Last summer Mary Kaufman-Cranney culled a batch of black dresses from her closet and replaced them with hiking boots and trail shoes. Having left her job with the Seattle Opera, where she was director of development, she has less use for the dresses. But now she requires the shoes for her new role at The Nature Conservancy leading fundraising for the nonprofit’s Washington State chapter.

Instead of organizing galas, she’s trekking across mudflats and into rainforests to learn the details of preserving our state’s natural resources.

Mary Kauffman-Cranney
Mary Kauffman-Cranney used to wear opera dresses for her “uniform,” but made a switch to more casual fare when she went to The Nature Conservancy. (Photo Matt Hagen)

“I’m really enjoying this work,” she says. “Northwesterners are so passionate about their natural resources.”

Kaufman-Cranney’s office is in the Conservancy’s Seattle headquarters in the historic Alaska Trade Building. Her room is a bit of a terrarium with glass windows on three sides. One looks out to her staff of eight, one looks to the reception area, and one looks over the Pike Place Market toward Elliott Bay. On the rare wall space she has hung a poster from the Seattle Opera’s production of The Ring, a souvenir from her two years fundraising in the city’s arts and culture scene.

This job, she finds, is altogether different. She’s not helping realize one vision, like a home for the opera, she’s working toward many: restoring Port Susan Bay near Everett, removing invasive plants from the McCartney Creek Preserve near Wenatchee, and cleaning up Puget Sound.

Kaufman-Cranney formed early connections with nature and with her community. Her childhood memories include exploring around her family’s cabin on a lake near Colville. And growing up in western Washington, she often tagged along with her mother who taught parks department classes in Auburn.

She came to her career, though, as a college freshman. Late one afternoon in calculus class, while her classmates talked about staying up all night thinking of theorems, she looked out the window to see people playing Frisbee in the sun. She enjoyed the math, she says, but she really wanted to be outside where the action was.

Her PE teacher Jane Ericson pushed her to the choice. “She said, ‘This is a wonderful life in the recreation field,’” says Kaufman-Cranney. And she offered “a brilliant piece of advice.” Ericson told her to major in recreation and park administration but take all the necessary classes to have a business minor. That recreation degree got Kaufman-Cranney in the door at the YMCA, but it was the business background that helped her move quickly into management.

After graduating from WSU in 1978, she started as a YMCA childcare director in Shoreline and before long became a full-time manager. That job led later to assistant vice president of community work. From there, “it’s a short leap,” to philanthropy, she says. She next served as YMCA of Seattle’s senior vice president of financial development. “What I had really learned in my community experience is that you can’t reach young people if you don’t have the resources to do it.” So her job involved sharing the needs and the stories of the families the YMCA was helping.

Along the way she acquired a husband, Tom, and two sons. Two years ago, she moved on to the Seattle Opera, interested in finding a new Northwest-based challenge.

While the opera and its $32 million fundraising campaign was good preparation for her new role, the three decades at the YMCA offered the grounding for what she’s doing now, she says. One of her favorite parts of that job was supporting outdoor learning experiences for children like Camp Colman in south Puget Sound and Camp Orkila in the San Juan Islands. “There are special things that happen at camps,” she says. “I’m drawn to creating and preserving those places.”

And, she says, that’s not much different from the work she sees for herself at The Nature Conservancy. This year, the Conservancy celebrates 50 years in Washington. The chapter was founded by biologist Arthur Kruckeberg, ecologist Victor Scheffer, and others concerned with protecting endangered habitat around the state. Over the years the organization has evolved to work with scientists, communities, and landowners to identify, protect, and restore lands in every corner of Washington.

In the Skagit Delta, for example, the Conservancy is working with farmers to flood their fields and create temporary wetlands for the benefit of waterfowl. Students and faculty from WSU’s Mount Vernon research station have been examining the effects of the flooding on potato pathogens once the land is returned to farming. “There’s this perception that we are about just protecting land,” says Kaufman-Cranney. “But we’re really about working with people.” In Skagit Valley, it’s working with farmers to explore new methods for supporting wildlife. In Willapa Bay, it means coordinating efforts with local government and landowners to combat the invasive Spartina.

While the agency and its volunteers have helped protect more than a half million acres in Washington, they have also helped with conservation in Chile, Australia, and British Columbia, notes Kaufman-Cranney. “It’s good to get back to an organization that has a strong Northwest presence and a world-wide vision.”