At the age of 24, just two years out of college and with no financial support, Daniel Katz co-founded the Rainforest Alliance. An unlikely journey began that over his next 25 years found Katz in remote, third world villages as well as the board rooms of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations.
The founding of the Rainforest Alliance in 1986 not only changed Katz’s life, but it began a new chapter in American environmental awareness, in time sparking a multi-billion dollar industry aligning the goals of corporations and activists to conserve and better manage tropical forests around the world.
Growing an organization: The Rainforest Alliance
Where Daniel Katz grew up, people didn’t think a lot about nature, let alone tropical rainforests. So how did a kid from inner city Cincinnati end up starting one of the most influential conservation organizations in the world?
Katz learned about rainforests when he was just out of college, working as a specialist on China for a Wall Street law firm. With no intention of starting his own conservation organization, he organized a small group of like-minded citizens who wanted to “give voice to the endangered plants and people of tropical forests.” Katz hoped to team up with an organization that was already established, but when he couldn’t find one with a mission similar to the one he envisioned, the Rainforest Alliance was born.
Six months after incorporating the Rainforest Alliance in April 1987, Katz organized the world’s first major rainforest conference. With a roster of 50 experts and 700 people in attendance, the gathering prompted The New York Times’ first feature story on rainforest devastation and set the Rainforest Alliance on its path.
Katz’s message to young leaders of NGOs and entrepreneurs: “if I can do it, anyone can.”
The Emerging Middle
When Katz founded the Rainforest Alliance, he was hard pressed to find companies that would even take his calls. But over the past 25 years, a drastic and inspiring shift has occurred. Today, not only do businesses answer their phones, but they are often the ones who start the conversation. How did this evolution take place and where is it leading us?
According to Katz, a new breed of organizations, both profit and not for profit, is rewriting old perceptions. The past 30 years have brought about a revolution in consumer and citizen demand for increasing levels of transparency, authenticity and accountability. As a result, many for- and non-profits have established new levels of trust and cooperation, realizing that bridge building – not burning – is a path to meaningful change (and healthier for the bottom line). In the process, the two sides have grown closer together.
Katz identifies an “Emerging Middle” – a set of practices, attitudes, and behaviors that both businesses and non-profits are adopting to succeed in a rapidly changing environment that places a premium on reputation, global footprint, and social impact.
Katz explains what each side has to learn from the other, which organizations and practices exemplify the Emerging Middle, and what the consequences of ignoring the new Emerging Middle could mean for an organization and, more importantly, for the planet.
Green Scene Gone Wild
Yet along with the emerging middle has come an unprecedented surge in products, services and advertisements now using terms like “green,” “organic,” “natural,” and “sustainable,” how in the world is a consumer expected to understand and trust these claims? Over 90% of all product advertisements exhibit some sort of “greenwashing,” a misleading practice so rampant today that the Federal Trade Commission is now investigating whether to develop its own set of standards for green products.
So what’s real and what isn’t? How do “consumers” and communities reclaim what it means to be sincerely and authentically green? According to Katz, when green marketing budgets outpace green research budgets, it’s time for a reboot – one that’s centered on real value and impact.
Council for 16,000
In his role at The Overbrook Foundation, Katz spends a lot of time asking, “What’s next?”
Earth Day was first celebrated 40 years ago in 1970. The UN’s Brundtland Commission defined and established sustainability as an official goal in 1987. The conservation community has come a long way since these milestones, but assessing how much we’ve evolved is only half the battle. According to Katz, it is time to set new goals and new milestones. It’s time to take the long-term view and ask, “Where do we want to be in the next 40 years?”
At The Overbrook Foundation, Katz is now spearheading an initiative to look at what leaders from both major corporations and non-profit organizations are thinking about the future of conservation. With such great potential but with so little time left to turn back the most alarming trends, businesses and NGOs need to ensure their long-term plans, actions and goals have real, lasting value. With the Council for 16,000 initiative, Katz aims to collaborate with leaders on both sides of the fence, replacing superfluous “quick fixes” with solid, enduring solutions.
About Daniel Katz
Daniel R. Katz is the Senior Program Director at The Overbrook Foundation, where he leads environmental giving in the areas of biodiversity conservation, sustainability and climate change. He is the Board Chair and former Executive Director of the Rainforest Alliance, an organization he co-founded in 1986. Under Katz’s leadership, the Rainforest Alliance became the first nonprofit organization to create a global program to monitor, evaluate, certify and audit forests and certain agricultural products. Katz and the Alliance ushered in what is one of the most successful conservation strategies in the past fifty years, with The Rainforest Alliance certification mark is now found on thousands of products.
Instrumental in the formation of the recent conservation-minded Internet startup CatalogChoice.org, Katz has been described by PBS’s Bill Moyers as the “Dr. Phil of catalog clutter” and “the maven of the overstuffed mailbox.” He has been featured in numerous print and live media over the years, including People Magazine, New York Magazine, and The Bill Moyers Journal.
A former Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellow, Katz has served on the boards of numerous organizations including the Green Sports Alliance, the Nespresso Sustainability Advisory board, the Catalog Choice Foundation, the Gibson Guitar Foundation, Grist, People for the American Way, and others. He is the editor of two books: Why Freedom Matters: The Spirit of the Declaration of Independence in Prose, Poetry and Song (2003, Workman) and Tales from the Jungle: A Rainforest Reader (1995, Crown).
Katz earned his M.B.A. at the Stern School of Business, New York University, where he is an Adjunct Professor, and a B.A. from Ohio State University. He studied at the Central China University of Science and Technology (Hubei, PRC).
He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.