Skip to content

May 15, 2022

Where Does $100 to the Nature Conservancy Go (2020)?

by Anne Paddock

The Nature Conservancy raises more than $1 billion a year and has more than $7 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 organization is managed by 20 voting members (directors) of the governing board, 17 of whom are independent.

The most recent IRS Form 990 (2019) for the year ending June 30, 2020 reports the following key information:


The Nature Conservancy raised $1.1 billion (compared to $1 billion in 2019) and spent $897 million (not including $10 million in depreciation) which means they spent 79% of what they raised in 2020. Unrealized gains of $75 million in investments along with other adjustments in assets resulting in net fund assets increasing from $6.7 billion to $7.1 billion at year-end.

Total revenue of $1.1 billion  primarily came from contributions – $946 million (including $168 million in non-cash contributions and $124 million in grants from the government), program service revenue ($162 million) from activity and contract fees and land sales, and other sources ($30 million) from investment income, gains, intracompany support, practices, and marketing, etc).


The organization had $7.1 billion in total assets at year-end, most of which were concentrated in three types of assets:  land, building, and equipment ($2.3 billion), investments ($2.6 billion), and other assets ($2.5 billion) – primarily conservation easements.

Liabilities totaled $923 million most of which were concentrated in four areas:  other liabilities ($346 million in planned giving, accruals, refundable advances, and split interest arrangements), $212 million in loans payable, $115 million in bond liabilities, and $169 million in accounts payable.

After adjusting assets for the liabilities, the net fund balance was $7.1 billion, of which $5.7 billion was unrestricted.


Grants totaled $47 million in the US and $22 million outside the US for a total of $69 million. The Nature Conservancy awarded 461 grants of more than $5,000 to other 501 (c) (3)’s and 1 grant to other organizations in the US while 185 grants of more than $5,000 to organizations recognized as charities and 1 to an other organization outside the US.

The largest 10 grants in the US (all for “conservation activities”) were made to:

  • $5.7 million: Open Space Institute Land Trust, of Savannah, Georgia
  • $3.1 million:  Truckee Donner land Trust, of Truckee, Georgia
  • $1.1 million:  Ducks Unlimited, of Hanahan, SC
  • $1.0 million:  State of Arkansas, of Little Rock, AK
  • $0.8 million:  Northern Neck Land Conservancy, of Virginia Beach, VA
  • $0.8 million:  Regents of UC at at Santa Barbara, CA
  • $0.7 million:  Watershed Resources, of Hayfork CA
  • $0.6 million:  Colorado State University, of Fort Collins, CO
  • $0.5 million:  Sustainable Michigan, of Lansing, MI
  • $0.5 million:  Open Space Institute Land Trust, of NY, NY

Grants made outside the US are not itemized. Instead, the grants are totaled by region with $8 million provided to organizations in Sub Saharan Africa, $3 million in South America, $2 million in Central America, $3 million in East Asia and the Pacific, $1 million to South Asia and $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 $897 million (79% of revenue) categorized in the following 4 categories:

  • $574 million (50% of revenue):  Program Services
  • $ 69 million (6% of revenue):  Grants
  • $173 million (15% of revenue):  Management Expenses
  • $ 91 million (8% of revenue):  Fundraising Expenses

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

$100:  Revenue

-$ 15:  Management Expenses

-$  8:  Fundraising Expenses

-$ 23:  Subtotal Management and Fundraising Expenses

 $ 77:  Revenue Remaining

-$ 50: Program Services

-$  6:  Grants

$ 21:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, $23 out of every $100 in revenue was spent on management and fundraising expenses.

Expenses by Specific Line Item Expense

Expenses totaled $897 million in the following 9 line items:

  • $415 million (36% of revenue):  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes
  • $129  million (12% of revenue):  Fees for Services (acct, legal, invest, lobbying, fundraising)
  • $ 85  million (7% of revenue):  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance
  • $ 25 million (2% of revenue):  Other Expenses
  • $ 23  million (2% of revenue):  Travel and Conferences
  • $120 million (11% of revenue):  Donated Conservation Land
  • $  8 million (1% of revenue): Real Estate Taxes
  • $ 23  million (2% of revenue):  Program Support to Affiliate
  • $ 69  million (6% of revenue):  Grants

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

$100:  Revenue

-$ 36:  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes

-$ 12:  Fees for Services

-$  7:  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance

-$  2:  Other Expenses

-$  2:  Travel and Conferences

-$ 59:  Subtotal:  Compensation, Fees, Office, Travel, and Other Expenses

-$ 11:  Donated Conservation Land

-$  6:  Grants

-$  1:  Real Estate Taxes

-$ 2:  Program Support to Affiliate

-$20:  Subtotal:  Land Conservation, Grants, Taxes, and Program Support to Affiliate

-$ 79: Total Expenses

$  21:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, about $59 out of every $100 in revenue is spent on staff and administrative expenses. The above information leaves three questions unanswered:

  1. There were $116 million in “other fee expenses” of which $103 million was categorized as “other fees for programs.” No further detail is provided.
  2. The organization also expensed donated conservation land for $120 million. On the revenue side, the organization reports $59 in revenue from the sale of land to the government. 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.
  3. $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 (2019 for the year ending June 30, 2020), click here.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: