12/18/2013 12:59 EST | Updated 02/17/2014 05:59 EST

Not-for-profits must earn their social licence

With much in the news these days about the troubles facing a prominent B.C. land trust, it is no surprise that people are raising questions about what the future might hold for other conservation areas and heritage sites, and for land trusts in general. The prospect of selling off lands that have already been set aside for conservation flies in the face of the years of effort and considerable sums of money that went into protecting them in the first place.

How can we continue to have confidence in land trusts if the protection they promise appears to be fleeting?

Like for-profit businesses, the not-for-profit sector must also earn its social licence by following through on what we say we are going to do, using donors' money wisely and only for the purposes it was donated, and practicing good governance and transparency in our operations.

In addition, charitable organizations have a special duty to uphold: they must honour the public trust and commit to deliver on their missions for the long term. It must be abundantly clear that the work being done by non-profits contributes to the betterment of society. In the case of conservation, we are working to ensure the natural heritage of this province will be there well into the future.

It has been my experience as a donor and as a volunteer board member with the Nature Conservancy of Canada that this is what the vast majority of B.C.'s land trusts have been doing and doing well -- earning and keeping its social license to operate on behalf of the public's trust.

As this country's largest land conservation organization, the Nature Conservancy of Canada takes very seriously the promises we are making through our mission to protect ecologically significant land for the benefit of many generations. We are guided by the belief that our society will be judged by what it creates in the present and what it conserves for the future.


Darkwoods, B.C. (Photo by MA Beaucher)

We are acutely aware that our social license is something we must earn every day. To that end the Nature Conservancy of Canada carefully tends to a uniquely not-for-profit triple bottom line: fiscal prudence, social responsibility and careful environmental stewardship. This has kept us in business for 51 years, has earned the organization ranking as the country's top environmental charity by MoneySense magazine, and has allowed us to conserve more than 1 million acres of land and water here in British Columbia. These lands range from open grasslands of the Sage and Sparrow Conservation Area near Osoyoos, to the vast mountain landscape of Darkwoods, to the rare Garry oak meadows of the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

Another key factor in the lasting success of the not-for-profit sector is collaboration. The Nature Conservancy of Canada works in partnership with a broad spectrum of society, including many other B.C. land trusts. With over 31 land trusts of varying size and scale, the movement is diverse and is doing incredible work to protect and enhance habitat for species of concern, clean water, ecosystem services, recreational sites and more.

The conservation movement has been protecting special places in B.C. for more than half a century. The success land trusts have had to date enriches everyone's quality of life and promotes an ethic of sustainability. And from my vantage point on the inside, I can say with confidence that overall the land trust community is strong, well-governed and accountable.

By honouring the public trust and committing to conservation for many generations to come, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and all B.C. land trusts can and will continue to provide an invaluable service to our society.

By Kevin McBurney, senior client partner of Korn/Ferry International and a the Chair of the Nature Conservancy of Canada's Regional Board of Directors in BC. This post originally appeared in Land Lines, the blog of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.