Newspaper articles about the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater tend to come in three flavors: There are feel-good stories about kids going for a sail and learning about estuarine habitat hands-on. There are modest mentions of the organization’s role whenever an environmental victory is announced, such as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s denial last autumn of a permit for expansion of the Danskammer fracked gas power plant. And then there are alarming reports of a legacy regional environmental organization teetering on the brink of fiscal collapse. This article is going to be a little different, bearing some substantial happy news: a new executive director has been hired – one who knows from experience how to keep an environmental not-for-profit in the black.
That fiscal-collapse scenario came to the fore with the onset of COVID, which forced Clearwater to cancel several seasons of school field trips and go entirely virtual with its annual June music festival, the Great Hudson River Revival, in 2020 (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2020/06/17/clearwater-presents-virtual-version-of-great-hudson-river-revival-concert-june-20). Internal tensions over how best to cope with the loss of income generated by these activities led to a leadership turnover at Clearwater, with executive director Greg Williams stepping down in July 2020 after two years at the helm. Longtime education director Steve Stanne, recently retired from his career with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson Estuary Program, stepped into the gap as interim executive director, and the organization underwent some facilitated soul-searching.
While it didn’t get much press, in December 2021 it released a brand-new Strategic Plan, viewable at www.clearwater.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Strategic-plan-final-120821.pdf. In that document, the authors admit, “Clearwater has seldom had a cushion of financial reserves, and often seems to be operating from crisis to crisis.” It’s what tends to happen when a not-for-profit depends almost entirely on broad volunteer and membership support, inspired by its founders’ grassroots vision, rather than going after the deeper pockets of major donors. But now a course correction is underway, with the hiring of David Toman as Clearwater’s new executive director.
In the Hudson Valley, Toman is known for his work as the vice president of operations and chief financial officer at the Mohonk Preserve; his eight successful years there included overseeing millions of dollars’ worth of capital campaigns for trail rehabilitation and bridge replacements. His wife, Wendy Kanzler Toman, is the more obvious environmental activist in the family – a passionate sustainability advocate who founded the reuse program at the Town of Gardiner’s Transfer Station and currently runs the Paint Swap program in New Paltz. Dave Toman, by contrast, is the guy who knows how to make the money flow to organizations trying to save the planet. And that’s just what Clearwater needs right now.
Toman grew up in southern New Jersey and got his degree in Business Administration from Widener University in Philadelphia. “I never wanted to be a CPA, but I knew I had an aptitude for business management,” he says. “I always gravitated toward not-for-profits.” He went to work in the entrepreneurial services division of Ernst & Young, LLP, and later Whisman, Grygiel & Giordano, PA, which involved doing audit consulting for grassroots community organizations.
This type of work transitioned into becoming finance manager for the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center in Wilmington, Delaware, which provides educational programs for economically challenged youth. There Toman got his first experience at capital campaigns – a strength that he brought to the Delaware Nature Society when he signed on as associate director of business and finance in 2001. It was his first gig in the world of environmental not-for-profits, although he says, “I’ve always been an outdoorsperson, since I was a kid. I did a lot of hiking, camping, skiing, canoeing.”
In his 12 years at DNS, he conducted strategic planning and capital campaigns for the construction of an environmental education center and three big solar-array projects. The organization served as host to leadership summits for the Association of Nature Center Administrators, and it was through this work that Toman got to know Glenn Hoagland, who recently retired from a long tenure as director of the Mohonk Preserve. Hoagland recruited Toman when the Preserve decided to create a new position for a “deputy director” to oversee the fiscal side of operations.
The Tomans moved to New Paltz with their children, Gillian and Garrett, in April 2012. Both kids immediately took up climbing at the Inner Wall gym and became fans of the outdoor opportunities that the mid-Hudson has to offer, including sails on the sloop Clearwater. “My daughter was my biggest advocate in taking this job,” Toman notes.
While a financially stable organization overall, the Mohonk Preserve also took a major hit when COVID struck, unable to mount fundraising events even while coping with intensifying pressures on trail use. Restructuring was inevitable, including the elimination of some managerial positions. Toman left the Preserve on good terms in 2020 – “That bridge isn’t burned,” he says – and had been doing consulting work when the Clearwater opportunity arose.
If you read the new Strategic Plan, it turns out that Toman has exactly the background that Clearwater needs to implement it. To demonstrate the kind of stability and accountability that attracts the confidence of foundations and major donors, the organization needs a professional development staff; a board of directors who are all on the same page and deeply engaged in fundraising; rigorous accounting practices and so on. While Toman sees Clearwater’s collectivist ethos and volunteer core as among the organization’s strengths, he also sees that it’s time to “recognize internal challenges,” and that “certain things need to be corrected relatively quickly.” Already up and running is the Century Fund, an endowment fund meant to address the neverending need for repairs to the 53-year-old sloop on a sustainable basis.
Music, the legacy of founder Pete Seeger, will continue to be a key component of Clearwater’s brand, according to the strategic plan. There’s even talk of engaging a professional events manager to organize the Revival, and perhaps more small-scale musical gatherings. There may be less folk music in the future, and more diverse sounds that engage the ears of urban youngsters and grow a lifelong Clearwater membership that’s less uniformly white (not to mention white-haired).
That piece will be someone else’s job; “I’m not musical,” Toman admits. Unlike most previous Clearwater directors, he “did not come up through the ranks.” And maybe that’s just the sort of fresh perspective that the organization needs right now – along with his well-established “fiscal skillset.”
“Clearwater, still the flagship of the environmental movement, will continue to lead a grassroots effort through education and advocacy that engages people with the causes of a clean river, watershed and estuary. We will also continue to bring people together to celebrate this cause through the uniting spirit of music. Our newly adopted strategic plan will help guide us towards a better horizon – one where our heightened awareness of the effects of climate change and environmental justice stay in focus,” Toman writes. “I have learned quickly just how many people are deeply committed to Clearwater and its mission, so many of whom the sloop has changed their lives. It is this collective voice that assures the relevance of Clearwater as we address the many challenges to the health of our natural world. I am thrilled to be able to be a part of the Clearwater family.”
For updates on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s activities – including how to purchase tickets for the Spirit of the Hudson Gala, which will take place from 3 to 7 p.m. at The Garrison in Garrison – visit www.clearwater.org.