Fred Thompson, CEO of Jane Goodall Institute, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m president and CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Our mission is to inspire and empower people to take informed, compassionate action to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment. From this broad agenda have sprung three major program initiatives:
- Primate care and research: rescuing chimpanzees orphaned by the bushmeat trade and protecting them in sanctuaries, and continuing the research Jane Goodall started in 1960. We study the behavior of wild chimpanzees to learn more about them and to understand their survival needs. In recent years we’ve also helped pioneer noninvasive research methods (collecting fecal and urine samples) to help scientists study disease transmission patterns relevant to human health.
- Community-centered conservation in chimpanzee-range states throughout west and central Africa: helping provide people with sustainable economic livelihoods that offer alternatives to environmentally destructive behavior.
- Environmental and humanitarian education: inspiring people to take informed action on behalf of the environment and the planet’s inhabitants. We do this last initiative largely through our Roots & Shoots global youth program, which Jane began in 1991 with 16 Tanzanian students who were concerned about conservation problems and came to her for advice. Since then we’ve registered about 7,000 Roots & Shoots groups in 87 countries. They study problems in their communities, decide how they want to make a difference, and then take action.
Mission accomplished is a stable or increasing chimpanzee population across all chimpanzee-range countries, and a critical mass of people actively working toward a compassionate, peaceful world.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
What I really do is try to ensure that the institute has the resources necessary to fulfill its mission in each of its programmatic areas. The challenges are considerable. Many of our programs are conducted in areas that are highly unstable politically, and that are often struggling to attain a “civil society” as we have come to define the term. Specifically, my daily focus is on a number of related activities: fund-raising; generating public awareness, understanding, and support for our mission; building strong coalitions and partnerships with stakeholders, institutions, and governments that can help us maximize the effectiveness of our programs; and keeping our board members engaged and satisfied that we’re operating efficiently and productively. And, of course, trying to keep pace with Jane, who has more insights and brilliant ideas than just about anyone I can think of.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My career prior to joining the institute was focused on changing behavior and perceptions. OK, I’m a recovering marketing guy. The world of marketing was excellent prep for my current position, which often requires formulating strategies and communications initiatives aimed at gaining empathy and understanding of our mission among prospective donors, and, on a program level, changing behaviors and public policies that are not consistent with sound conservation practices.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I have over 2,300 emails in my box at the moment (really) — probably close to 20 percent of them only scanned, not read. I’m blessed with an ability to read very quickly, so I find myself speed-reading messages before actually reading them in detail. I just don’t feel compelled to answer or read every email, since many are frankly not important, or redundant follow-ons to previous messages.
I have a strong aversion to managing by email (also to cleaning out my mailbox!). If it’s really important, I ask my staffers to care enough to phone me, or … walk down the hall and actually see me. That gets my attention. It’s always amazed me how people in offices right next to one another will persist in communicating vital information exclusively by email. I really hate it when someone confuses sending an email with taking ownership or accountability.
Most days, I get over 100 emails in several languages, so like many people, getting my attention is really problematic. To survive, I simply have to prioritize. And, it wouldn’t hurt to improve my French, or my Swahili ….
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Happily, most of the people I deal with are very civil, if not downright pleasant. That said, there are a lot of groups in the conservation space that seek to enlist Jane’s support. Most are totally above board and very straightforward about their intentions, and we’re pleased to lend our endorsement. Yet there are a surprising number of groups that are somewhat less than scrupulous in appropriating Jane’s name or likeness. By using her image in their communications, they hope to convey the impression that Jane and the institute are supportive of their missions. Monitoring the transgressors — separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak — requires a lot of vigilance, and can truly be a pain.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
This might surprise you. When I came to Washington, D.C., from a career on the for-profit side in New York City, I was very cynical about Washington bureaucracy, and in particular, government agencies. What I found was a bit of a revelation. While one might take partisan issue with political appointees, I discovered that the vast majority of career government employees — and that includes appointees — were genuinely committed to excellence and professionalism. Moreover, I found that many of these individuals and agencies, despite being impeded by impossibly complicated disbursement and reporting processes, were among the most resourceful and effective people we worked with. Who knew?
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where my father worked for a paper company. I currently work in Washington, and my wife has a career in New York City, so I commute back to New York City on weekends. I also have a weekend house in Connecticut, which allows me to spend a little time with nature.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I’ve been quite fortunate in that there haven’t been too many really bad days. One that comes to mind was a situation some years ago when I was informed without warning that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Despite the fact that I had little respect for my superiors and wasn’t at all happy in the job, it still came as a real blow to my ego. From that moment forward, I started three successful businesses, sold them all and never looked back. The lesson? Always be looking ahead, and assume nothing. Real security is the marketable skills we bring to our respective employers, not merely the relationship or tenure we believe we have with an employer. And listen to your heart. If I had, I’d have never taken that job in the first place.
What’s been the best?
There have been many. Among them, not surprisingly, was the moment Jane offered me my current position. We were having lunch in the corner of a quiet garden in London and discussing what kind of person would be the ideal candidate for president of the institute. Jane suddenly turned to me and with her famously gentle intensity said, “Fred, I think you’re the person for this job, and I won’t be happy until you agree.” The rest, as they say, is history.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
That’s an easy one. The current administration’s arrogance in thinking that they can cloak bad environmental policy in deceptive rhetoric, and that no one will know the difference. People are smarter than they’re given credit for, and sooner or later, when the benefits of failed policy fail to trickle down and the consequences begin to mount, there’ll be a significant reckoning — for all of us, unfortunately.
Who is your environmental hero?
Obviously, Dr. Goodall. She balances practicality with knowledge and determination. She knows the importance of building alliances, yet still remains true to her mission. She’s amazing.
Jane recognized early on the importance of investing community members as true partners in conservation projects. When we began our community-centered conservation program TACARE in the villages around Gombe, the first order of business was meeting with local village leaders to consult with them about local needs. That’s why TACARE evolved to include health care and community development as well as sustainable forestry and agriculture, reforestation and erosion control. TACARE’s reproductive-health project trains local men and women as peer educators, who go back to their home communities and talk about the issues — the word isn’t coming from someone who might be seen as an interloper. This is the spirit of the whole program. It has to be locally owned and managed. Today TACARE is run entirely by Tanzanians.
We’re taking this community-centered model to a new project in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year.
What’s your environmental nightmare?
Indifference, ignorance, and deception — attributes that increasingly seem to characterize contemporary American dialogue on the topic of conservation and environmental stewardship.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
One of the lessons Jane emphasizes is the power of individuals to make a difference. I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by environmental problems and powerless to do anything about them. That’s nonsense. Each of us has the opportunity to make good environmental choices every day. Even small ones, multiplied over thousands or millions of people who feel empowered to make such choices, can have a significant impact.
This is the biggest lesson we try to instill in our Roots & Shoots program. If a group decides it wants to do something very ambitious, like organize an international awareness campaign on behalf of an endangered species, that’s wonderful. But the small projects — beach clean-ups, clothing drives, dog-walking at the local shelter — these are invaluable. You never know the ultimate impact of any one act of compassion or kindness.
What’s your environmental vice?
I don’t know if this would qualify as a vice, but I enjoy an occasional game of golf. And when I do, I always wonder what the land would have been like if it hadn’t been transformed into a golf course and chemically enhanced so my putts will be more accurate.
What are you reading these days?
My reading tastes are extremely eclectic. I’m reading the third volume of Norman Sherry’s Graham Greene bio, The United States of Europe by T.R. Reid (really interesting and scary), and a cheesy but entertaining Ken Follett novel. I always have at least three books going. One of my biggest phobias is being stranded on a plane or train without something to read.
What’s your favorite meal?
To Jane’s horror, I am not a vegetarian, although I’ve seriously cut back on my meat consumption to one portion every two weeks. My favorite meal is anything Indian or Thai. I love cruciform vegetables — broccoli or cauliflower in any form. Thanks, mom.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I have two. The first is Gombe National Park in Tanzania, site of Jane’s chimpanzee research. The park is a narrow, mountainous strip of land on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Its chimpanzee population and habitat are currently under extreme stress from encroaching farmers and refugees from nearby Rwanda and Congo across the lake. The view to the lake from the park’s rift peaks takes my breath away.
The second is Lake Ullswater in the English Lake District. I’m an Anglophile, and the seven-mile trek from one end of the lake to the other has always felt like a homecoming to me.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
It’s beginning to work together more effectively. Fragmentation is the enemy of critical mass, and critical mass, in my opinion, is essential to building real momentum and a committed consensus for dealing with environmental issues.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Amazingly, environmental issues are still viewed in this country as being radical and outside the mainstream. In Europe, it’s just the opposite. We need to get the environmental agenda (oracle of the obvious) on a populist footing.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
The environmental movement needs a smart public-relations campaign that includes guys in pinstripe suits as messengers (in addition to the Birkenstock wearers). The campaign needs to break down the stereotypes that environmentalists are somehow out of touch with middle America, and focus on the benefits of responsible environmental practices and policies — not just the problems.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, it was the Stones, the Dead, and blues guys like Buddy Guy and Luther Allison. I still listen to those performers, but I also really like a lot of the new bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys. I’m a guitar player who never met a pentatonic riff he didn’t like.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
My absolute favorite is the recent BBC series, The Office. Tragi-comedy at its finest. I hate most of the reality shows, particularly The Apprentice. Donald Trump has given achievement a bad name. My favorite movies are The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, and Glengarry, Glen Ross, which was based on the David Mamet play of the same name.
What are you happy about right now?
My twin grandsons, Phillip and George, aged 19 months. I know it’s a cliche, but little kids put everything into perspective. We need to save the world for them. Over the holidays, I took them for a walk in the woods. Every 10 seconds or so, they stooped down to pick something up — a twig, a leaf, an acorn, it didn’t matter. They were totally fascinated.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do something to help the environment every day. And urge your friends to do the same thing. Take action.
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