The American Birding Association has not had a permanent leader since November 2021. The Board of Directors has been searching for a candidate since that time, but it does not appear to have found one.

This is not surprising, as the next Executive Director will take the helm of an organization that is in debt, experiencing a long-term revenue decline, and regularly runs operating deficits. The ABA’s own accountants question whether it can continue as a going concern. Membership numbers appear stagnant. (In January 2022, the ABA stated that it had nearly 13,000 members.)

These facts make it a challenging position to fill.

In March 2022, months after the position opened, it was posted to the ABA website (and elsewhere). It reads, in part:

The ABA is looking for its next Executive Director (ED) to lead the staff, the Board, and volunteers into its next stage of growth. With a new strategic plan in place, the ED will be responsible for articulating a shared vision, meeting annual financial budget of about $1.8M, overseeing the delivery of all of ABA’s products and programs, and leading the organization as its public spokesperson.

This tells us that the ABA has a “new” strategic plan “in place,” though it is not public. Thus, the posting seeks a new ED to implement a plan that was created without input from that person, and without consultation from membership and other birders. The “shared vision” evidently refers to the undisclosed vision of the Board alone, without input from stakeholders.

The posting seeks someone to oversee a budget of “about $1.8M,” but the ABA has not had either revenues or expenditures of more than $1.5M since 2013. Average annual revenues for the last five years have been approximately $1.3M, and revenue in 2020 was less than $1.1M. If the next ED ends up managing a $1.8M budget, that will be a significant achievement.

The posting has a long list of qualifications for the “ideal candidate,” including public speaking, domestic and international travel, fundraising, commitment to diversity, and staff management experience. Speaking Spanish is “highly preferred.” The position pays $95,000–$125,000, and it is “almost entirely remote.”

I have no experience in filling high-level positions for non-profits, but it seems to me that the Board should be seeking someone to develop a new strategic plan in consultation with the Board, membership, and other stakeholders, with a budget that reflects the fiscal reality of the organization. Moreover, given the manifest financial challenges, the focus should be on one key criteria: “success and accountability for managing goal setting and achieving… financial goals.”

The ABA has numerous strengths, including being the only North American birding organization, Birding magazine and other ABA publications (and their historical content), the ABA Podcast, the website and an established social media presence. It has about 13,000 members, a 50-year history, and a cool logo.

What the ABA does not have is financial discipline or an articulated mission that engages birders, 98% of which are not ABA members. Ultimately, those issues are the responsibility of the Board. The ABA Bylaws state: “The direction, policies, management and budgets of the Association shall be established by its board of directors and executed by its officers and employees.”

However, the Board appears to want to address these issues in secret, without any communications to or input from membership or the birding community. Moreover, financial problems are buried in tax forms and members are not otherwise informed. For example, although the ABA has been on the brink of financial collapse for years, it continues to seek donations from members without ever mentioning that fact.

Although the Board is theoretically accountable to membership, the Board nominates its own members and those nominees are rubber-stamped by the 1% of members who return a proxy form or attend the annual meeting. (In 2020, successful Board candidates received around 130 votes from the approximately 13,000 members.)

There are no annual reports or other communications that might allow members to assess the effectiveness of the Board, let alone an individual Board member, so elections are purely a formality. (Modest suggestion: every Board member should appear on the ABA Podcast at least once per term, i.e., once every three years.)

Until the Board — and the ABA generally — are more transparent and accountable, it may be a challenge for a new ED to be successful.

Written by Jason Crotty
Jason Crotty is a birder, lawyer, and occasional writer currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. A Bay Area native, he started birding while working at a large law firm in San Francisco, but birds less frequently now that there's a kid around, so he writes instead. Jason started at 10,000 Birds with a few guest posts and signed on as a beat writer in March 2017. He is particularly interested in the intersection of law and birding (especially the Endangered Species Act), other bird-related federal litigation, and federal public lands. Jason's writing has also appeared in BirdWatching, Birding, and Birder's Guide, both online and in print.