Moving from Latin America to Southeast Alaska involves a drastic change in culture, language, and climate. For Andrew Thoms, leaving Latin America in 2006 to take the helm of Sitka Conservation Society was also a major job transition. Thoms was hired to help Sitka Conservation Society, then a three-person organization, work with the Sitka community to develop a positive and sustainable vision for the future of the Tongass National Forest that surrounds it. In his previous job, Thoms had helped rural communities near protected areas figure out how to thrive. But, as Thoms acknowledges, “I had no experience being an executive director, managing staff, or overseeing the administrative responsibilities of a growing non-profit.”
Wilburforce Foundation, a funder of Sitka Conservation Society, recognized Thoms’ passion and talent, but thought he might appreciate a leadership program offered by Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), another Wilburforce-funded grantee. And so, soon after Thoms took the helm of Sitka Conservation Society, he immersed himself in TREC’s “Senior Leadership Program,” a year-long series of in-person training and regular coaching for executive directors and other leaders at Wilburforce-funded organizations. Wilburforce invests in TREC to ensure that its grantees have the leaders and systems they need — from fundraising to board capacity to strategic planning — to thrive.
Leading to Create Change
Thoms’ initial goal for Sitka Conservation Society was to identify community partners with whom his organization could develop consensus about Sitka’s economic future. Sitka, the fourth largest municipality in Alaska, is a remote island community on the outer Pacific coast of Alaska with a population of 8,500 people. The Tongass National Forest is critically important to the community; a healthy forest is the basis of the area’s economy and culture. Salmon, which spawn in the rivers and streams of the Tongass, are responsible for over 20% of the direct jobs in Sitka, and commercial fishing, tourism/visitor services, subsistence, and sport fishing all contribute to the area’s economy and culture.
Photo: Sitka Conservation Society
“Without TREC’s leadership program and subsequent support, I don’t think I would have survived in this job.”
Working with groups such as the Sitka Economic Development Association and City and Borough Government, Sitka Conservation Community saw momentum growing around a vision for the community that many, including Sitka Conservation Society, could not only support, but champion. The goal was to bring people together, get past divisive arguments about whether the Tongass should or could remain a supplier of old growth timber, and craft a positive plan for a secure economy and holistic management of the National Forest. But it wasn’t easy going for Andrew, or his organization.
“Without TREC’s leadership program and subsequent support, I don’t think I would have survived in this job,” shares Thoms. “I came from a very different perspective and background. After arriving here, I experienced a clash between what I thought was possible in Sitka and how others working on Alaska conservation saw the issues and possible strategies. TREC’s Senior Leadership Program gave me new skills to lead my organization and stay true to my vision. Plus, through TREC, I met leaders from across the country who were able to act as a supportive peer group as I was getting established in my new role at Sitka Conservation Society.”
Andrew is just one of about 225 Wilburforce leaders TREC works with every year. TREC provides training for directors as well as junior staff moving up the career ladder. Their offerings include direct skills-building, like facilitation, negotiations, and fundraising programs, and support for personal resilience. Said Thoms, “The pressure on the director of a conservation organization can be huge—from raising money and setting strategy, to wrestling with global issues like climate change. My TREC training helps me get up in the morning and stay optimistic and focused on the work at hand.” Over the years, Thoms has encouraged his staff to participate in TREC programs, and in turn reports having seen his staff’s self-awareness grow, their leadership skills improve, and an increased ability to work collaboratively with community partners in Sitka.
Today, Sitka Conservation Society has six full-time staff. Most recently, Thoms helped bring together consensus recommendations by a diverse array of stakeholders — from the State of Alaska, to conservationists, to timber interests — for the future management of the Tongass. Also, Thoms and his staff have built bridges with community leaders and throughout the State on issues ranging from climate change to the value of serving local fish in school lunches. “Sitka is a great place to live and work — and this community is working hard together to keep it that way,” concludes Thoms. “I’m proud Sitka Conservation Society is an essential part of the dialogue about Sitka and the value of a healthy, restored, well-managed Tongass National Forest.”