Saving the California Condor: A Collective Impact Story
Once upon a long time ago, North America was bursting with animals that were really big. Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths — animals we only know about from their old bones and our good imaginations. The birds were over-sized as well, and when the huge animals died, giant vultures with 20-foot wingspans would swoop down to feast on their carcasses.
And then, they vanished. For reasons scientists still theorize about, most of these large animals went extinct rather quickly. The huge vultures, once plentiful, with all varieties of Eagles, Teratorns, and giant condors, were suddenly hungry. Their food sources gone, the giant vultures soon followed the animals into mass extinction.
Except one: The California Condor.
The California Condor is the sole surviving member of the Gymnogyps genus, a castaway from the Pleistocene epoch. It’s the largest flying bird in North America. If you see one sitting in a tree, you might remark that it is the ugliest bird you’ve ever seen. But when you see it flying, unfettered in the open sky, you’ll undoubtedly think it is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever witness. It has a wingspan of nearly ten feet and can soar for miles without a single flap.
Condors survived over the ages because they found new food sources, such as beached whales and dead cows, and didn’t have enemies. Until they did: people. Electric power lines, lead poisoning (bullets in carcasses), habitat destruction, egg collecting, DDT poisoning, and poaching led to the condors’ decline. A famous essay penned by Loye Miller declared that condors were incompatible with people, saying they had “one wing in the grave” (37).
The California Condor Recovery Program continues today, over 25 years since its inception. As of July 2011, there are 399 condors known to be living, including 188 in the wild, in California, Arizona, and Mexico. The hard work and challenges go on, but condors are back in the wild, flying free.
The condor recovery effort is my favorite example of collective impact: organizations and individuals joining together, across sectors, to coordinate and direct their efforts toward large-scale change. From the beginning, many people were keenly aware of the fact that no one organization, not even the U.S. government, could single-handedly save the condor. It required coordinated participation from many organizations. There were teams of scientists at each of the zoos, teams at each of the many government agencies, and more teams at the environmental organizations. The hundreds of people involved, from tens of organizations, across numerous activities and aspects of the effort, is extraordinary.
And all along the way, there were key players, not in stature or title, but in their commitment to bringing the diverse views and interests together toward a common goal.
The first, perhaps, was Sanford “Sandy” Wilbur, who was hired to run the California Condor Recovery Program in 1969. Wilbur considered the post “a very special trust,” (123) and set up a partnership model that “emphasized cooperation, integrity, and credibility, that way we could set some standards for other preservation efforts” (124).
My uncle, Arthur Risser, was another. An ornithologist and manager at the San Diego Zoo, he was involved in the conservation effort for many years and was a proponent of captive breeding. When he passed away in 2008, he was remembered as a leader in the effort who worked to unite differing viewpoints and factions. His colleague Bill Toone, who headed the San Diego captive breeding program, gave a moving example from a California Department of Fish and Game hearing.
“It was a packed hearing and all these people were bringing up challenges (to the proposal). Art Risser never moved, and he never raised his hand — even when they mentioned him by name. I wondered 'Why doesn't he defend it,'” Toone said. “He waited until about a minute before the end of the hearing, and he answered every point and argument. In just a couple of sentences, he addressed all the issues and concerns in a beautiful way,” he said. “He got the last and very eloquent word, not because he wanted to get the last word but because he wanted to formulate concise answers that would address all the concerns."
The Grand Canyon Condor reintroduction component of the program is, by itself, a testament to the power of listening. When the reintroduction program was unveiled, it was met with intense resistance from the area’s residents, many of whom had long resented government wildlife protection programs. Enter Robert Mesta, the biologist who initially managed the program. In describing Mesta’s approach, one administrator noted that Mesta was effective because he was “an official who listened when other people talked, and for his ability to keep small fights from turning into big ones” (164). In the beginning, he and his colleagues received hate mail and, sometimes, direct threats. Public resistance was so forceful that the program was suspended. Subsequently, Mesta and his colleagues began to tour the area, listening and talking to people individually about their concerns and the program. “They felt like their complaints had been ignored for years, and I think they had a point.” said Mesta (168). Ultimately, the reintroduction program survived, and when the first birds were released into the wild, many of the initial opponents were present.
Shawn Farry, the lead biologist for the Arizona reintroduction program, continued this conciliatory approach when his teammates came to work with the Condors. He personally got to know the residents, including the ranchers, miners, and other locals who initially opposed the program.
“We didn’t have many enemies in the end,” Farry said (173). Case in point: when one of the condors was shot and killed, the ranchers and miners in Arizona that had initially opposed the reintroduction of the condor came together and put up a reward to find the killer.
These anecdotes are a small fraction, to be sure, of the many stories where people transcended lines of interest and organization and worked together. There are many more — stories of individuals and groups successfully working together by demonstrating empathy and respect.
So, what about all the egos, politics, and conflicts? As Kania and Kramer point out in their excellent article on collective impact, success isn’t lack of conflict or high marks on group harmony. Instead, success is measured in steps toward a goal, in the distance covered, and the willingness to keep moving. There are twenty-fold more condors today than in 1987. This is success. And twenty-five years later, the recovery program still includes virtually all of the original partner organizations and groups, as well as many new ones. Truly, collective impact is as awe-inspiring as a huge bird with a 10-foot wingspan flying over the Grand Canyon.
This type of collective approach is how we should approach every large-scale social problem. Let’s kick our habit of starting new organizations and, instead, tie our individual programs and services together toward something bigger. Let’s revere individual accomplishments a little less and start heralding the work of groups a little more — like the Lodestar Foundation does when it awards the Collaboration Prize. Let’s learn to collaborate better and commit to doing it more.
On our last trip to San Diego, my daughter and I took a trip to the Natural History Museum. We walked through an exhibit of life-sized models of animals and birds, many of them Pleistocene megafauna like the giant sloths and saber-toothed tigers, long-gone from the Earth. And with them, of course, was the California Condor.
“This bird is huge!” she said. “Is it extinct?”
“No,” I said, “this is the one Uncle Art and a lot of people have worked very hard to save.”
She looked at it quizzically. “It is sooooo big! Can it fly?” she asked.
It was a good question. It’s hard to believe that something that big and cumbersome could actually fly. It’s like believing that 30 organizations and hundreds of people could actually work together and accomplish something.
“It not only flies,” I said. “It soars.”
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Stephanie La Loggia is the Manager of Knowledge Resources for the ASU Lodestar Center. Some of her past research projects include the Nonprofit Compensation & Benefits Report and Arizona Giving & Volunteering publications. Stephanie teaches undergraduate courses in the Nonprofit Leadership and Management program, and she has also been a youth summer camp director for over 20 years.
^  Nielsen, John. Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird. Harper Collins Publishers, New York. 2006.
^  "Obituary: Art Risser; zoo manager played key role in conservation programs." Blanca Gonzalez, San Diego Union-Tribune. January 2, 2009.