Sunday, March 10, 2013

The death of QU

QU logo
It wasn't a matter of if, but when.  Last month Quail Unlimited closed its books for the last time, ending a 31 year run of working to restore bobwhite populations across the country. Some would argue (and some continue to) that a fair chunk of this time wasn't spent working toward that end, but comments in this vein should be directed toward the management, not the membership.  A lot of work was done by faithful QU members over the years, and hunters continue to reap the benefits.

I'll admit I was a little confused by the various press accounts and the video of the announcement and all the talk around how the old QU would now fit into Quail Forever.  I called Bob St. Pierre, VP of Marketing for QF/PF and asked exactly what the relationship was between QF and Quail Albany and the former QU staffers.

"Five former staffers of QU have been retained on a contract basis to help set up QF chapters.  One media report labeled Bill Bowles the QF Southeast Regional Director and that is inaccurate.  These staffers have three to ten month contracts."

As for Quail Albany: "That is a former chapter of QU.  We hope to have them sign a chapter charter with QF, but at this time that hasn't happened."

QF did purchase the membership list of QU and as part of that deal received an endorsement encouraging the suddenly former members to take a look at what QF has to offer. Bob went on to say that he hoped members of QU would research QF through sources such as Charity Navigator and stressed that their model of chapters retaining control of 100% of the money raised would appeal to them.

One of the more common complaints I heard from QU members over the years, and the South TX chapter was as vocal as any about this, was that they would raise money, send it to HQ, and only see a fraction of it for local projects. There's something fundamentally wrong with this.  When local people go to a local banquet and give their hard-earned dollars to the cause, it shouldn't be shipped off to help someone's favorite covert two time zones away. Annual dues, sure, those should go toward the national effort and lobbying and such.  But funds raised locally should stay there, and that is the model QF (and PF) embrace.

A tremendous amount of time and energy in QU's leadership went toward keeping the ship afloat.  This is effort that could have - or should have - been put toward restoring bobwhite populations.  At least some of these resources will now be liberated in that direction. Consolidation of the bobwhite restoration effort will result in less duplication of effort and elimination of some overhead expenses whose funding dollars can now be pushed into conservation.

All of this is the practical side of things, the good, the bad, and the shameful on a fact basis. On a personal level, I'm a bit sad to see QU come to this end. I wrote a column for their magazine for several years (gratis) and met quite a few devoted bobwhite enthusiasts during that time, many of whom are still hard at work for the cause in one capacity or another.

Some QU members will no doubt fade away, disillusioned by the past few years.  This is unfortunate considering the state of the bobwhite and the challenges facing the sport but to some degree it is understandable and emphasizes the collateral damage caused by mismanagement. As if we need a reminder after the last five years on Wall Street, boards and executives have tremendous responsibility to make sound, conservative decisions that ensure the survival and prosperity of their organizations.

Still, you'd hope that every member would sign on with QF or at least with a local effort and continue the work that attracted them to QU in the beginning. This is not a movement that can afford to lose the support of a single soul, especially over the mistakes of a relative few.

For the record, I'm currently a member of QF and hold absolutely nothing against QU.  Their hearts were in the right place.


  1. Isn't this the third time QU has disbanded? I have to disagree with you on one major point - a national organization absolutely cannot have 100% of funds staying in-house, locally. No national organization promising more than about a 25% local return has ever had consistent fundraising success. Look at the average age of a DU chapter (30 years old, about 10% of funds stay in house) vs. a Delta chapter (2 years old, 50% of funds stay in house).

    If a national organization wants to do meaningful things at a big scale, it takes more than local, volunteer led projects. You need staff. Every chapter can't have its own staff. Every chapter can't have its own seed drills, or fire equipment, or tractors. Every chapter doesn't have a contract specialist to review whether the landowner agreements that QU is agreeing to bring liability upon QU. DU found that out a few decades ago when a DU contractor dumped a port-a-potty on a highway and destroyed a bunch of cars. Local volunteers paying for that? Of course not. The people at HQ who coordinate the auction items for all the chapters...they have to get paid too.

    I know this is all dull and boring stuff, but it is the guts of running a national organization. Some volunteers and donors can't stand putting money toward a cause they cannot see, or finding out that the money they raised helped fund a project in the NEXT county (or state). When that's the case, those folks need to give at such a level that the organization is willing to "restrict" their gift toward a certain purpose.

    The other elephant in the room is that this "keep the money you raise" philosophy falsely assumes that a $25,000 quail project in one county does the same amount of good for quail (as a species) as a $25,000 quail project in another county.

    I've watched QU rise and fall repeatedly now, and to me it's a very simple crisis of leadership. You need $$ at headquarters to run an organization. If you can't successfully explain that to your donors and volunteers, then you shouldn't be running that organization. If you (leader) can't explain the importance of strategic habitat planning, project selection matrices, conservation priorities, etc, then you don't need to be running that organization. Placating the members with their own money achieves basically nothing, if you are simultaneously sacrificing the financial health of the organization (which affects business practices, lines of credit to pay employee payroll, partnerships with habitat agencies, etc).

  2. All that being said, yes, I agree with what you're saying. I never thought QU would even attempt to emerge from the 2009 mess and it wasn't a lack of money necessarily that caused the issue, but a very severe lack of what we refer to as "internal controls." You're right, for all the hub-bub, all that money certainly could and should have been spent on habitat, then at least we'd all still have that to look at instead of just the smoldering wreckage of an organization.

    1. Actually this is the first time QU has officially shut down. They've been on the ropes in the past, and have been on life support for several years, but never gone under.

      I work in the financial side of several businesses and typically when you talk about internal controls being a problem you're referring to fraud or theft. This was not the case at QU. Fiscal discipline and responsibility, yes. Debt got too high and operating costs were allowed to creep to unsustainable levels. Organizational self-control could be called into question.

      I disagree somewhat about the need for locally raised dollars to flow in some way to national needs. Dues, large donations, and corporate sponsorships should pay these bills. It's the job of the national staff to secure these funds. Money raised at banquets and other local fundraisers should stay local. Charging local chapters for use of equipment or legal counsel? Absolutely ok in my book. And I think that part of the reason chapters aren't always drawn on county lines is because of what you mention above. I don't know the detailed breakdown of how money flowing into PF/QF, but their "local stays local" is a model that's worked quite well for them.

      Thanks for chiming in Kirk. Always love to hear your point of view.

  3. Thanks, and thank you (sincerely) for the correction on "self control" vs. "internal controls." I'm on the "program implementation" side of things, and so they both mean the same to me - not enough eyes looking over the shoulders of those who make financial decisions. Your distinction b/w the two terms is a very important one.

    And yeah, PF is a good example of a lot of good things in non-profit leadership/organization. An organization seeking to enhance habitat for a non-native bird that, really, we only keep around to'd think that it doesn't engender much of a wide audience, broad fundraising, etc.

    BUT IT DOES. The organization has consistently thought outside of the box and done things (like placing staff within soil conservation district offices) that other groups (like DU, TU, TNC) have been too afraid to do because the organization (PF) loses a little bit of control of their field staff in the process. What's more, my experience with PF in the past (working as a habitat partner with them) has been that they are interested in finding a solution to whatever the barrier to conservation might be...logistical, human, bureaucratic, etc. This is sorely lacking from many other medium/large conservation non-profits, and is a big area of growth in my position at the small non-profit where I currently work.

    So I guess the question becomes (subject of a great series of articles, I'd bet), what did PF do so right that QU did so wrong?