Making Philanthropic Conservation a Numbers Game | Net Impact

Making Philanthropic Conservation a Numbers Game

Dan Winterson | Program Director, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

How does a guy go from corporate business analyst to philanthropic program director fighting for environmental conservation in about a decade’s time? Well, it wasn’t a straight line for Dan Winterson. Dan believes deeply that environmental conservation is one of the most critical issues of our time – and that it stands to become increasingly more so. But he was a numbers guy at heart.

Don't fight your nature

After earning his undergraduate degree in economics and psychology at Harvard, he jumped right into developing his financial and analytical skills at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. At McKinsey, Dan spent a lot of time measuring and managing business performance. He got to see the world of big time consulting up close, preparing him well for his next step.

“Until you have core skills that you can offer to a nonprofit or foundation, you’re not going to have the impact you want,” Dan says. “If you work in consulting, even for just two to three years, you have more concrete skills – analytic skills, strategic thinking, communications skills – that you can bring to the table.”

A crash course in leadership

After a couple of years, Dan felt like he was ready for a change. He started exploring the nonprofit world, and landed a managerial role at what was then a fledgling nonprofit – Teach For America (TFA). His new role required a significant change in mindset. Gone were his big-company resources. Suddenly, he had managerial and budget responsibility for the entire organization. But the analytical and planning skills he’d developed at McKinsey applied well to TFA, and he quickly adapted.

The experience was a crash course in leadership, but there was more to it than that. Having experienced both the large private company and the scrappy nonprofit, Dan realized there had to be a different approach to an organization’s financial valuation process. He started focusing on the triple bottom line, and ultimately decided to head back to school for an MBA at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

An important time out

After business school, Dan decided to bring his hard-won leadership skills back to McKinsey. Yet sustainability issues remained on his mind.

That’s when he made a big decision. He left his job at McKinsey and took some time off to figure out his next move. Today, he describes this as one of the riskiest and most rewarding things he’s ever done. He now had the time to think through what he really wanted from his career, and he had the time to make it happen. When he was offered the opportunity to apply his financial expertise to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s environmental conservation efforts, he seized it.

Making conservation a numbers game

Today, Dan’s experiences in both the private and nonprofit sectors are put to the test in his work at the foundation. There, he focuses on conservation finance: impact investing, payment for ecosystem services, and large initiatives such as the foundation’s Forever Costa Rica effort involving multiple funders and NGOs. “We talk about applying Wall Street principles to conservation because it’s a big project to finance,” he explains. “It’s a big ‘deal,’ essentially, where there’s a closing and there are number of conditions that need to be in place before the deal can close. That’s an example where a business background and financial skills are crucial. And I think you see more and more of that in the environmental conservation field, where a lot of projects are structured now as deals.”

It’s this opportunity to bring his skills in the financial arena, to think about really big and fundamental problems such as how economic development and environmental services intertwine, that make Dan’s current work so exciting.

Dan's advice

Dan’s gotten where he is thanks in no small part to his willingness to take some personal risks. Here’s what he offers to those just starting out:

  • Challenge yourself to grow. Dan could have chosen a safer career path by staying at McKinsey or working in investing. But he went out on a limb and tested himself by going to TFA. It toughened him in ways that have benefited everything he’s done since.
  • Try out different perspectives. During his career, Dan has worked for a non-profit, for a funder, and as a consultant to both funders and non-profits. Experiencing the challenges and mindset of the “other side” can broaden your understanding, expand your knowledge, and improve your ability to negotiate.
  • Don’t be overly concerned about entry level.Switching fields sometimes means moving laterally or even down, but this is often necessary in order to move into a popular space such as philanthropy. Dan initially accepted and worked in a lower-level role at the Moore Foundation and worked his way up.
  • Relentlessly ask for feedback. Getting better requires understanding yourself – and understanding how others see you. He points out that while not all feedback may be accurate – and some may be unpleasant – having an outside perspective is incredibly valuable.