Four Theories on Why Steve McCormick Is Leaving the Moore Foundation

Why did one of the top environmental leaders in the country resign yesterday from one of the top environmental grantmaking foundations in the world? That's what people are wondering after Steve McCormick stepped down suddenly from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Theories are circulating, but hard answers are scarce so far.

Let's start by looking at the official explanation and then jump from there into pure speculation, albeit with a few hyperlinks to show that we're not totally grasping at straws. 

The Official Explanation

Genny Biggs, GBMF's media person, very kindly emailed me the statements by Gordon Moore and Steven McCormick about his exit (which I've tacked to the end of this piece) and also called to say more about what's going on. As she tells it, there's no titillating backstory or great drama here. McCormick is a big thinker who's ready to move on to other challenges and, anyway, doesn't think that foundation presidents should stay in their jobs forever (by contrast to some other top funders, one of whom has literally held his post since the Ford years).

Once McCormick made the decision to leave, he didn't see much point in dragging things out. Hence, his resignation, effective immediately. And while it's true that he's stepping down abruptly, he's not actually heading out the door right away. He's going to stick around as a consultant and senior advisor to the foundation, working on different projects and helping with the transition. He will still have an office at the foundation's headquarters in Palo Alto. 

All that sounds plausible to me. The Moore Foundation is a pretty congenial place from what I can tell, and not a likely venue for internal blood feuds.

But the official explanation still raises the question: Why, exactly, did McCormick want to move on after only six years in one of the most powerful jobs an environmentalist could ever dream of having? What's not to like about spending a billionaire's fortune to save the planet? Especially if you also got paid over $600,000 a year?

So let's get on to the fun part—and speculate away. We'll start with the most interesting possible explanation of why McCormick left GBMF and then navel gaze from there. 

1. He Grew Too Radical 

If you want to read what may be McCormick's real resignation spiel, check out an interview he gave to Huffington Post in October. There, McCormick said that conservation, which is where GBMF focuses its environmental funding, has basically been a failure. "Extinction rates have actually increased in the 30 years I've worked in conservation," McCormick said. As a result, McCormick sees the need for bigger thinking: "While I am passionate about the importance of creating protected areas, I'm convinced that the only way we will secure conservation at a globally meaningful scale is to work on system change, especially in market systems by reflecting the true costs of natural capital in its various forms."

Translation: "I like what I'm doing in my day job, but it's not actually solving the real problem, which is capitalism." Yikes! I wonder what Gordon Moore, a successful capitalist who's spent a fortune on conservation, thought of this critique from the guy in charge of his giving? Who knows, maybe Moore agrees with McCormick. But GBMF is way deep into its work protecting the Amazon, marine systems, wild salmon, and more. One could imagine the foundation funding the growing field of sustainable economics, but to do that in a big way would have meant shifting away from long-term areas of investment. It'd be interesting to know whether McCormick made that proposal, perhaps without getting very far. Whatever the case, when McCormick said, "I am ready to take on a new challenge," maybe he was talking about that systemic change he sees as so urgently needed. 

2. He Got Bored

Being a foundation president is not for everyone. As one former foundation head said to me: "All day, you watch other people's big projects go rolling by on the conveyor belt, but they're not your projects." A grantmaking role can be frustrating for an achiever, and more so if that person isn't even engaged in direct grantmaking and just overseeing the grantmakers. And McCormick was definitely an achiever in his last job, leading the giant Nature Conservancy, which wheels and deals to protect vast swaths of land around the world. He also turned that organization upside down with internal changes. Exciting stuff, and, in contrast, maybe moving money out the door for living donors got old fast. Also, McCormick is hitting that age in life where if he wants a major third act—which apparently he does—he needs to get moving. 

3. He Was Done

A big foundation is like the proverbial super tanker—it takes a long time to turn and then the direction is set for a while. McCormick did some heavy lifting to turn GBMF in new directions during his six years at the foundation, revamping its science and environmental work and creating the Patient Care Program. At some point, McCormick may have just felt that he was finished with all the important and interesting work, that the direction of grantmaking was set for a while, and he wasn't all that interested in sticking around to be an implementer. All the more so if he was getting fired up by some new challenge, like adapting capitalism to ecological limits, that he couldn't tackle at GBMF. 

4. He Was Frustrated

The thing to never forget about the Moore Foundation is that it's still really a family foundation, and its president must contend with living donors—and the kids of those donors. Gordon Moore is chair of the board, and his two sons, Kenneth and Steven, sit on the board as do their wives. That's five family members in total, or nearly half the board—people who may or may not always agree on what the foundation, and its president, should be doing. Sounds like fun, right? Betty Moore isn't on the board any longer, but was reportedly the family member most invested in creating the Patient Care Program. That's the way things can go at foundations with living donors: A donor wants something done and the president has to execute it. It's their money, after all.

Also, did a lifelong environmentalist like McCormick enjoy overseeing GBMF's big initiatives on healthcare and science, as well as its significant local Bay Area giving? Maybe worrying about things like that huge and complicated telescope construction project in Hawaii was a big drag—or at least felt like a diversion for McCormick from his life's work. 

Okay, that's what I got, people. Anyone with theories of their own should chime in below. Also see my related post:

Should Enviornment Groups Worry About the New President of the Moore Foundation?

This post looks at who Paul Gray is, the interim president of GBMF. One thing he's not is an environmentalist who's got the jitters about capitalism. 

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Below are the official statements:

Steve McCormick to step down after six years of high-impact, visionary leadership

After six years as president of the foundation, Steve McCormick has made a decision to resign. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Steve and appreciate the impact our foundation has had under his leadership. He’s been a champion for our vision and helped us form bold ideas that will continue to make an impact.

Steve led exploration of new directions for environmental conservation reflected in the set of pilot projects launched last year. He helped forge and launch new program frameworks and initiatives, such as Patient Care and EPiQS. Steve has also been a supporter of our leadership and staff in proposing new ideas that we should take on, like was done withData-Driven Discovery. Additionally, Steve has been an important voice for the foundation in advocating for public-private collaborations to continue innovation. I am confident that his focus and dedication will serve him well as he moves on.

Paul Gray has been appointed by the board of trustees to serve as the foundation’s interim president. Paul has served as a trustee for many years and last year he became vice chair of the board. He will very capably lead our foundation during our search for a new president. Steve will continue to work with us serving as a senior advisor in a consulting capacity.

—Gordon Moore

“Serving as president and helping to advance the Moores’ vision for the foundation has been an honor and a tremendous opportunity. My goal in coming to the Foundation was to position it for the future. Each of our three programs now has a new, aspirational strategic focus, which we believe can effect transformational change. I think it would be tempting for anyone to stay in this position longer, but I’m a big believer in the need for any organization to look for fresh perspectives. And I am ready to take on a new challenge. I know the foundation will continue to build on the achievements of its grantees and staff, across all of the foundation’s programs. And I'm looking forward to playing an advisory role.”

—Steve McCormick