David O’Neill on the Ups and Downs of Becoming Mass Audubon’s President During COVID

by Victoria Jones

Posted December 14, 2020

In this month’s At the Helm, Victoria Jones spoke with Mass Audubon’s new President, David O’Neill. Mass Audubon is Massachusetts’ largest nature conservation nonprofit and a national leader in environmental education and advocacy.

David reflects on the opportunities and challenges of joining a new organization during the pandemic, Mass Audubon’s new and expanded priorities, and his advice for fellow leaders.

Victoria: You’ve held senior positions with national platforms, including the National Audubon Society and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. What propelled you to join a state-based organization?

David: The appeal of Mass Audubon actually relates to one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, which was running the Chesapeake Bay Trust in Maryland as the Executive Director. I remember, as I was preparing to leave the organization for a new opportunity at a larger organization, my mentor at the time told me, “You’ll never have as much fun as you had here. You may be eager for a bigger platform, but at Chesapeake, you know what it feels like to lead and make a difference. That’s hard to come by.” And he was right. While I feel proud of all I’ve been able to do over the course of my career, my experience at Chesapeake Bay Trust was the one that connected me most to the work and to the people. So, when the President role at Mass Audubon came along, I thought, “Wow, this is something I’ve been yearning for.” It has been an opportunity to form a real connection with place, people, and an organization that I think is stellar.

Now, 7 months later, how have your perceptions of the organization and its opportunities changed or stayed the same?

I think that new leaders always go through these cycles where 3 months into the new position, you feel like you have a real grasp of the role, but by 6 months you recognize that it’s even more complex than you initially thought. I think I experienced that cycle much more rapidly than usual because of COVID. We were dealing with incredible stress on the system, so I had to lean in very deeply and quickly to understand the budget, our personnel, and the organization as a whole. It had to be quick because we were making decisions about the organization’s future. Now, I feel like I have a bit of a handle on things; I know the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and I have a pretty clear picture of where we’re headed. Of course, that always evolves as opportunities emerge, but directionally, I feel positive about our future and our opportunity to make a real difference for the nature of Massachusetts.

I want to dive deeper there. What have been the greatest blessings and challenges of joining the organization during this time of COVID and national unrest on so many fronts?

Well, the challenge is that it’s just a horrible time for society; COVID has exposed very real inequities, including in the conservation and nature landscape. But with that comes the blessing of underscoring opportunities for improvement within our community.  The priority of access to nature for under-resourced and people of color communities has been core to our mission, but now it is so amplified that it is propelling us to want to continue to do differently and better.

COVID has also spurred an incredible level of creativity at Mass Audubon. I know that all organizations can likely say that, but it’s true. We have been creative in terms of the programming we provide and in continuously finding ways to effectively and safely advance our mission. For instance, we are currently donating the food we grow at a couple of our farms to local food banks. This is only possible because of the generous donations we have received. These newfound levels of generosity and creativity have been a blessing, and I believe they will remain. I hope we can continue to partner with food banks this way.

You have been so ambitious over a short period of time. Deciding to move fast requires taking a calculated risk. How are you managing the pace of change at Mass Audubon?

I came aboard because it was my sense was that many of the stakeholders of this organization wanted to see great change, and that Mass Audubon was eager for it. In many ways, COVID provided the ideal opportunity to rethink things – and to rethink it rapidly. My pace may have been quicker than some people are comfortable with, but I feel confident in what we have done and where we are.

A critical piece of this has been the support of our board. Investing time in that relationship, in informing them of your plans and direction, is key to gaining support. That’s something I’ve learned over time—how to partner with the board and senior leadership—and I think it’s made all the difference.

Looking ahead, how are you thinking about Mass Audubon’s role as it relates to state and federal leadership and policy?

Having lived and worked in DC for years, it’s been painful to see the erosion of important environmental laws, policies, and agencies at the federal level – especially during the last four years. I worked with our current administration, and I was surprised by how vigorously they went after dismantling the regulatory systems that uphold environmental laws. It was a pace of destruction I had never seen before.

Fortunately, on the flip side, you see states like California and Massachusetts really leading the way on conservation, environmental policy, and climate policy. And if you have enough states who adopt similar models, that’s when you see a stronger federal policy develop as a result. We have a way to go, but I am certain that states have an important role to play in charting the path and I am committed to making sure that Massachusetts remains a constant leader among them.

And how about Mass Audubon’s role in particular? What are you hoping to achieve?

I would love for Mass Audubon to advance solutions around climate change that are nature-based and serve as a model for the country, and I honestly believe we can do that. I would also like to have a robust urban program where we are working in Boston and gateway cities in ways that are authentic to the needs of those places and are in complete harmony with natural partners. I want us to think about and do that work with real humility and to make a real difference in creating greenspace and opportunities for job development. We have many examples of doing this work already, but we haven’t created comprehensive programs. I know we can do so much more.

And then, on the land side, I want us to focus on building resilience in the landscape through protection, restoration, and management. Again, we have already done great work in this area, but we have yet to do it at scale. Lastly, I want to accomplish all of this as we continue to expand the programs and initiatives that are at the heart of our organization, such as our camps and nature preschools.

One last question – for any new leaders reading this, what advice would you share?

Listen intensely. That is one of the most obvious truisms.  Now, more than ever, is the time to listen to your staff, to your partners, to your board. If you have ideas about what your organization can and should do, ground truth them carefully and thoughtfully. When I first arrived at Mass Audubon, I wasn’t aware of the important work that had already been done in an urban setting. And of course, this work has only become more necessary during COVID and as we think about nature deficit issues for under-sourced communities in MA. I only discovered this as an area of great potential for us through intense listening and learning – and now it’s become a hallmark of our strategy moving forward. So, ground truthing lets you pivot and adapt. And then, I would say, once you have chosen your direction, move with intention, action and purpose. Trust yourself and don’t hold back.

Every month, Development Guild leadership spends time with leaders from across the nonprofit sector to hear their perspectives, what’s on their minds today, and what they believe the future holds. Read more At the Helm interviews.

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