Environmental group staffers say it's a ‘nightmare’ to go to work
Current and former employees at Defenders of Wildlife referred to the group as a "motorized revolving door" where morale is low and turnover is high.
Erica Prather was trying on her wedding dress when she learned she was about to get fired.
It was a Friday in February, and Prather — a Tucson, Ariz.-based organizer with Defenders of Wildlife — had taken the day off to get her dress fitted in Kansas. Her mom snapped her picture as Prather looked down at the text from her union representative: She wouldn’t have her job when she got home.
Later that day she got an email making it official, Prather said. She asked if she could go into her Tucson office to pick up her things, but she was told, “You can’t. We’ve already had the locks changed,” she told POLITICO’s E&E News in a recent interview.
Prather is one of 123 people who have quit or been fired from the conservation group since early 2019, when the organization had about 135 staffers, according to data compiled by the Defenders employee union that formed last year. That includes 30 people who have already left in 2022, the union said. Another four people plan to depart in the coming weeks, union representatives said.
The environmental group — widely known for its work to protect wolves and other wild animals — also has a reputation as a terrible place to work.
Staffers referred to it as a “nightmare” workplace and a “motorized revolving door.” Multiple current staffers said they’re looking for new jobs. And one current employee said, “I don’t know anyone who’s happy at Defenders.”
E&E News spoke to 23 current and former Defenders employees for this story, ranging from senior managers to more junior staffers. Most of them were granted anonymity because they fear professional retaliation for speaking candidly about their concerns with Defenders’ workplace culture.
They broadly described a workplace where turnover is rampant, questioning leadership isn’t tolerated, staff don’t feel like they’re paid fairly and employees worry they might be fired without notice. Nearly all of them said the organization’s management issues are affecting its ability to function.
Current and former staff blame Defenders CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark for setting the tone and establishing a “culture of fear” within the organization. Upsetting Clark over even minor issues, they say, can result in getting fired.
Clark, 64, has been at the group’s helm since 2011. She worked for the National Guard Bureau and the U.S. Army as a wildlife biologist before she was picked by President Bill Clinton to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997.
One former Defenders employee who worked in leadership had considered Clark a mentor and thought they had a close relationship. But “she will turn on a dime on you,” that person said. “You’ll go from having reviews that are spectacular to being out the door.”
That person kept an empty box in the corner of their office in case they were fired without warning and needed to pack quickly. That person saw other people get fired and usually they were “escorted out immediately.” The box ultimately came in handy when that employee was fired over what they described as a disagreement over a “trivial product issue.”
Staffers say it’s the kind of environment they might expect in the cutthroat corporate world — not at a nonprofit where idealists and animal rights advocates take jobs because they want to help save species like black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls.
Clark declined E&E News’ request for an interview. Defenders did not answer a list of questions about turnover, morale and specific concerns detailed by current and former staff.
Rachel Brittin, the group’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email that, “as a policy, we do not share personal information about individual staff members or HR actions. Many of your questions cannot be answered without divulging personal information about current and former staff.”
Defenders “takes staff concerns seriously and maintains processes and policies to uphold our high standards of workplace fairness while respecting the privacy of our current and former staff,” according to Brittin’s emailed statement.
“We recognize that, like many organizations across the country, there is more work to do in improving and enhancing our workplace,” the statement said. “We will continue to listen to our staff’s concerns, seek to enhance our workplace and advance Defenders’ important conservation mission.”
‘Something has to change’
Some staffers and others in the environmental movement see the internal strife at Defenders as a microcosm of a larger battle that’s playing out at other environmental organizations and in workplaces across the country.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement have prompted calls for a drastic overhaul in how workplaces function. Defenders was part of a wave of environmental groups that unionized last year.
“Generations coming up are expecting their progressive values to be reflected in what they consider to be a progressive organization, and I think that’s forcing generational conflicts,” said a second former Defenders staffer. “I think the good organizations, the effective ones, are able to adapt and transform and listen and share power essentially when it comes to unionization,” that person said.
Clark and other leaders at Defenders feel like they’re backed into a corner, that person said, where they feel like they’re losing if they give something up to the union.
“I think there’s this feeling that [Clark] had to be tough and hard-nosed to make it there to break that glass ceiling,” said the second former Defenders staffer. She’s an “old-school female leader who’s now kind of playing a conservative role that maybe doesn’t reflect all of those values that we would associate with that.”
That ex-staffer said Clark and other leaders at the group are facing a test on whether they can adapt to the current moment.
“Something has to change there,” said a third former Defenders staffer. “The true problem is that there’s so much drama at that place that it’s challenging to have the energy to do your work.”
That person said the Defenders job was mentally and physically challenging. They’re much happier at their new gig.
“There’s no undercurrent anymore of all of these things that are happening at the organization,” that person said. “I just go and I do my job.”
‘I’ve never seen turnover like this’
The storied animal rights group, which was founded during the Truman administration and originally called the Defenders of Fur Bearers, bills itself as the “premier U.S.-based national conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of imperiled species and their habitats in North America.”
That mission is a major selling point for new recruits. Defenders is based in Washington but has regional offices all over the country; their work stretches from Alaska’s Arctic to the Florida Everglades.
“I loved the cause and wanted to be a part of it,” said a fourth former Defenders staffer.
But the nonprofit job quickly soured.
“It just became so incredibly toxic for my home life,” that person said, adding that they regularly witnessed leadership using demeaning language toward junior staff and firing people without warning.
“It was just chaos. … I’ve never seen turnover like this,” the former staffer said. “I’ve never, ever quit a job that quick,” they added. “I really should have listened to Glassdoor reviews.”
Glassdoor, the website that allows employees to anonymously rate their workplace, gives Defenders 1.5 stars out of 5 and includes blistering reviews of the workplace culture and management. Defenders’ CEO Clark has a 6 percent approval rating on the site.
By contrast, groups like the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and National Wildlife Federation have Glassdoor scores of 3.9 stars, 3.8 stars and 4.1 stars, respectively.
“It’s not even a secret how dysfunctional Defenders is and how poorly it treats its employees,” said the current staffer at the conservation group. “I have colleagues from other organizations who ask me if I have another job yet,” that person said. “Everybody knows what it’s like.”
The group’s online reputation got so bad that managers asked employees in March 2019 to submit positive reviews to Glassdoor in an effort to counteract all the negative comments, several staffers said.
Three positive Glassdoor reviews popped in the two days after that email went out, calling the group “one of the best,” “an effective conservation organization” and a “great place” to work.
Defenders said it’s been able to accomplish its conservation goals — even as the pandemic upended workplaces all over the world.
“Despite the immense challenges brought by the ongoing pandemic, our lawyers, lobbyists, policy experts, field teams, scientists and technology experts have continued to successfully challenge decisions that harm wildlife and wild places, pioneer innovative conservation initiatives and programs and collaborate with diverse partners to address the urgent need to protect and restore biodiversity,” the group said in its emailed statement. “Our staff’s collective passion, dedication and talent helped us achieve these critical conservation successes.”
The group’s annual revenue continued to climb throughout the pandemic. Defenders raised about $33 million in 2019, $34 million in 2020 and nearly $43 million in 2021, according to financial documents posted on the group’s website.
‘I had a target on my back’
Workplace problems have simmered at the Defenders of Wildlife for years, but they’ve reached a boiling point lately, according to staffers.
The staff unionized in 2021, which exacerbated an existing feeling of division between senior leadership and lower-level staff, with middle management often stuck uncomfortably between them, according to employees.
Staff say Defenders CEO Clark and her allies have long sought to micromanage issues like employee raises, fought staff who wanted more flexibility during the Covid-19 pandemic and fired employees who challenged them.
That includes Prather, who was one of the lead union organizers. She was profiled in a prominent December 2021 news article about the unionization efforts at Defenders.
She was fired in February.
A Defenders volunteer in Arizona had complained to a Defenders board member about Prather’s demeanor toward her following a Zoom call about “eco-grief,” where members of the community were invited to share their anxieties or emotions about climate change and extinction.
In an investigation, Defenders leadership found that Prather had been “mean-spirited” in her treatment of that volunteer.
But Prather and some of her former colleagues argue leadership was looking for an excuse to fire her.
“I had a target on my back specifically because I organized the union,” Prather said.
She’s challenging her termination before the National Labor Relations Board, where her attorneys are arguing that Defenders of Wildlife violated her rights and discriminated against her based on her involvement with the union. The Defenders union organized a GoFundMe page on her behalf after she lost her salary and benefits.
“This is just the first time that we actually have a mechanism — a union in place to follow through with how egregious this is,” Prather said. “But what’s happened to me is not new.”
Prather said her experience at Defenders has her questioning whether she wants to be part of the environmental movement anymore.
The union, which has about 85 members, still hasn’t finalized a contract with management, but they’re hoping to include a provision that requires leadership to show “just cause” when they fire staff. “People can be — and are — fired arbitrarily, so no one has a sense of security about their jobs,” said Kat Diersen, a spokesperson for Defenders United.
Defenders “supports and respects our staff’s right to unionize and has engaged in good faith negotiations with the Union elected to represent many of our staff last fall,” Defenders said in its emailed statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with the Union to find additional ways to improve Defenders.”
‘It was like a movie’
Staff say sudden terminations at Defenders have gone on for years.
Ann Felber, who was Defenders’ director of planned giving, said she was surprised when she was fired back in 2014. She had been at the organization for more than six years after spending nearly 20 years at the World Wildlife Fund.
On a Friday in November, a supervisor and a human resources employee walked into her office and read her a brief letter stating that her performance hadn’t met expectations. “They said I was terminated immediately,” she said. She recalled carrying her box of belongings out of her office. “It was like a movie.”
One job applicant said she was excited to join Defenders last year before she learned that the job offer the group made her had been revoked.
Gaby Diaz got a verbal offer last November to be Defenders’ Rockies and Plains coordinator, and they settled on a start date of Dec. 13 at a salary of $45,000 per year, she said in a recent interview. She gave her former employer a two-week notice.
But before she received the welcome packet she was told she’d be getting, she got a call from Defenders’ HR department that the job was “on hold” and that she’d get another call with more details.
She noticed that the job had been posted again on Defenders’ website, so she called Defenders’ HR department again. She was told she wouldn’t be getting the job, but got no explanation other than Defenders saying that it wasn’t a priority, she said, although she learned about a month later that they had hired someone else for the position.
“It was very frustrating and so disheartening,” Diaz said of the experience.
One current and one former Defenders employee confirmed that Diaz’s job offer had been rescinded. Diaz also shared an email that she sent to Defenders after they informed her she wouldn’t be hired. “This shatters my perception of Defenders of Wildlife. It is so disrespectful to treat people this way, and I’m sorely disappointed,” she wrote to the organization in December.
‘Culture of fear’
In an apparent attempt to improve its workplace culture, Defenders has hired three outside consulting groups in recent years to interview staff and analyze the organization, as E&E has previously reported.
The most recent firm hired — meant to address issues like diversity, equity and inclusion — broke off its relationship with Defenders earlier than expected.
After surveying 144 Defenders staffers, the consulting firm Avarna Group produced a report last year saying that “fear,” “culture of fear” and “afraid” were mentioned over 50 times, primarily by staffers who weren’t in leadership positions. Those staffers said they were afraid of being fired or reprimanded for bringing up issues like “the lack of an inclusive culture,” the report said.
“When asked who staff were afraid of, the primary source of fear was not immediate supervisors, but specific individuals on the Executive Team, including the CEO,” the Avarna report said.
Following Defenders’ split with the Avarna Group last year, supervisors from within the organization sent an anonymous letter to Clark that accused her and other leaders of failing to take responsibility for the “culture of fear” within the organization.
“Neither Defenders’ dedicated staff nor our mission to save life on earth is served by executive leadership that disrespects its employees and stifles the cultural transformation necessary for our success,” the supervisors wrote to Clark.
A power struggle
Some staffers who worked at other environmental groups said Defenders was a uniquely difficult place to work.
“I never heard of any similar kind of toxic work environment,” said a fifth ex-Defenders employee, a former manager with more than a decade of experience in environmental groups.
One major point of tension at the organization is the pay disparity between top brass and lower-level staff.
Clark is among the highest-paid environmental group leaders, according to a recent E&E News review of nonprofits’ tax filings. She earned nearly $569,000 in the year ending Sept. 30, 2021, a figure that includes her salary, bonus and other benefits.
At least 14 other senior employees at the group earned more than $100,000 during that year, the tax filing shows. The average salary among members of the union is $67,242, according to the latest available data provided by union representatives.
“There is a massive pay gap between almost everyone on staff and senior leadership,” Diersen said. “Our CEO makes about eight times the average employee’s salary.”
In 2020, the lowest-paid, full-time staffer was earning about $32,000 per year, according to salary information shared with E&E News. That person was a clerk who had been with the group for decades.
Staff working as coordinators — some of the more junior-level positions at the organization — were earning between $45,000 and $49,000 annually in 2020, according to the salary information.
When Kerry Skiff started out at Defenders as a Washington-based communications coordinator in 2018, she was making $44,000, she said. She got raises to boost her salary up to about $50,000 before she left in April 2021, but that was “barely enough to get by,” she said.
Skiff said she fielded about three dozen emails from the public where potential donors wrote in to say they’d love to give money, but they wondered why the CEO was making more than $500,000 per year. “It would pop up every few months,” she said.
Employees said the tension over money is exacerbated by the fact that the group doesn’t give cost-of-living raises to employees.
“The highest raise that you can get is 3 percent, and that is if your boss goes to the mat and says you deserve that as a merit raise,” said the current employee.
Staff were also outraged — and some quit — over what they perceived as overly rigid rules from management during the pandemic.
Some parents on staff, for example, were frustrated when management announced a policy during the pandemic that parents couldn’t be the primary caregivers for their children during at-home work hours. They were worried about what would happen when their kids were sent home from school.
The policy “was essentially making us choose between work and our children,” a second current staffer said. “It’s not easy working at home with a kid, but extraordinary times should allow for some flexibility and trust.”
Defenders said in its statement that while its “primary mission is to protect and restore imperiled species and their habitats throughout North America,” the group is “equally committed to supporting our staff and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our organization and the conservation movement. We value mutual respect and strive to provide a workplace where our staff can grow professionally.”
A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Greenwire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.