[Podcast] Reputation Matters: Episode 7 | Dan Lambe

April 17, 2024
Dan Lambe: Navigating Equity, the Environment and Mr. Beast

Navigating the rare dual role of CEO and public spokesperson, Dan Lambe of the Arbor Day Foundation reveals the unique challenges and triumphs encountered at the helm of an international nonprofit. In this episode, find out the delicate balance of steering a global message while being the face of an organization deeply rooted in environmental action. Plus, hear about the remarkable partnership with YouTube giant Mr. Beast and how the immense power of social media influence led to the planting of over 20 million trees.

Dan Lambe has committed nearly two decades of work to helping solve some of the biggest issues facing people and the planet through trees. After being named CEO in 2022 after 19 years in leadership roles at the Arbor Day Foundation, Lambe launched an initiative to accelerate the nonprofit’s impact by planting 500 million trees with a focus in forests and neighborhoods of greatest need. The ambitious goal, set to replicate the number of trees planted in the Foundation’s first 50 years in only five years, has helped spur remarkable growth within the organization and expanded the Foundation’s global reach. Lambe’s leadership is rooted in three guiding principles, including supporting a quality team, bringing an increased focus to planting trees and instilling a belief that the Foundation’s work can make a lasting difference.
Lambe is a trusted thought leader in the sustainable forestry space and he regularly speaks at conferences hosted by the United Nations, Sustainable Brands, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other high-profile industry events where trees and climate intersect. Lambe is also frequently used as a resource for top news outlets and has been featured on The Weather Channel, CNN, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Forbes and NPR. Lambe is the author of the book “Now is the Time For Trees” and even helped set a Guinness World Record for most people watering plants simultaneously. Image



Crayton Webb: In this day and age with all the hot button political issues and the difficulty we have around political discourse, whether you are an environmentalist or not, a conservationist or not, or whether you believe in climate change or not, it may get you in trouble depending on the audience. Our guest today on Reputation Matters is trying to elevate the conversation above all the fray to something that we all can agree on, and that is planting trees. Our guest today on Reputation Matters is Dan Lambe, who’s the CEO of the Arbor Day Foundation in Lincoln, Nebraska. Thank you, Dan, for making time for us during your visit to Dallas.

Dan Lambe: You bet. It’s great to be with you, Crayton.

Crayton: Now, truth be known, this is not our first interview. This is actually our second interview. It’s just taken 26 years to get you to agree to come back on camera with me.

Dan: That’s right. It’s absolutely right.

Crayton: So Dan and I met in 1998 when I was a reporter in Austin, Texas, and you were the founder and CEO of another nonprofit organization, and I was covering the legislature and we got to meet then. We were reacquainted some 10, 12 years later when I was with Mary Kay Cosmetics and you were with Arbor Day, and truth be known, full disclosure, I now have the pleasure of serving on the board for the Arbor Day Foundation so I have a little bit of an advantage over the folks watching or listening today. So many people don’t know what the Arbor Day Foundation is. They’ve heard perhaps of the holiday, Arbor Day. What is the Arbor Day Foundation?

Dan: Well, first of all, thanks for having me today, and thanks for serving as a board member of the Arbor Day Foundation and thanks for being a friend and colleague over the years. So the Arbor Day Foundation is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to planting trees. We have a very simple mission. We inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees, and we do that in all kinds of different ways every single day all around the world, but at the core, we are about getting trees in the ground because of all the great things trees do. We’ve got about a million members around the country. We work in cities and towns, in our urban forest, the trees where we live, work and play. We do a tremendous amount of work in forest lands that have been devastated by fires or floods, replanting trees, restoring those forests for the biodiversity benefits, the watershed benefits, the habitat benefits. We plant trees and it’s a pretty great job because, as you mentioned, it’s about the one thing that everybody can agree on right now is trees and we have a huge responsibility to do it right.

Crayton: But interesting history. So founded in 1972, coming up on your 52nd year. You mentioned members, so how would you get support or raise money and how has that changed over those 50 years?

Dan: Sure. So the Arbor Day Foundation was started in 1972 in Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day. A lot of people don’t know that’s the home of Arbor Day. And early on, our fundraising was through our membership program. It’s still a very important part of what we do, reached out to individuals who want to be a part of the tree planting community. As I mentioned, we’ve got almost a million members around the country, but we have evolved from solely being focused on membership dues. Now we have businesses, mission oriented businesses like shade grown coffee programs that help to bring in revenue to support our mission. We also do a tremendous amount of work with corporate partners, corporations who are looking to not just do cause marketing, not to do philanthropy. They are trying to reach their sustainability goals and they want to do that through trees and forests. And so we’ve adapted, learned and innovated with corporations to figure out, how can trees and forests help them meet their carbon offset goals, help them meet their water stewardship goals, help them reach their community engagement and citizenship goals? And it’s been a huge opportunity for us and we’re continuing to see growth in that space.

Crayton: So some folks of a certain age might remember that there was a time where John Denver famously did public service announcements on television. There was a song about plant a tree, and that was all the Arbor Day Foundation. Now, I’m talking about in this day and age, getting a celebrity spokesperson, and almost some would think the Arbor Day Foundation was ahead of its time. But what have you all done from a reputation perspective? You mentioned evolution. How has the reputation of the Arbor Day Foundation evolved since that time? And do you miss John Denver? Don’t you wish you had that back?

Dan: I do. I think we’d still love to have John Denver doing public service announcements for us. So the Arbor Day Foundation, like the Arbor Day holiday, I think in the early years was viewed as a nice to have. It was about planting trees for beautification, planting trees for those flowering, beautiful trees in the spring and the wonderful fall colors. But today, trees are much more seen as a must have, not just a nice to have, and the Arbor Day Foundation has leaned into that with the programs we deliver and the solutions we’re able to offer through tree planting with our partners. And so we are stepping up and making sure that folks know that trees are necessary today. If ever there was a time to be planting trees, now is that time, and we are working to make sure that the public knows that, that the thought leaders, industry leaders know that so that we can help find those solutions and make the difference.

Crayton: How do you do that? And how involved are you as CEO in determining here’s how we’re going to tell our story so that people know who we are and what we do, and that it’s not their perception of perhaps what it used to be?

Dan: Well, as you can imagine, it really depends on the audience. So for our members, we are still very heavy into direct mail. It is a winning formula for us. We get a tremendous response rate. People are very excited about that. We also are doing more and more into digital communications to the individuals. When we’re talking about corporate partners, we’re going to and being invited to these key sustainability events, looking to build relationships, looking to help find solutions. We are just trying to, one by one, help find solutions, and so those are some things. We do plenty of other marketing strategies using some of the social media platforms, so depending on the audience, we’re trying all kinds of different platforms.

Crayton: You’re actually our first guest who’s with a national nonprofit organization, which we all know, being in nonprofit is not easy. It’s not easy to stand out. How do you all differentiate yourselves from other nonprofits, and particularly other nonprofits in the environmental or conservation space?

Dan: Well, there are a lot of nonprofits out there, no question about it, nonprofits who are in the health space or the religious community or whatever it might be. So at the Arbor Day Foundation, what we try to do is stay true to who we are, to stay mission focused. We are about trees. We can get pulled into nature conversations. We can get pulled into environmental justice conversations. We can get pulled into a lot of conversations, but for us, it’s always about trees, inspiring people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees, so we have to stay true there. We also stay true to who we are and what we’re good at doing, and that is connecting and convening and catalyzing opportunities to get trees in the ground. So we’re clear on that. We know what we’re good at, we know what we’re not good at, and the other thing is we deliver. That’s maybe the most important thing is if we say we’re going to get trees in the ground, those trees are going to get in the ground, and they’re not just in the ground. They’re maintained, they’re managed. We do what we say we’re going to do, and as a result, our reputation has continued to grow in a really positive way.

Crayton: Do you think the fact that you all do something that’s tangible, right? I remember when being on the other side as a corporate partner, looking to the Arbor Day, we weren’t buying our way out of manufacturing or trying to… As you said, you were putting trees in the ground. It was something that was positive and constructive. Do you think that positioning is important? Do you leverage that, particularly with your corporate partners?

Dan: Absolutely. So we are lucky. We plant trees and it is the one thing that everybody gets. People just intuitively get trees, and everyone has got a memory, a story. People just have this positive feeling and connection with trees, and so we lean into that. So to your earlier question also about how do we stand out? One of the things about the Arbor Day Foundation is we are going to be positive, we are going to be hopeful, we are going to be inspiring. Some organizations might use fear, might use crisis in a negative way, and it can work for them. That can be a really effective motivator to inspire followers, to inspire donors, but we’re going to stay true to being positive and inspiring. There’s really hard things out there we’re dealing with. We are a part of helping to solve some of the biggest issues facing the planet and that’s pretty heavy, but we want to find folks who want to bring hope and optimism, and that is a part of the messaging of the Arbor Day Foundation, whether we’re talking to an individual member or one of the largest companies or government agencies in the world, trying to address big issues with trees.

Crayton: So you’re resisting the urge to fear monger or go negative.

Dan: Yeah. Yeah. It’s just not who we are.

Crayton: And yet, as you said, you’ve addressed some difficult issues. So you talk about urban forestry. It’s interesting timing, right? Because of course, following the murder of George Floyd, national discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, regardless of your opinions on DEI, whether it’s good or not, urban forestry means you’re planting trees in cities, and oftentimes, you’re planting trees or you’re getting asked to plant trees in communities that have been traditionally underserved, and oftentimes, those communities that have been traditionally underserved are people of color. So how have you managed the DEI conversation post George Floyd?

Dan: So there’s an amazing discrepancy in tree canopy across the United States, really around the world, when you compare underserved poor communities versus more affluent communities, and we know that makes a difference in people’s lives. Neighborhoods with high tree density report 25% lower childhood asthma rates than neighborhoods that don’t have high tree density and strong tree canopies. It’s a health issue, it is an extreme heat issue, and so we have had a number of partners reach out to us to say, “How can we use trees to help bring balance and fairness and equity to communities?” And that’s just one of the many benefits of trees. Now, when we do that, we can’t just parachute into a neighborhood and say, “Hey, lucky you. We’re here to plant trees.” It takes time. It takes authentic relationship building. It takes understanding, what are the interests of the neighborhood? Like down in Miami as an example, what we’ve learned is neighborhoods, they want fruit trees. They want trees that are bearing fruit, that are bringing additional value, not just shade to their neighborhoods. So trees are a wonderful way to help bring all those benefits to all communities, and we are an active part of helping corporations, helping communities bring justice, bring equity back to communities through tree planting.

Crayton: Yeah, Well, you said at the beginning, who could disagree with planting a tree? But maybe it’s not that simple. Have you had neighborhoods or communities or cities, municipalities come back and say, “We don’t want Arbor Day here,” or, “You’re doing it wrong,” or, “This is not where we…”

Dan: It’s a fair question, and really, everyone does love trees. They may not always want it in front of their house. They love the trees. They want to live on a treeline boulevard. They may not want to rake the leaves. After these increasing frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes, trees can cause damage, and that causes some people to be scared of trees at times. Trees can be expensive too. They bring a lot of benefit, but they’ve got to be pruned, they’ve got to be taken care of, and so there are some folks who have said, “I can’t afford to manage a treat in my yard.” So those are issues that we run up against. They’re pretty few and far between, but they’re real, and even then, people still recognize the benefits of trees. It’s just they’re also recognizing what it might cost for them or what the impact might be.
Crayton: Arbor Day Foundation, at least my observation, is that you all have successfully navigated through difficult societal conversations and as I said at the beginning, risen above the fray. I know you talked about being true to yourself and the missions, but do you see it the same way, that you’ve been able to stay out of controversy?

Dan: Well, we don’t get involved in politics. We help to provide advice and best practices around city ordinances for trees and that sort of thing. Since 1972, we’ve worked really closely with the US Forest Service, the government through president after president, after president, after president.

Crayton: Regardless of party.

Dan: Regardless of party. We’ve seen Republican presidents do amazing things for forestry. We’ve seen democratic presidents do amazing things for forestry. At the Arbor Day Foundation, what we’re going to stay true to is helping inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees, whether individuals, whether they’re cities, whether they’re businesses. Whoever it might be, we want to help them do it in the right way for the right solution, and it may be a different problem people are trying to solve but trees can oftentimes be part of the solution. They’re not a silver bullet, but they can be part of the solution.

Crayton: What advice would you give other nonprofits, national or local? Again, this day and age, it seems like there’s landmines everywhere. How do you avoid the controversy and getting pulled into it? What advice would you give one of your peers or colleagues or even someone who’s a local executive director?

Dan: Gosh, it’s a great question, and I’m not going to lie and say that there aren’t people who say the Arbor Day Foundation should be doing more. We get calls all the time from cities who are saying, “We need the Arbor Day Foundation to tell our city they’re doing it wrong.” I’ve got friends who call me and say, “Hey, can the Arbory Day Foundation take a position on this?” It’s not what we do. Some people think we should. Some people think we should be engaging in those policy debates and conversations. It’s not our strength, it’s not what we do. There are folks who do it. We celebrate their ability to bring different conversations and points to the debate. What we’re looking to do is to celebrate. We would always use the carrot instead of the stick, and so we want to incentivize good behavior. We want to incentivize cities, campuses like colleges or elementary schools. We want to incentivize corporations and individuals to plant trees by celebrating good behavior, not by beating them over the head if they do something wrong.

Crayton: So what I hear you saying is stay positive, stay true to who you are, and don’t get pulled in.

Dan: Yeah, and it’s hard. And I’ll tell you, there are folks who wish we were engaging in that fight, but it’s just not who we are. But I still think we’re making a great difference, making a great impact by helping to celebrate and inspire those folks to do the right thing.

Crayton: You utilized a couple of years ago another tactic in this digital day and age that was, by all accounts, extraordinarily effective and I think might be something that others can learn from, and that is that you utilized a YouTube influencer, Mr. Beast. It resulted in 24 million trees. Well, why don’t you tell us the story?

Dan: And counting.

Crayton: Yeah, why’d you do it?

Dan: Well, we got a call from Mr. Beast and his representative saying, “Hey, he’s got a big idea.” I think he had just gotten his 20 millionth follower on YouTube. I think now, he has more than a hundred million followers or something like that, and they wanted to do something to celebrate. Actually, his followers challenged him to do something to commemorate getting 20 million followers and they wanted to plant 20 million trees, and we said, “We can do that.” We know how to do this. That’s why they came to us as. Again, we’ve got the network partners to make that happen, and so they had this big idea. They rallied about 600 influencers or more all around the world to be a part of the Team Trees Initiative, and it was Mark Rober and Mr. Beast were the two spearheads of the initiative. And we were like, “Okay, I don’t know how successful it’s going to be.” This isn’t my community. My kids knew who Mr. Beast was. I had no idea who Mr. Beast was, and I told Mr. Beast that.

Crayton: I’m sure he appreciated that.

Dan: He’s like, “I’m not surprised you don’t know who I am.” But they were committed, they were pretty confident, and so we built a great backend system for them. They were brilliant, they know their audience so well. They knew their audience wanted to belong and be a part of something and they knew that their audience would engage. So they launched the Team Trees Initiative. It’s a fascinating study, and within 58 days, we blew away any record ever on YouTube for fundraising and raised more than $20 million in 58 days to plant 20 million trees around the world. And what was really cool about it was, yes, Mr. Beast’s followers, a younger population, but it was kids, it was their parents and it was their grandparents. Kids were telling their parents and grandparents about it. We were getting calls from grandparents and parents saying, “Hey, my 8-year-old or 10-year-old wants to use their birthday money for Team Trees. Is this real?” And we could say, “It’s absolutely real. Here’s where the trees are going.” But I’ll tell you on the backend, as exciting as that was, we then had the responsibility to deliver, and you can about imagine with the hysteria around that, and you got a tremendous amount of… Kanye West dropped an album on the same day it was launched and got almost no attention because of Mr. Beast’s campaign, but what we felt was this responsibility that everyone was going to look to poke it and say, “Here’s what’s wrong with it. This is terrible.” We had to make sure those trees got in the ground so if the New York Times called and said, “Really? Did these trees get in the round?” We could say when, where, who planted them, what kind of trees. That was a big responsibility for us. Back to what I said earlier, we have to deliver on what we say we’re going to do, and that helps our reputation.

Crayton: So from a C-level perspective, from a CEO perspective, not your comms director who might have another point of view, but what worked about this and what didn’t? What advice would you give anyone who’s like, “Well, let’s just go get an influencer and have them activate them”?

Dan: Well, first of all, it helps to have one of the biggest influencers in the world be your partner. That was great.

Crayton: Amen.

Dan: And someone who was so authentic about it. They were not trying to just make a buck. They weren’t just trying to get attention. So if you’re going to work with an influencer, they’ve got to be doing it for the right reasons, and they were doing it for the right reasons. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit for letting us do what we’re great at, and we let them do what they were great at, so that was important, to stay true to it. We had folks in the organization who were a little skeptical of it, and we had to do a lot of backend work but it was one of those situations where it’s like, hey, if we’re going to be ready to evolve and adapt and connect with new audiences, we’ve got to be nimble, and our team to their credit was nimble. And Mr. Beast was blown away by our ability to create the backend infrastructure as well as to deliver on the ground with the actual plantings.

Crayton: If you had to pick out one moment over the last 20 years you’ve been part of the Arbor Day, CEO since 2022, if you had to pick out one transformational moment for the reputation of the Arbor Day, would you say it was the work with Mr. Beast?

Dan: Well, if I’m being honest, that was transformational in a number of ways, in the scale of the planting we were able to do, et cetera, but I don’t think the A foundation, frankly, got enough credit for being a part of that. Mr. Beast got a lot of the attention. He deserved a lot of the attention. From a brand connectivity perspective, we probably could have been better at connecting the Arbor Day Foundation with it. But transformational in a number of ways but also a lesson learned about making sure that we’re getting credit for the hard work we’re doing too, so that was important. The question was transformational for brand?

Crayton: Or reputation?

Dan: Yeah. Again, it depends on different audiences, but when we are showing up at some of these sustainability conferences, showing up with the companies that we work with, the credibility, knowing the vetting that some of these Fortune 100 companies go through before they pick a partner to work with, and then when peers see that, it opens doors for us, because again, if we deliver, if we stay true to who we are, don’t try and be who we’re not but deliver, then the rest just kind of works out.

Crayton: That’s been a consistent theme with our guests. Be true to what you are and find that message and stick to it. Let’s talk about CEO as spokesperson. Not everybody believes in that. You have a designated spokesperson. You’re good at it, you’re great at it by most accounts based on what I’ve seen, but is that what you would advise most CEOs of national nonprofits to do?

Dan: I’m comfortable doing it. I work hard at it. I try to make it look easy, but it is hard work. There’s a big responsibility that you feel by being the spokesperson for an organization like the Arbor Day Foundation, so some CEOs just aren’t comfortable with that and I suppose that’s okay. For the Arbor Day Foundation, we feel like it’s important to have a consistent voice as the spokesperson for the Arbor Day Foundation. I’m not the only spokesperson. We have amazingly talented team members who are way smarter than me who play critical conversations and communication roles at different conferences and events and that sort of thing, but for me, it has worked out well. I love being able to tell the story of the Arbor Day Foundation. I love being able to engage in those conversations to learn about what’s next, how we should be adapting. So for me, it also helps sharpen me. It helps to sharpen, what are we doing? Are we staying true to who we are? I can push back with my communications team to say, “This doesn’t feel like me and my voice, and I don’t think it feels like the Arbor Day Foundation voice. And so it’s helpful for me to stay on top of it that way, but not everyone’s comfortable with it, as you know.

Crayton: Can you give an example, not naming any names on your team of course, but where you were pushed to say something or express something that you’re like, “That’s not me, and that’s not us”?

Dan: Sure. So I’m going to go back to the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation that you brought up earlier, a really important conversation. We’re proud to be a part of the solutions. We are not the solution but trees can be a really positive part of the solution, but the Arbor Day Foundation plants trees. We are not an environmental justice organization. We have no credibility to be an environmental justice organization. We can plant trees that help bring hope and healing and benefits to communities, but I always want to be very careful about the Arbor Day Foundation all of a sudden becoming an environmental justice voice when we’re just a contributor. We plant trees. That’s what we do, and it can be easy sometimes to start to creep into having a whole different message about an area that we’re really not experts in. What we’re experts in is planting trees, so that’s an example. An area that we’re very interested in and being a helpful solution in, but also having the humility to know that’s also not our area of expertise.

Crayton: We spend a lot of time talking about thought leadership and encouraging CEOs to not necessarily be the spokesperson but to be active on social media. And there’s different kinds of CEOs who will say, “Oh, no, I want to stay below the radar, or I want my organization to be below the radar, or I want to push my people forward.” But the fact is that there’s only one CEO. You seem to have embraced, whether you call it thought leadership or not, this notion of by elevating or utilizing, or leveraging might be more tasteful, the stature and reputation of Dan Lambe, thereby, we’re elevating the stature of the Arbor Day Foundation. Is that how you see it?

Dan: Yeah, it is, and I can get pretty uncomfortable and I never want to be putting me out there as celebrity or anything like that, but rather, my voice is the voice of the Arbor Day Foundation in many ways, whether it’s on Instagram, LinkedIn, whatever platform we’re using in social or any kind of communication, and it’s important. And we think it’s important that I have a reputation and a presence with that voice, and that is a reflection of the Arbor Day Foundation. The Arbor Day Foundation has its own, we have our own social channels, but yeah, it’s something we’ve embraced. And again, not everybody may be comfortable with that, but for us, it’s worked out well.

Crayton: So talk about your social channels. So are you active on all social channels? And if so, is it all Arbor Day?

Dan: Yeah, so I am active. For my work, I’m primarily active on LinkedIn and Twitter or X. I incidentally would like to be more active on Instagram. I’ve talked to my social media team about this because my life is exciting. I get to go to some really cool places, and they’re visual, they’re beautiful and they’re inspiring, and I feel like I am fortunate that way. And I personally would like to begin telling a more visual story of what I get to do in my job as CEO of the Arbor Day foundation as well. I’m not active on Facebook professionally, and then also, to be clear, when I say I’m active on social, I get a lot of help from my team to be active on social. It may take me a half hour sometimes to pull together the right tweet, but I think it’s critical that we stay active in that space.

Crayton: But that’s such a great point, for there are CEOs of varying sizes of organizations who feel that if they have help with their voice, especially if they’re utilizing it for the brand, that it’s disingenuous in some way. But you don’t feel like that.

Dan: No, I don’t feel like that at all. Look, our communications at the Arbor Day Foundation is a team sport. Dan Lambe does not rule what the communications are. I have a strong voice in it, but I crave help and support to make sure we’re accurate, make sure we’re sharp and concise and inspiring. And again, fortunately, I’ve got fantastic communications professionals that I get to work with at the Arbor Day Foundation.

Crayton: Which makes sure that your channels and the brand channels align, and that’s important.

Dan: Yeah.

Crayton: You have, one would argue, outside of a documentary film or a podcast, you’ve taken the ultimate leap in thought leadership, I would argue, by writing a book. Tell us about the book you launched. What is it?

Dan: Sure. So I wrote a book called The Time for Trees, and we were coming upon our 50th anniversary at the Arbor Day Foundation. And we get calls every day at the Arbor Day Foundation for people who want to know how to plant trees, what to plant, where to plant, so we thought it’d be a great opportunity to elevate the stature of the organization, celebrate the work and the importance of trees today, but also to provide a how-to for people. And so we reached out to some publishers and said, “Hey, we’re interested in writing a book,” and publishers were super excited about it. We have almost a million members around the country. They wanted to help sell books, and so we ended up going with Timber Press out of Oregon. They were a fantastic company to work with. Published The Time for Trees, and I’ll tell you, it was a lot of work. If you’re going to write a book, I highly recommend getting a co-author. I had a great one, Lorene Forkner, and together, we had a great time writing the book. And I’ll tell you, and I tell my kids, writing is 25% writing, 75% editing, and it’s that way for a book too. So it’s a lot of work, but it has been a fun way to grow exposure for the Arbor Day Foundation through interviews like this, through book signings, which is also a time for us to meet with members. And it’s been a great platform for us to have a chance to talk about the Arbor Day Foundation and the important work of the Arbor Day Foundation.

Crayton: Yeah. What advice would you give a CEO who’s considering whether to write a book or not?

Dan: I would say it was a fun experience. It’s work, and you still have everything else to do too. It can be a unifying experience as well. I will tell you, people across the organization were really excited about it. It was a great excuse to talk to the media, to go into communities. Again, I did book signings from Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco to Austin, Texas, and it’s awkward to talk about yourself at a book signing but it’s really a pretty cool way to have something unique to talk about. And it was fun and it was humbling, but it’s a book and books are different. When I give this book as a gift, it says something. This wasn’t self-published either. A publishing company wanted to help do this book, and we give books to our team members just to remind them they’re part of Team Arbor Day, and so there’s just something about books.

Crayton: It seems to me that the ultimate marker of thought leadership is that you’re being called upon by traditional media as a pundit, as an expert. So have you felt like the book and your other efforts have resulted in people calling the Arbor Day Foundation up or Dan Lambe as the spokesperson up and saying, “Listen, we need an expert on the environment, on tree planting, on urban forestry. Can Dan come on and be our expert?” So it’s less about promoting the Arbor Day Foundation brand and more about serving a role in a traditional news story as the expert. Are you finding that that’s happening?

Dan: Yeah, to some degree. Definitely inquiries about coming to give presentations and be a part of conversations and dialogues, round tables. I was just in Dubai at the COP 28 meetings with government leaders and corporate leaders. I get invited to join the Weather Channel and pontificate about the value and importance of trees, so those kinds of things. But the Arbor Day Foundation gets those calls a lot. We are seen as the experts in trees, even if we aren’t always the experts in trees, but we know who is and we can always find the right information for though, any question it might be. So yes, personally, I have gotten more of those calls, but also as an organization, as our visibility continues to grow, as the emphasis around trees and nature-based solutions continues to grow, we continue to get more questions.
Crayton: So what advice would you give a nonprofit CEO or any CEO whose comms team is pushing them to have a thought leadership strategy or to be a spokesperson? What should they be thinking about before they say yes or no? Do you have time, I guess, is one.
Dan: Yeah, that’s probably part of it, but my gut reaction to that question is embrace it. Embrace it in the right way that’s appropriate for them personally, but also for whatever their business or nonprofit work is, but embrace, it’s so important. And this doesn’t mean you’re trying to scream from the mountaintops and trying to get in the New York Times, but to have a targeted communication strategy is important. And getting professional help, whether it’s internally or externally to do that is just essential because you can waste a lot of money and a lot of time trying to have a communications or marketing strategy, so make sure you’ve got smart people helping you.

Crayton: Do you get help?

Dan: Yeah.

Crayton: What does that look like?

Dan: We get help internally and we get help externally. We’ve got external companies who help us with our brand, who are helping us with our website look and feel, who are helping us with our digital fundraising and donor strategies, people who learned a lot more than we’ve known. We get help on our direct mail still from great partners. We’ve got a lot of great internal expertise, but we know we don’t have all the answers.

Crayton: You had the role as spokesperson while you were president of the organization. What changed when you became CEO in 2022 as it relates to public stature being out in front?

Dan: Really not a lot changed at the Arbor Day Foundation. I had been playing the role as lead communicator for some time, and while my title changed and the role evolved to some degree, that’s one of the roles I continue to play is lead spokesperson as CEO. And again, I’m comfortable with it. I don’t claim to be great at it but I try, and I’m thankful to get a lot of help from great people to make me look better than I am.

Crayton: Did you ever contemplate stepping back from that role thinking, “Okay, I’m moving into the CEO position. I need to be looking at balance sheets and working with the HR team. There’s other things I need to be focused on as CEO”?

Dan: I absolutely thought about it, and as you know, do what you’re comfortable doing, do what you’re good at doing. We always encouraged our team members. We want to find team members who are swimming with the current. Do what you’re good at doing. And if you’re swimming against the current, like me doing financials, me doing the nitty gritty spreadsheets, that’s not my strength. Again, with all humility, I’m not saying I’m a great spokesperson for the Arbor Day Foundation, but I enjoy being a communicator. I enjoy building those relationships, and so that was an area that I decided to keep on the list while I was prioritizing other things also, or reprioritizing other things.

Crayton: I want to go back in time a little bit to the time 26 years ago when you and I met and when you founded a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas. I know you don’t spend a lot of time because you’ve been with Arbor Day over 20 years now, but I do think for our listeners and viewers, it’s helpful when someone has started their own organization and how they develop the brand. So what was it and what was the impetus behind it?

Dan: So I was working in… My entire career has been in nonprofit work. I did some work with nonprofits in college and really enjoyed it. I found just great value in it, and I wasn’t sure where it was going to, where it was going to take me, but in 1998, I had the opportunity to… There was a niche that wasn’t being filled around some insurance issues and consumer law issues that I worked on in Texas, and thought that I could help bring some value by starting a new nonprofit that could organize community members to be a part of the dialogue, be a part of the conversation around consumer protection types of issues. And so I started the organization, was fortunate to find both team members who could join me but also donors who could help fund the work, and yeah, I took the leap.And in my role there, it was largely a communications organization as well, helping to drive communications around important issues of the day, particularly insurance and consumer law related issues. And it was exciting, I was incredibly passionate about it. There were a lot of politics involved in the issues that we were addressing, which can sometimes seem way more important and urgent than they maybe even are at the time. But it was great work. I enjoyed it. It was humbling and when I decided to step away from it, the work’s still going very strong, which is great. But I had the opportunity to go work for the Arbor Day Foundation on a national level and it looked like a really positive and inspiring place to be, and it has turned out to be that way.

Crayton: As you look back, I don’t remember how big your nonprofit in Austin was, but as you’ve gone from, let’s say, a million dollar organization then to a $120 million organization in the Arbor Day, and as you look back on your career as it relates to all the things you’ve learned about personal brand and even reputation, what’s the number one lesson? What’s the number one piece of advice you think you’ve gained after all these years?

Dan: Well, it’s probably going to sound trivial or something you’ve heard many times before, but it really is about being honest, being true to who you are. Don’t try to have answers for everything if you don’t have answers. Don’t fake it. If someone else has a better answer, let them answer. But it’s being true to who you are, being honest, delivering on what you say you’re going to deliver, and be concise. Be concise, be sharp. Help people understand in a simple, easy to understand, inspiring way.

Crayton: Okay. We’re going to give you a chance to be concise because at the end of every episode, we do a lightning round. So we’ve got a few questions that are just for you and then a few questions that we ask all of our guests.

Dan: Great.

Crayton: Are you ready?

Dan: Yeah.

Crayton: Okay. You’ve been to numerous countries. How many countries around the world have you been to with the Arbor Day Foundation?

Dan: With the Arbor Day Foundation, probably about 20.

Crayton: How many states of the 50 have you been to?

Dan: With the Arbor Day Foundation, I’m guessing probably 40.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite type of tree?

Dan: Ficus tree. The banyan trees, those beautiful banyan trees.

Crayton: Okay. The most unusual place you’ve planted a tree.

Dan: Southeast Asia, like Vietnam. Yeah, one of my favorite places to visit ever, and yeah, never thought I’d plant a tree in Vietnam.

Crayton: What’s, outside of work, one of your favorite nature related activities?

Dan: Just being outside. It doesn’t look like it but I actually do run, I bike, and I just love being outside. Yeah, I just have to be outside.

Crayton: Fantastic. Okay. Favorite subject in school?

Dan: Communications.

Crayton: What did you major in college?

Dan: Political science, and if I had known there was so much science in political science, I never would’ve done it, but political science.

Crayton: Favorite holiday?

Dan: Thanksgiving.

Crayton: Favorite hobby?

Dan: Running.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite guilty pleasure?

Dan: Oh gosh. I gave up TikTok last year, but I still get suckered into watching the reels on Instagram or Facebook, that sort of thing.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite consumer brand?

Dan: Off the top of my head, I’m going to say Coca-Cola.

Crayton: Okay. Favorite movie?

Dan: The Godfather.

Crayton: Okay, fantastic. Favorite day of the week?

Dan: Saturday.

Crayton: Your hidden superpower, hidden talent?

Dan: Building relationships.

Crayton: And if you could pick one person alive or dead that you could meet for dinner, or in your case, plant a tree with, who would it be?

Dan: Oh, boy. One person alive or dead that I could plant a tree with. I would probably say John Lewis. Congressman John Lewis, a hero of mine.

Crayton: Did you meet him?

Dan: Didn’t get to meet him but I’ve planted trees for him. There’s a John Lewis Flowering Forest in Atlanta, and I got to meet his family, some of his siblings and family who came to help plant. He’s just a personal hero of mine.

Crayton: Fantastic. Dan Lambe, congratulations on the success of Arbor Day. Coming up, you’re getting ready to plant 500 million trees over 50 years, 50 countries. A lot to be proud of, great story you have around CEO as spokesperson, thought leadership. Thank you for being our first national nonprofit guest on Reputation Matters, and thank you all for joining us. And thanks for Dan Lambe, and we’ll see you all next time.