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January 20, 2018

Where Does $100 to the Nature Conservancy Go?

by Anne Paddock

The Nature Conservancy raises nearly a billion dollars a year and has close to $6 billion in their net fund assets, making the organization one of the most well capitalized non-profits in the country. If you’ve ever wondered how a donation is spent but don’t feel inclined to read the dozens and dozens of pages of the IRS Form 990 (the tax return submitted to the IRS annually), then continue reading.

Established in 1951, the Nature Conservancy works on “conserving the lands and water in which all life depends” and is based in Arlington, Virginia (although there are many offices).

The most recent IRS Form 990 (2015) for the year ending June 30, 2016 reports the following key information:


The organization employed 3,875 employees, of which 568 were provided more than $100,000 in compensation. $351 million was spent on compensation which equates to about $91,000 per employee. The top 32 officers, directors and highly compensated employees were paid a collective $11.7 million (an average of $300,000 each) with compensation that ranged from a high of $764,694 to a low of $221,641.

First class and charter travel and payment of a housing allowance or a residence for personal use by key employees working overseas as part of their participation in the Conservancy’s Global Mobility Program are reported. The 990 does not indicate what portion of the $23.2 million spent on travel was spent on first class and charter travel.

483 contractors received more than $100,000 in compensation. The five highest compensated independent contractors were:

  • $2.8 million:  GiveBridge of Toronto, Ontario for fundraising
  • $2.5 million:  Precision Dialogue Direct of Chicago, Illinois for communications and marketing
  • $2.3 million:  Cornerstone Partners of Charlottesville, Virginia for investment management services
  • $2.2 million:  True North Inc of New York, New York for fundraising
  • $1.8 million:  MI Group of Parsippany, New Jersey for Globility Mobility Management


The Nature Conservancy raised $914.5 million (compared to $959 million the prior year) and spent $796 million (not including $14 million in depreciation). An unrealized loss of  $112 million in investments offset the funds not spent resulting in net fund assets remaining virtually unchanged at $5.9 billion dollars at year-end.

Total revenue of $914.5 million primarily came from contributions – $729.1 million (including $78.9 million in non-cash contributions and $102 million in grants from the government), program service revenue ($129.6 million) from activity and contract fees and land sales, and other sources ($55.8 million) from investment income, gains, magazine advertising, membership list rental, etc).

The Nature Conservancy spent $126.7 million (14% of total revenue) on the protection of land and waters outside the United States. There are 36 offices and 641 employees outside the US.


The organization had $6.7 billion in total assets at year-end, most of which were concentrated in two types of assets:  land, building, and equipment ($4.1 billion) and investments ($2.2 billion).

Liabilities totaled $782 million most of which were concentrated in three areas:  other liabilities (376.2 million in planned giving, accruals, refundable advances, and other liabilities), $223.7 million in loans payable, and $137.5 million in bond liabilities.

After adjusting assets for the liabilities, the net fund balance was $5.9 billion, of which $4.8 billion was unrestricted.


Grants totaled $28.4 million in the US and $31.9 million outside the US for a total of $60.3 million. The Nature Conservancy awarded 313 grants of more than $5,000 to 313 other 501 (c) (3)’s and 6 grants to other organizations in the US while 167 grants of more than $5,000 to 167 organizations recognized as charities and 4 to other organizations outside the US.

The largest 5 grants in the US were made to:

  • $1,707,746:  Columbia Land Conservancy of Columbia County, New York for “conservation activities.”
  • $1,217,000:  Forest Investment Associates of Atlanta, Georgia for “conservation activities.” This organization is an investment advisor for timberland investors (they acquire and manage timberland portfolios according to their website). The site also indicates the employees are the owners so they are not a 501 (c) (3).
  • $1,215,000:  CA Sierra Title Company of Chester, CA for “conservation activities.”  This organization is not a non-profit and is a locally owed office so it is unclear why they were awarded a grant.
  • $1,00,000:  Anza Borrego Foundation of Borrego Springs, California for “conservation activities.”
  • $919,127:  Watershed Resource and Training Center of Hayfork, California for “conservation activities.”

Grants made outside the US are not itemized. Instead, the grants are totaled by region with $12 million provided to organizations in Sub Saharan Africa, $9.1 million in South America, $3.9 million in Central America, $3.9 million in East Asia and the Pacific, and $3.5 million in North America.


There are two ways to analyze expenses listed on the IRS Form 990:  by four broad categories (program expenses, grants, management expenses, and fundraising expenses) and by specific line item expenses, with the later providing more detail.

Expenses by Broad Category (Program Expenses, Grants, Management Expenses, and Fundraising Expenses)

Expenses totaled $796 million categorized in the following four categories:

$482.2 million (or 52% of revenue):  Program Services

$  60.3 million (or 7% of revenue):  Grants

$143.8 million (or 16% of revenue):  Management Expenses

$109.7 million (or 12% of revenue):  Fundraising Expenses

$796.0 million (87% of revenue):  Total Expenses

$118.5 million (13% of revenue):  Revenue Not Spent (which includes $78.9 million in non-cash contributions)

$914.5 million (100% of revenue):  Total Revenue

Using the above information, $100 in revenue was spent as follows:

$100:  Revenue

-$ 16:  Management Expenses

-$ 12:  Fundraising Expenses

-$ 28:  Subtotal Management and Fundraising Expenses

$ 72:  Revenue Remaining

-$ 52: Program Services

-$  7:  Grants

$ 13:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, $28 out of every $100 in revenue was spent on management and fundraising expenses.

Expenses by Specific Line Item Expense

Expenses totaled $796 million in the following nine line items:

$350 million (38% of revenue):  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes

$110 million (12% of revenue):  Other Expenses (no detail provided)

$103 million (11% of revenue):  Book Value of Conservation Land Sold

$ 60 million (7% of revenue):  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance

$ 36 million (4% of revenue):  Travel and Conferences

$ 32 million (4% of revenue):  Fees for Services (accounting, legal, investment, lobbying, fundraising)

$ 24 million (2% of revenue):  Interest and Real Estate Taxes

$ 21 million (2% of revenue):  Repair, Maintenance, Construction, and Equipment

$ 60 million (7% of revenue):  Grants

$796 million (87% of revenue):  Total Expenses

$118.5 million (13% of revenue):  Revenue Not Spent (which includes $78.9 million in non-cash contributions)

$914.5 million (100% of revenue):  Total Revenue

Using the above information, $100 in revenue was spent as follows:

$100:  Revenue

-$ 38:  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes

-$ 12:  Other Expenses (no detail provided)

-$ 11:  Book Value of Conservation Land Sold

-$  7:  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance

-$  4:  Travel and Conferences

-$  4:  Fees for Services (accounting, legal, investment, lobbying, and fundraising)

-$  2:  Interest and Real Estate Taxes

-$ 2:  Repair, Maintenance, Construction, and Equipment

-$ 87: Total Expenses

$  13:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, about $45 out of every $100 in revenue is spent on staff and office expenses. The above information leaves four questions unanswered:

  1. There were $110 million in “other expenses” of which $80 million was categorized as “other fees for services.” Since the $80 million represents less than 10% of the total expenses ($810 million including depreciation), the Nature Conservancy did not have to provide detail of these expenses.  What the $80 million along with another $30 million classified a “other expenses” was spent on would be beneficial to know.
  2. The Nature Conservancy expensed $5.9 million in equipment which is unusual since most equipment is depreciated over a period of time.
  3. The organization also expensed a sale of land for $103 million. On the revenue side, the organization reports $72 in revenue from the sale of land. It is unclear if these two transactions are related and if so, why the organization didn’t show the loss on the revenue side of the financial statements. Supplemental information on the 990 states that acquisitions are recorded at cost or the fair market value at the time of acquisition and when sold, the value is expensed. If the two above transactions are related the asset (s) was/were recorded at $103 million and sold for $72 million which indicates a significant difference between the acquisition cost or value and the sale value.
  4. $5.8 million in real estate taxes were expensed which is unusual since organizations that qualify for federal tax exempt status are, by law, exempt from paying  property tax in all 50 states.

The IRS Form 990 for the Nature Conservancy provides a great deal of detail to allow potential donors to see where revenue is spent but the form also raises a lot of questions. To read the most recent IRS Form 990, click here.

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