year.

“We envision this vital new facility as a highly collaborative and state-of-the-art learning environment for all,” said College of Letters & Science dean Eric Wilcots. “We are immensely grateful to the Levy family for their support of this vision. Our students deserve classroom space that enhances interactive learning and engagement through cutting-edge technology. They also deserve a building that inspires, rather than intimidates. The Levy family’s gift will reverberate through future generations, touching many lives.”

“We are proud to help make this building a reality. We hope it will be a central educational location for the undergraduate experience at UW-Madison,” said Marv Levy. “Our hope is that by honoring our family legacy of charitable giving with this gift, we can offer to future generations some of the opportunity that the UW has provided us.”



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U.S. nonprofit sector uneven in impact and recovery, report finds | Philanthropy news



While nonprofits have contributed significantly to U.S. society and economy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health of the sector is uneven in both impact and recovery, a new report from Independent Sector finds.

Based on aggregated survey and research data from multiple sources in four categories — financial resources, human capital, governance and trust, and public policy and advocacy — the second edition of the Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector (43 pages, PDF) found that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic varied by subsector and organization size, with arts organizations and those that rely on fees for service hit especially hard. Yet, even as 40 percent of nonprofits saw declines in total revenue and all subsectors except social services saw drops in gross output, the sector contributed 5.9 percent of GDP in 2020 — up 0.4 percentage points from 2019. And while 57 percent of nonprofits cut overall expenses, 64 percent suspended services, 44 percent reduced the number of programs or services, and 47 percent reported serving fewer people in 2020, Independent Sector’s Trust in Civil Society survey found that, as of early 2021, 57 percent of surveyed Americans had received nonprofit services and 84 percent expressed confidence in the ability of nonprofits to strengthen American society, up 3 percentage points from 2020.

According to the report, the sector’s advocacy efforts in 2020 helped secure notable federal resources that served as financial lifelines to nonprofits, particularly through the Paycheck Protection Program, payroll tax credits, and temporary universal charitable deduction. In addition, a study by Nonprofit VOTE found that voter engagement efforts helped reach underrepresented communities and narrow participation gaps.

The report outlines recommendations in each category to strengthen the sector, including prioritizing flexible funding, developing a shared understanding of equitable financing, promoting evidence-based practices to close workforce diversity and equity gaps, building capacity of virtual volunteering, improving the quality and depth of metrics for equity and “healthy” governance, improving digital access and literacy, and establishing public policy advocacy as a core competency of nonprofit management and governance.

“We have much to do to build the nation we, as changemakers, dream of becoming,” wrote Independent Sector president and CEO Dan Cardinali in the report’s foreword. “What can galvanize us to greater positive action? It’s that the everlasting human qualities of resilience, kindness, and collaborating for collective progress do not fade easily. They are within our grasp every day, giving all of us hope and confidence. The health of our nation is the sum of the richness and diversity of our members and sectors working together, elevating dignity, honoring our differences, and building for the common good.”

(Photo credit: Los Angeles Regional Food Bank)



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