- Issue: Summer 2020
Some of WWF’s most successful initiatives are bold, multi-stakeholder projects designed to protect large swaths of biologically sensitive land. One such project is Bhutan for Life, which raised $118 million to help ensure the country’s entire protected area system would be conserved in perpetuity. Essential to the successful launch of Bhutan for Life was buy-in from the government, Bhutan’s Royal Family, and other key constituencies, as well as strong support from a handful of private donors. Among those donors were WWF Board member Matthew C. Harris and his family.
In addition to funding, Harris contributed another essential ingredient to the project: an attitude of patience.
“The universe generally works in a way that we get what’s good for us, but not always when we want it,” says Harris. “Audacious projects like Bhutan for Life work like this. You do your best and work your hardest toward the result you’d like to see and then you let go of the outcome and see how it unfolds. That’s the way I try to live my life. It’s certainly the way I try to approach these projects.”
And, according to Harris, if you’ve worked hard and planned well, and if you’re in the right headspace about the time sustainable conservation can take, it can even be enjoyable.
“Frankly, the fun in these types of projects is allowing the process to unfold,” says Harris, a founding partner of Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) and leader of GIP’s global energy industry investment team. “They’re oftentimes very complicated, involving lots of different elements. And to me, it’s fascinating to see how it all plays out.”
Harris is a big believer in mindfulness—the ability to be fully present in the moment, be it exhilarating or challenging—which he has practiced for many years. He also sees a deep connection between mindfulness and nature.
“I think nature encourages mindfulness,” he says. “That’s why when people go to the ocean, or see a beautiful river, they feel so good—because they’re fully present. They’re not replaying things in the mind that may have happened in the past or anticipating what may happen in the future.”
His devotion to mindfulness and his attitude of patience allow him to take the long view when he’s enmeshed in projects like Bhutan for Life. He believes that the seeming contradictions in the work—wanting humans and wildlife to thrive while coexisting, or preserving habitats while also allowing economies to benefit people—can be resolved, if conservation efforts are given the necessary time and space to breathe.
“Everything in the world has a natural flow and pace,” he says. “And my experience has been that when you try to alter that flow to reflect your own personal desires, it generally doesn’t work out. I think there’s always a balance between continuing to advocate for what you want and at the same time allowing the process to work in its own way.”
Harris places great weight on the importance of kindness—so much so that he and his family have endowed a Kindness Institute at UCLA. He believes that the most important thing WWF does is bring attention and resources to the issues we seek to influence, including climate change, resource scarcity, and species conservation. But he also recognizes that one of the great challenges inherent in our work is advocating in a way that is kind and respectful toward the many viewpoints present in conservation, while still pushing solutions forward.
“I think the universe is a kind, benevolent place,” he says. “And if we continue to put ourselves forward in that spirit, good things will happen.”