CFO makes impact on ESG at the National Geographic Society
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CFO makes impact on ESG at the National Geographic Society

Aug 18, 2022 · 4 min read

Rebecca Hale

Growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, inspired Rob Young, CPA, to dedicate his career to serving his community and the environment.

Near Newark, East Orange has a poverty rate of 18.2%, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, almost double that of New Jersey as a whole.

“A lot of what goes wrong with the environment usually starts in low-income areas,” Young said.

Young now serves as CFO for the National Geographic Society. He is one of the many CPAs finding ways to give back to the environment through his work. Finance executives possess the skill set to provide internal strategic input and external reporting for organizations of all types on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues that are becoming increasingly important in the business environment.

This has been an important objective for Young as he served in finance leadership roles with the Environmental Defense Fund and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals before coming to the National Geographic Society.

The society is separate from the National Geographic Partners media enterprise and invests in the exploration and protection of nature across the world. The National Geographic Society raised a record-setting $74.7 million in new commitments in 2021. The five key areas of its mission are supporting ocean, land, wildlife, human history and cultures, and human ingenuity.

Young partners with the CEO, the chief operating officer and other members of the senior leadership team to guide the operations and strategy of the organization. He ensures that the society’s finances and investments are sustainable and aligned with the principles of its strategic plan.

“We drive impact by investing in our international community of explorers, whether it’s leading scientists, educators, storytellers, conservationists, technologists, or many other change-makers who help us meet some of the critical challenges of our time,” Young said.

For example, the National Geographic Society has provided grants that have helped reduce threats for more than 3,000 big cats in the wild, helped inspire the creation of 25 marine reserves and supported research that shows the speed with which the glacier at Mount Everest is melting.

Young helps deliver on these projects by supporting a five-year strategic plan called “NG Next” that has four pillars:

Focus: Fewer, bigger, better. The society, which once provided more than 1,000 grants per year, is cutting that number. The amounts of grants generally will be larger, and they will be designed to make a deeper impact.

Drive impact through collaboration. The organization is working together with other not-for-profits, governments and corporate interests to make a bigger impact.

Create a more innovative workplace. From exploring the possibility of selling nonfungible tokens (NFTs) to building immersive experiences for the public, the society is looking to capitalize on new ideas and technology.

Build a sustainable business model. The society has traditionally counted on the media assets managed by National Geographic Partners for a large portion of its revenue but is moving to benefit more from philanthropy and donations. A recently hired chief advancement officer is building a team to assist with this effort.

A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) also is prominent in the National Geographic Society’s plans. The organization recently hired its inaugural chief DEI officer, and DEI is at the core of NG Next, its fundraising and grant-making efforts.

“We have enhanced our recruitment and hiring practices to achieve and maintain equity, ensuring our staff and senior team represent a diverse array of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences,” Young said. “For the first time, our board has achieved gender parity, and we’re diversifying it across other dimensions of diversity as well.”

Environment-friendly operations

Acting in the best interest of the environment has been a longtime key goal for the National Geographic Society. In 2003, the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., became the first existing facility in the world to achieve LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. It remains the longest continuously certified existing LEED-certified facility in the world.

“We put our money where our mouth is,” Young said.

The society has continued to pursue environmentally friendly actions over the years by:

Reducing its water use by 30% since 2007 and purchasing water restoration certificates for the water it uses at its headquarters to save an equal amount of water in a stressed ecosystem somewhere else in the country.

Investing in a pollinator-friendly solar farm in Maryland, which produces enough electricity annually to power the equivalent of more than 2,000 homes in the area.

Outfitting the entire office with 4,000 motion-sensitive LED fixtures for overhead lighting.

Installing free charging stations for electric vehicles in its garage.

Building free bicycle parking in its garage along with a dedicated bike room and automatic pumps and repair tools for the bikes.

Using only Energy Star-labeled appliances.

Implementing waste disposal procedures to reduce consumption of resources and reuse, repurpose, recycle or compost materials as much as possible.

In addition to contributing to the strategy, Young works to measure the effects of these actions. He said the skills CFOs develop make them ideally suited to contributing to ESG efforts.

“It often comes back to measuring progress against goals, against milestones, reporting on those metrics and making sure that proper controls are in place to establish reliability on that information that we put out,” he said. “…We have to make sure the integrity of that financial information is good.”

Doubly rewarding

Young spent the first five years of his career in construction in a nontraditional path to the accounting profession. He learned the importance of teamwork, planning and effective people management in construction, and later developed experience analyzing data and processes as a senior associate at KPMG.

He enjoys his CFO role because it allows him to contribute to an organization dedicated to improving the earth, the sea and the sky while also pursuing environmentally friendly operations internally.

“Most nonprofit organizations allow their employees to feel good about the mission and the work that they do,” he said. “When you’re able to double down on that mission as we are internally, the staff appreciate it the most because most of the staff are very passionate about the mission.”

Young, whose passion harks back to his upbringing in an area of New Jersey that lacks resources, is pleased for the opportunity to use his CPA skills to make a difference.

“We do fight to get out and to give back,” he said, “and to help out where we can.”

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