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Image Is a Sensitive Issue

Sunday, May 4, 2003

A look inside the Nature Conservancy reveals a whirring marketing machine that has poured millions into building and protecting the organization's image, laboring to transform the charity into a household name.

One Conservancy opinion survey measured the Conservancy's name recognition at only 5 percent of Americans concerned about the environment, well below the National Audubon Society's 8 percent, the National Wildlife Federation's 10 percent and Greenpeace's 17 percent.

Those polled viewed the World Wildlife Fund as more accountable and better at conservation, Audubon and the National Wildlife Fund more successful "in local areas."

Marketing experts recommended an ad blitz.

"Although some organizations, such as Greenpeace, have significantly higher name awareness, they are not highly respected," a 1999 report said. "The Conservancy has the opportunity to position itself with key segments as the most respected and well-known conservation organization, before another national organization gains this coveted spot."

The report urged the Conservancy to spend $5 million a year on its image, in part to counter World Wildlife Fund ads.

In response, the Conservancy in the fall of 2001 launched print and television ads featuring cowboys and loving couples amid sweeping landscapes. "We want the target audiences to associate their emotional affinity for nature with the work of the Nature Conservancy," a Conservancy report said.

The Conservancy's attention to its image includes an aggressive and carefully tailored media strategy. It long ago discussed the need for a plan to battle negative coverage. A coordinated effort swung into action as The Washington Post looked into Conservancy operations.

The nonprofit conducted "opposition research" into the organization's critics, a Jan. 15 internal memo obtained by The Post shows. The Conservancy also planned to meet with key members of Congress, the memo says, and line up "prominent responders" to protest any damaging disclosures.

Conservancy officials, the memo said, worried that the charity would be portrayed as if it had "systematically colluded with wealthy individuals and corporations to conduct land transactions that manipulate the tax code to the benefit of the affluent."

Conservancy executives feared their organization might be depicted as an "environmental Enron," the memo states.

Nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy are not subject to Securities and Exchange Commission reporting rules. But in an earlier meeting, Conservancy officials speculated they might be compared to "for-profit companies recently involved in accounting scandals," according to a memo written by a Kentucky staffer recounting a Dec. 4 staff teleconference. The memo shows that Conservancy communications director David Williamson informed chapters nationwide about precautions "taken for the worst-case scenario."

One concern involved easements, which are binding restrictions on land development rights. The resulting reduction in the land's value may be tax deductible if the easement is "donated" to a conservation group.

"If you look at our revenues from last year, they're up from the year before, mostly due to the valuation of easements, which can be viewed as subjective and a tool we used to inflate our income," the memo stated.

Williamson said Friday the Dec. 4 memo contained errors, the Conservancy never conducted opposition research and never inflated valuations on gifts.

-- Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway

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