Championing Conservation Innovation in the Federal Government

Kari Cohen, Director of Conservation Innovations at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services.

Interviewed by Quantified Ventures’ CEO Eric Letsinger.


Kari Cohen is the Director of the Conservation Innovations Team at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He’s been a successful champion for innovation within one of the largest federal bureaucracies on the planet. I’ve watched him thrive where others have struggled. I’ve watched him get energized by his journey, while others appear exhausted. I’ve watched him bring joy and a wry sense of humor to his innovation agenda, while others become jaded and succumb to inertia. He’s wired perfectly for what he does, which makes me want to understand him more. He swings by our offices on his bike after work for this interview (of course he’s also figured out how to turn his commute into something that gives him juice!) and we settle in…


Eric:  You’ve been doing this federal government thing for awhile.  How’d you get started?

Kari: No one goes to Ft. Lauderdale to be born…people go there to die…not me. I’ve been doing a lot of things backwards, but my Finnish heritage equips me with the ability to not care about what’s normal. I found my thing early…biology and humans. I majored in biology in college and—without a clue as to what I planned on doing afterward—ended up applying to Teach for America. I spent three years teaching biology to 9th graders in Baltimore. I often say that after teaching 14- and 15-year-olds, every job I’ve had since has been a cakewalk. I really loved teaching, but always knew I wanted to go back to school. I went to grad school to get a Master’s in Conservation Biology. I learned early that, while I really loved to work, I also really loved my nights and weekends. That was a big drawback to being a beginning teacher—working nights and weekends in addition to being at school. I had friends in DC doing interesting work within the federal government, and they seemed to have found that balance between work and the rest of life. I’d always been attracted to the concept of public service…there’s value there…nobility even. I applied for a Presidential Management Fellowship position for aspiring public leaders, which landed me at NRCS in 2002 at the bottom rung of a winding career ladder. Since then, I’ve held seven positions in 15 years. It can take a while to find your niche in the federal government. Not that I haven’t enjoyed all of my previous positions—in fact, being able to bounce around, have diverse experiences, work for good bosses, and get to meet lots of people over the years are all reasons I can be reasonably successful with what I’m doing today.


Eric: You sound like a kid in a candy store! Lucky you. Did you know where you wanted to end up?

Kari: No, but I made sure I maxed out every opportunity I was given. From each position, there was always more to learn, more to give, more to take. There are a lot of soil scientist and engineering positions at NRCS, which means there are a lot of jobs that I just can’t do. But I love the mission, I loved that we were this conservation behemoth that no one outside of rural America knew about. I love thinking about how farmers and food and conservation all tie together. So I tried to find a way to bring value. I looked for puzzles that were interesting to me and felt worth solving. It’s one of the great things about working for the federal government…most people should be able to find those two things if they keep looking. The trick is to avoid getting stuck or frustrated along the way. Everything after my first job took me closer and closer to the things I really care about. Along the way, I got to be the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Coordinator; it was phenomenal to get to focus on one area, one watershed, and one economy. I did a stint in legislative affairs where I got a crash course on the legislative process. My Dad had been a lawyer, so this interested me. I gathered lots of experiences, perspectives, “knowledge pieces,” bosses, and peers along the way. We are the composites of our histories and pasts, right? I hope so, cause I enjoyed mine.


Eric: What did you find out about yourself along the way?

Kari: Well, 15 years with one organization has its pluses and minuses. On the minus side, you can start to feel a little stifled and maybe your eyes start wandering to a job surveying walruses in Alaska. On the plus side, I’ve ended up with a set of robust, DC-centric skills…I can write very coherent emails. I am also pretty good at figuring out how to get stuff done—and not just within this labyrinth that is the federal system; I can occasionally innovate within it. I can help others to advance their innovations, from idea to implementation…it’s possible here…it’s very possible here. I’ve learned to deeply value working with partners, both within and outside of the NRCS. I found out that ideas are worth pursuing—mine and others’. I’ve also learned that not all of my ideas are  good ones! And the ones that are good get better when I have to fight for them through ten layers of management. To me, failing is just a part of the process of getting it right. The longer I stay within the federal government, the more value I seem to bring to our core mission. So, I keep staying.


Eric: Why an innovation agenda?

Kari: Each year, NRCS disburses $3 billion in Farm Bill conservation funding to private landowners and communities. We’ve been doing that for a long time…all good stuff. But we’re not going to be able to solve our intractable natural resource challenges through our effort alone. We’re only touching about 20% of the landowners that way, so we’re making a good dent—and lots of others are doing good work and lots of landowners do good conservation on their own—but you still have lots and lots of private land acreage that isn’t being managed according to good conservation principles. NRCS’s own analysis shows that. We need to expand the universe of financial and technical resources available to landowners. We need to make conservation easier and cheaper for landowners, to make producing water quality as important and fundamental as producing corn or wheat or strawberries. We need to find ways to integrate conservation into existing financial institutions. That’s why we’re supporting efforts like Quantified Ventures’ Ag Environmental Impact Bond projects. We see your model as a new arrow in the quiver of conservation approaches. Your impact bond model pays farmers to drive environmental value that benefits taxpayers on multiple levels—better health and environmental outcomes—and at a reduced cost. We need new innovations like that to make their way onto the playing field. That’s what gets me up in the morning. For me it’s all about finding ways to grow the number of people and institutions that extend NRCS’ mission and get more leverage, more activity, and more goodness. Thankfully, we’ve had some forward-thinking leaders at NRCS that have really led the way on innovation in conservation. We fund innovation pilots to let promising ideas bloom—to bring more resources to the table to get at some of these bigger issues. That’s what we’re all about. We don’t bat a thousand…no one does in the innovation field, but we’re learning faster by being in the innovation game.


Eric: How do you attract new people and institutions to your ballgame? Specifically, those who might not think of the federal government as a true partner in innovation?

Kari: I can only speak for myself, but I try to be out there…where work is getting done, where ideas are being considered. I try to be present. I try to be both collegial and provocative. I try to demonstrate that we’re open for business, we’re open to new ideas, and we want to learn from and with our partners. Hey, we’re the federal government, so I try to be candid about our limitations, but I also try to communicate that we understand that failure will be a part of the innovation journey.  


Eric: Is that community of partners growing?

Kari: It is. Simply put, there wasn’t a well-organized community around conservation finance.  Now there is one and we’re knee deep in it with our pants rolled up.


Eric: How did you hear about Pay For Success?

Kari: A few years ago, NRCS funded a couple of pay for performance projects, including a sage-grouse project in Nevada. I heard about this interagency PFS working group so I went to a meeting and noticed that I was the only one there from the environmental side of the government…everyone else was from a social service agency. Then I heard about the first environmental Pay For Success project that Quantified Ventures did with DC Water and it just seemed like the model could potentially work in an agricultural context. When I started at NRCS, we were reporting on riparian buffers completed, fencing miles completed, etc.—all outputs. Fifteen years later, we’re mostly still reporting outputs. If we’re going to attract private investment to private lands conservation, we need to be able to report on outcomes. How much cleaner is the water? How much carbon is sequestered? Our citizens want to know…and we don’t do a great job of telling them right now. We need to move in the direction of paying for outcomes and the tools and information to do that are growing more sophisticated all the time. Pay For Success is all about paying for outcomes, and only paying if outcomes are achieved. It also adds an investor layer that grows the size of the conservation funding pie. It’s early days, as you know…there’s much to figure out. We want to be part of that process.


Eric: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into mission service?

Kari: I don’t know that I’d call what I’m doing “mission service.” I get paid pretty well and don’t have to work many weekends. I’m just probably more risk averse by nature, that’s probably why I’m still here after 15 years. That and the increased value that comes with experience and understanding when you are working at a very large organization. Now that I’ve been a supervisor for a few years, I believe in raw talent and I believe personality matters; when I find both in combination, those are the folks I like to work with and those are the ones I think are going to succeed. I think it’s largely true what people say about this younger generation—I don’t expect my younger employees to still be at NRCS in 15 years. It just feels like a different time. I advise younger employees at NRCS to seek diverse experiences and prioritize working for good bosses, don’t be afraid to go deep on something, meet a ton of people and ask them lots of questions, don’t worry about being interesting right now…be interested. Work towards finding meaningful work that means something to you. The scale at which you can improve things grows as you rise in the federal government, so be both patient and deliberate. You’ll get there.


Eric: What’s next for Kari?

Kari: Professionally, I don’t know. My wife and I just had our first kid so that definitely scrambles your priorities. But at NRCS, right now I’m enjoying both of the things I’ve worked hard to create…meaningful, high-impact work AND time to enjoy the other elements of my life. Part of me wants to declare that I’m right where I want to be and wouldn’t change a thing, but my Finnish blood keeps me in check…every emotion in moderation.


Eric Letsinger