What’s Missing In The Mission

To: John Fahey, CEO of NGS
Fr: Your Friends @ Society Matters
Re: Something’s Missing

loraxWe think it’s admirable that you want the Society “to inspire people to care about the planet,” especially since the planet doesn’t care a whit about us.

Mind experiment: Imagine 6.7 billion people vanished from the face of the Earth tomorrow. You think the cheetahs would even blink?

Planets don’t “care.” People care. Which makes us wonder: Do you ever regret phrasing National Geographic’s new mission statement in exactly those words (above)? Do you ever worry that being the Lorax is too small a role for the National Geographic Society? And: Do you find yourself regularly having to explain and amend that mission statement? “Yes, yes, of course — we care about the planet and its people.”

We ask because we just read an interview with you from last year. You were at the Sundance Festival to help promote U2-3D, National Geographic’s 2007 3D concert film starring Bono & his band. In the Q&A, the interviewer quoted your amended mission statement, but what we really caught our eye was your answer:

u2-3dQuestion: You’ve been quoted as saying, “National Geographic was created as a nonprofit to inspire people to have a lifelong appreciation for the planet and its people. Our mission hasn’t changed.” Does U2 fit that ideology?

John Fahey: They do in a number of ways. They make great music and they stand for quality and the Geographic stands for quality. Some of the principals [sic], philosophies, and values that this band seems to have are similar to the values that the Geographic has. I’m really intrigued by the fact that these guys want to stay ahead of the game. They want to be out in front and this is a place the Geographic hopes to occupy in the future. National Geographic wants to be more cutting-edge than it may have seemed in the past. (emphasis added)

Why are you so reluctant to spell out those principles, philosophies, and values? You know what they are, and so do we — but why be so vague? Why not just say it: U2 and Bono champion social justice and human rights — and gigantic crowds around the world applaud them for it (and buy their music).

Of course, you already know this. At a staff meeting last year, you briefly alluded to your struggle to convince other senior NGS executives that a U2 concert film was consistent with the Society’s mission. I don’t have exact notes, but you said something like: Various members of my senior staff thought that a film like this wasn’t a good fit for National Geographic. But I felt that one of the messages of U2 is human rights, and that’s something that is part of our mission. We’re about inspiring people to care about the planet and its people.

We think it’s time you made this explicit. We recommend that you amend the Society’s mission statement, and add those three words: “… and its people.” Post it on the web site. Publish it above the Magazine’s masthead. Tell Editor Chris Johns to talk it up in his monthly Editor’s Note. Let everyone know that our Society won’t remain silent when human rights get trampled, even in a mad rush to save the planet — or to mollify publishing partners whose values don’t generally align with our own.

In the end, the mission is less about the planet, and more about our adventures on it. For we believe that if we find a way to take good care of each other, then the cheetahs will no doubt take care of themselves.

I’ve conquered my past
The future is here at last
I stand at the entrance
Of a new world I can see
The ruins to the right of me
Will soon have lost sight of me
Love rescue me.

U2 & BB King
Love Rescue Me
recorded in Sydney, Australia, on November 18, 1989


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