Roger Ullman, Linden Trust for Conservation

TITLE: Executive Director

FUNDING AREAS: Conservation

CONTACT: rullman@lindentrust.org

IP TAKE: Ullman is a banker turned environmentalist, and his specialty is using economic forces and business influence to make a difference. Perfect for Linden’s market-based approach to funding. 

PROFILE: Roger Ullman was at the top of his game, and well on his way to a long career as an ultra-wealthy investment banker. In his early 40s, he had worked nearly two decades on Wall Street. He was managing director at Merrill Lynch and spent years as a banker in the developing world, heading up mergers and acquisitions in Latin America. And then he quit.  

In 2002, he left Wall Street and decided he wanted to work in environmental issues. Today, he is the executive director of the Linden Trust for Conservation, where he oversees the philanthropic work of former Goldman Sachs partner Larry Linden, both making grants and providing financial advising for large-scale conservation projects. 

It’s a solid fit, but it didn’t come to him right away. When Ullman left Merrill Lynch, he was a banking guy. He had a Harvard MBA, and aside from spending a lot of time in the outdoors growing up in California, he didn’t know a lot about environmental work or public policy. So he started researching environmental nonprofits, seeking advice from staff at the NRDC.

His first big step into his new field came after watching a talk by Bob Epstein, who had co-founded Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a coalition of business leaders working to support policy beneficial to both the environment and business. It gripped Ullman and on the spot he volunteered to be a chapter leader for E2 in New York. 

''My credo is that economic progress and environmental progress are desirable, possible and not mutually exclusive,'' he told the New York Times, shortly after getting involved with the group.

E2 is a loose affiliation of more than 850 businesspeople who sign up and receive guidance from the NRDC to support environmental policy in a variety of ways, whether signing petitions or interacting directly with policymakers. For example, members of E2 recently signed a letter in opposition to a House bill that sought to undermine stricter EPA rules on carbon emissions. Membership dues are at least $1,000, and go toward the NRDC.

At the same time that Ullman became involved with E2, he started working for the Rainforest Alliance, as director of strategic business development. He hooked up with the Alliance in 2002, building partnerships in the coffee industry in support of sustainable agriculture. He was also managing director of the organization’s SmartWood program, a forestry certification program that encourages market-driven management of forests.

Ullman also played a role in the creation of the New Resource Bank in 2005, set up in San Francisco to be a “green bank,” investing in sustainable businesses. 

Then in 2006, Ullman was hired as the first executive director of the Linden Trust for Conservation. The Trust was formerly called the Lawrence and Dana Linden Family Foundation, but rebranded and adopted its current strategy in 2005. The foundation was launched by Larry Linden, who was one of the original shareholders in Goldman Sachs when the company went public in 1999. This made him a very rich man, and he has decided to channel the bulk of his philanthropy into conservation.

The Linden Trust is a unique funder in a way that fits nicely with Ullman’s background. They have an MBA attitude toward conservation projects, channeling financing savvy to create sustainable mechanisms for large-scale land protection and/or carbon reduction. The Trust makes grants, but only around $2 million a year. Where they really shine is through brokering deals in making connections. One recent triumph for the foundation was helping secure a deal with WWF of $215 million from a variety of large foundations, governments and individuals to protect about 150 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon. 

The Linden Trust has a handful of key priorities, and tends to not get involved in too many programs. For example, they support work on Reductions in Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), and efforts to establish a cap and trade system for nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Grantees include big fish like the WWF and Resources for the Future, but smaller groups receive grants as well, usually in coordination with its main projects.

Market-based environmentalism often catches flack as greenwashing, but Ullman and the Linden Trust are definitely walking the walk. He is fully devoted to the idea that the business world can have a unique impact in protecting environmental resources. As Ullman once put it:

“Although some nonprofits view businesspeople merely as a source of donations, the best ones will recognize the value of engaging you, and know how to do it efficiently. That makes it a win-win for everybody.”