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Cynthia Lewin has combined her interest in the environment and her legal experience with non-profits to help the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in its fight against global warming. As secretary, senior vice president and general counsel of the NWF, Lewin has activated the federation's lobbying subsidiary, allowing the Reston, Va.-based non-profit to have a bigger legislative presence than it's allowed to as a charity.
Since joining the NWF in early 2006, Lewin has proved to be a true player in the non-profit arena. Among her first orders of business was keeping more legal issues in-house, which ultimately reduced outside legal costs by more than 75 percent. She also negotiated the sale of NWF's catalog division. Most recently, Lewin oversaw the legal aspects of a NWF ad in USA Today calling on Congress to enact federal global warming legislation signed by more than 600 sportsmen's groups.
Today, Lewin is a natural leader for NWF's legal department, but she cut her non-profit teeth during a 10-year stint as general counsel for Volunteers of America (VOA), a national organization that sponsors human service programs. During that time she built a legal department at the 100-year-old non-profit and simplified its complex governance system, which gave the organization room to grow and move forward with its mission.
Q:After 10 years at VOA, how did you wind up at the NWF?
A:The reason I left VOA was really Hurricane Katrina. It was such an incredibly painstaking effort for us to pull together and try to help all of these people who had been displaced. I felt we needed to address the causes of these storms and that global warming was an important cause. I came to NWF because I wanted to work on global warming issues, and this organization focuses on global warming as the key threat to wildlife as well as to humanity. I knew that the general counsel at the NWF had left, so I went to them.
Q:Besides global warming, what are other major issues the NWF focuses on?
A:We have three strategic drivers under our current strategic plan. One is to confront global warming. The second is to protect and restore habitat for wildlife. And the third is to connect people with nature--which is something not very many other environmental organizations are doing. We publish award-winning children's educational magazines, which is a way for us to raise the next generation of conservationists.
Q:What kind of legal issues do you handle on a day-to-day basis?
A:We do a lot of contract negotiations. We have a number of licensing deals for the National Wildlife Federation name, partnering with corporations like organic wine and organic flowers companies, and with Green Mountain Coffee. We also work with movie companies on movies that have environmental themes, like "Hoot" [a film about a boy who fights to protect endangered owls]. There's a featurette about the NWF on the DVD so we do a lot of intellectual property deals. Also, I do a lot of lobbying, political activity advice and day-to-day advice on what we can and cannot do as a non-profit.
Q:I read about a case the NWF filed against the DOE. Do you encounter many major litigation issues at the NWF?
A:We have practically none in terms of business litigation. One of the really cool things here is that we get involved with environmental litigation. We have about a dozen staff environmental litigators who are able to bring lawsuits, and we have about 25 active environmental lawsuits going on. The DOE case specifically is an exciting one. To confront global warming, part of what we need to do is come up with different kinds of energy sources that emit less carbon, and coal is one of the most carbon-emitting energy sources. We filed suit against the DOE to keep it from promoting coal over other forms of energy production. They're trying to create a mid-Atlantic electric transmission corridor that's going to override all the environmental laws to fast-track siting processes for new coal plants, and we really don't want the coal plants to be built. We aren't comfortable with this new approach of overriding the existing environmental laws and bypassing state processes for how to locate infrastructure and so on. So we're contesting that.
Q:A lot of companies are talking about what they're implementing to become greener. What do you think about these companies' efforts?
A:I think they're fantastic. I love to see them leading by example, and I hope that people economically will find it more worthwhile to do it, as well as find it an important social marketing tool to be able to say they're green. The NWF is trying to do that, too.
Q:What is the NWF doing to reduce its own carbon footprint?
A:We're planning an energy retrofit of our building that will have geothermal elements as well as solar power; we're trying to reduce our commuting; we're buying carbon offsets for our business travel. There is a cost associated with such changes, and it's great that some corporations are finding it worthwhile to absorb that cost to do something that will be beneficial for the environment.
Q:What is the NWF doing to inspire people and companies to take action on global warming?
A:We are trying to reach people of all different ages with our global warming message through our magazines. We have a magazine, National Wildlife, that has about 1 million subscribers--that's a different million subscribers from our children's magazines. We have people writing blogs on environmental issues; we have very active Web sites such as one for hunters and anglers (www.targetglobalwarming.org) where we're trying to reach out to people who may not think of themselves as environmentalists
but who really care about nature, and hunters and anglers certainly fit right into that category.
Q:I heard NWF has partnered with Al Gore. Would you tell me about it?
A:After "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Academy Award, he announced he wanted to train 1,000 people on how to present the PowerPoint presentation he developed explaining his argument for the need to address global warming. The NWF agreed to do that training for him. We worked hand in hand with him, and NWF staffers did the training with him. We trained 1,000 people, and in three months they gave that PowerPoint to more people than he'd been able to give it to in the previous 20 years. And that's been a huge part of our reaching out to all kinds of people in America to make them aware of global warming and try to inspire them to take action in their personal lives. These training programs have been a huge part of what we've done in the past two years that is different from what we've done before, but it's consistent with our focus on education. It kind of sets us apart.
Q:Do you drive a hybrid?
A:No. It's terrible because half the people in this office have one, and they all love them. I just wish my old car, which I kept for 16 years, had lasted one more year until hybrids were available.