“All careers are a consequence of contingency and unexpected outcomes” says Steve McCormick, reflecting on his own career path. Though conservation is a field he always wanted to be in, he admits he had no real qualifications – as a recent law school graduate – for his first job at The Nature Conservancy. Nor had he any plans to join a nonprofit. Yet he eventually led that organization into becoming a global force for conservation, operating in 30 countries and every U.S. state. Then, in 2000 he took a 180-degree turn to head the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation – the philanthropy of Intel founder Gordon Moore and his wife – suddenly granting money to organizations rather than scrambling for it.
Another twist has been the “extraordinary transformation” of his views about conservation. The old premise that conservation is about “taking resources away from people” has switched to “ensuring human well-being is conserved.” For instance, sustainability of local timbering is now the byword for maintaining the Amazon Basin rainforests -- not strict protection of trees. McCormick has embraced this shift as a foundation leader, where now he has the freedom to take big risks on ideas that could be “game changers” but may have a small chance of succeeding.
In spite of these changes, McCormick remembers where he came from, urging foundations to consider the perspective of their grantees. As important is acting in ways that are consistent with the beliefs of the foundation’s donors, says McCormick. For the Moore Foundation, that means never wavering from the belief that “it’s not the amount of money that makes the difference,” but how the money is used.