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Reflections from Five Years on the USGBC Board

10/10/2006

By Alex Wilson

My second term on the board of directors of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) ended at the beginning of 2006. Now, a few months later, I’m able to reflect on my experiences with the organization during a period of rapid and exciting growth. When I began my first term on the board in 2000, the Council had a staff of about five, an annual budget of about a million dollars, and around 500 companies and organizations as members. By the time I left the board, the staff roster had grown to over 60, the budget was around $20 million, and there were more than 6,000 members.

Reflections from Five Years on the USGBC Board
Photo: Alex Wilson
Pictured is a gathering of the USGBC board at a meeting at the Georgia Institute of Technology in November 2005.
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But the growth I witnessed in the Council was not just in size. We matured as an organization as we faced challenges. There were rough periods for the organization and lots of thorny issues—growing pains—that the board spent countless hours struggling over during board meetings that flowed, amoeba-like, into virtually all scheduled breaks and meals. Emotions sometimes ran hot, voices were occasionally raised in frustration, and moderators had to muster tremendous strength and stamina to keep discussions flowing and productive. We grew, but as we grew we maintained our philosophical roots—our soul, if you will.

The most challenging issue we continuously addressed as a board was the question of whether trade associations should be able to join the Council. There were two good sides to this debate and, at different times, I found myself on alternate sides, but ultimately agreeing with other board members that trade associations should be included.

While it was a wise decision during the Council’s early years to keep trade associations—and their full-time lobbyists—out of the organization, by the time the organization had grown to 5,000 members, the potential for a relatively small number of trade association voices to water down environmentally progressive positions had been greatly diminished. And by this time, the claims that the Council was a closed organization and was unwilling to hear all sides of an issue were interfering with the organization’s broader mission.

One year after that decision to permit trade associations to join, many have. More than 35 trade associations, including several that have often been at odds with Council programs and policies, are represented in the Council membership. In fact, the USGBC board elections that closed on September 30, 2006, may usher in a new period of trade association influence.

The board election slate included high-level representatives from the Carpet and Rug Institute, the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association, and the American Forest & Paper Association. These individuals are running in the Professional Societies and Trade Associations category, along with several candidates representing professional associations. Because recent USGBC board elections have had very low turnout, active campaigning by a candidate supported by special interests could sway the results fairly easily.

As the USGBC continues to grow in size and influence, it is critical that it stay true to its mission. I am optimistic that it will. One of my most vivid memories of my tenure on the board was from one of my last meetings. We were assembled informally for an after-dinner discussion in the living room of a stately retreat center in upstate New York where we organized summer meetings for two consecutive years.

Board vice-chair Sandy Wiggins led a discussion of how we would like the future to remember the role of the Council. There were lots of great points about healthier school children and carbon-neutral buildings, but the assembled board members went much deeper with their comments. Board member David Eisenberg, I recall, said that he’d like future historians to look back at the Council as having provided a model for other groups to bring about paradigm shifts in their respective segments of the economy and of society—just as the Council is doing in the building field. What a great image.

One of my last actions connected with the board was an initiative that grew out of some of these far-reaching discussions. The board decided at its January 2006 meeting to develop guiding principles for the organization—a concise document that would guide decision-making on challenging issues that face the Council. A small task force of current and past board members crafted the USGBC Guiding Principles, which were approved by the board in May 2006 and are today being used across the organization.

It was a remarkable five years on a board made up of some of the most dedicated, inquisitive, and wise individuals I’ve had the privilege of knowing. While I won’t mind reclaiming some of my weekends and traveling less, I will sorely miss the vibrant discussions, heated debates, and late-night conversations that marked those years on the Council board.

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