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May 12, 2023

Where Does $100 to the Nature Conservancy Go (2021)?

by Anne Paddock

The Nature Conservancy raises more than $1 billion a year and has nearly $8 billion in net assets (almost a billion more than the beginning of the year), 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 22 voting members (directors) of the governing board, 19 of whom are independent.

The most recent IRS Form 990 (2020) for the year ending June 30, 2021 reports the following key information:


The Nature Conservancy raised $1.3 billion (compared to $1.1 billion in 2020 and $1 billion in 2019) and spent $899 million (not including $10 million in depreciation) which means they spent 69% of what they raised in 2021 (compared with 79% in 2020). Unrealized gains of $374 million in investments along with other adjustments in assets resulted in net fund assets increasing from $7.1 billion to $7.8 billion at year-end.

Total revenue of $1.3 billion  primarily came from contributions – $941 million (including $233 million in non-cash contributions and $102 million in grants from the government), program service revenue ($132 million) from activity and contract fees and land sales, and other sources ($46 million) from investment income, gains, intracompany support, inventory sales, etc).


The organization had $7.8 billion in total assets at year-end, most of which were concentrated in three types of assets:  accounts and pledges receivable ($500 million), investments ($3.3 billion), and other assets ($4.6 billion) – primarily conservation easements.

Liabilities totaled $956 million most of which were concentrated in four areas:  other liabilities ($384 million in planned giving, accruals, refundable advances, and split interest arrangements), $294 million in loans payable, $110 million in deferred revenue, and $158 million in accounts payable.

After adjusting assets for the liabilities, the net fund balance was $7.8 billion, of which $6.3 billion was unrestricted.


Grants totaled $31 million in the US and $97 million outside the US for a total of $128 million (less than 10% of revenue). The Nature Conservancy awarded 442 grants of more than $5,000 to other 501 (c) (3) organizations  and other organizations (18) in the US while 327 grants of more than $5,000 to organizations recognized as charities overseas.

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

  • $1,963,161:  Yampa Valley Sustainability, of Steamboat Springs, CO
  • $1,293,753:  US Fish and Wildlife, of Buffalo, NY
  • $  699,334:  U of CA Santa Barbara, of Oakland, CA
  • $  571,109:  USDA Forest Service, of LA, CA
  • $  504,522:  Placer County Air Pollution Control District, of Auburn, CA
  • $  463,751:  U of Washington, of Seattle, WA
  • $  400,000:  Earthwatch Institute, of Boston, MA
  • $  377,082:  Regents of U of CA at Santa Cruz, of Santa Cruz, CA
  • $  350,000:  Skagit Land Trust, of Mt Vernon, WA

Grants made outside the US ($97 million) are not itemized. Instead, the grants are totaled by region with $12 million provided to organizations in Sub Saharan Africa, $4 million in South America, $78 million in Central America, $1 million in East Asia and the Pacific, $1 million in North America, and $1 million to South Asia and Europe.


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 $899 million (69% of revenue) categorized in the following 4 categories:

  • $502 million (38% of revenue):  Program Services
  • $128 million (10% of revenue):  Grants
  • $152 million (12% of revenue):  Management Expenses
  • $119 million (9% of revenue):  Fundraising Expenses

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

$100:  Revenue

-$ 12:  Management Expenses

-$  9:  Fundraising Expenses

-$ 21:  Subtotal Management and Fundraising Expenses

  $ 79:  Revenue Remaining

-$ 38: Program Services

-$ 10:  Grants

-$ 48:  Subtotal Program Services and Grants

  $ 31:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, $21 out of every $100 in revenue was spent on management and fundraising expenses, $38 to of every $100 on program services, $10 out of every $100 on grants, while $31 out of every $100 was put into the general fund.

Expenses by Specific Line Item Expense

Expenses totaled $899 million in the following 9 line items:

  • $402 million (31% of revenue):  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes
  • $148 million (11% of revenue):  Fees for Services (acct, legal, invest, lobbying, fundraising)
  • $ 91 million (7% of revenue):  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance, Dues, Fees
  • $ 45 million (3% of revenue):  Other Expenses (Interest, Travel, Conferences, Construction, etc)
  • $ 74 million (6% of revenue):  Donated Conservation Land
  • $ 11 million (1% of revenue):  Program Support to Affiliate
  • $128 million (10% of revenue):  Grants

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

$100:  Revenue

-$ 31:  Compensation, Benefits, Pension, Payroll Taxes

-$ 11:  Fees for Services

-$  7:  Office, IT, Occupancy, Insurance

-$  3:  Other Expenses

-$ 52:  Subtotal:  Compensation, Fees, Office, Travel, and Other Expenses

-$  6:  Donated Conservation Land

-$ 10:  Grants

-$ 1:  Program Support to Affiliate

-$ 17:  Subtotal:  Land Conservation, Grants, Taxes, and Program Support to Affiliate

-$ 69: Total Expenses

$  31:  Revenue Remaining

As illustrated above, $52 out of every $100 in revenue is spent on staff and administrative expenses. The above information leaves three questions unanswered:

  1. There were $113 million in “other fee expenses” of which $97 million was categorized as “program service expenses.” No further detail is provided.
  2. The organization also expensed donated conservation land for $74 million. On the revenue side, the organization reports $62 million 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. $31 out of every $100 was put into the general fund. This translates to almost $400 million in 2021.

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 (2020 for the year ending June 30, 2021), click here.

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