By Karen Hopper Usher
EAST LANSING — Money, access and people. Those are Melisa Klem’s priorities as the new executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
While not a journalist, Klem’s work in proposal and grant writing is that of a person who knows how to wield words.
“I consider writing proposals to be a competitive sport,” said Klem, who began her new job with the start of the new year. Her most recent post was as director of development at the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.
She said she loves fundraising and was looking for an opportunity to become an executive director of a non-profit organization.
“SEJ needs a fundraiser at the helm, and I think we’ve found that,” said Bobby Magill, president of the society’s board of directors.
When founding Executive Director Beth Parke announced she was stepping down after more than 26 years, the board launched a search for her replacement.
One of the first questions board members had to answer was whether they wanted a journalist with non-profit administration experience or an administrator who knew journalism, said Jeff Burnside, the immediate past president of the board.
Any journalism group has plenty of journalism experts, Burnside said.
Klem’s application was immediately impressive — a perfect mix of non-profit administration, conservation, fundraising and development, Burnside said.
During an application process that Klem and Burnside both describe as “lengthy,” Burnside got to know Klem over the phone, through video conferencing and in-person.
“I found her to be wonderfully engaging, bright, smart, capable, insightful and likable–which is an often overlooked quality,” he said.
Parke said she has no hesitations about turning over the reins to Klem.
“She’s really well-equipped for what the role is,” Parke said. “And she’s very smart.”
Magill is also impressed.
She was one of a few candidates who was truly conversant in both journalism and fundraising, he said. She was able to very clearly talk about how the society should revamp its website and reach out to foundations.
Klem, who lives on a small farm near Washington D.C. with her husband, son and two teenage stepdaughters, is likewise complimentary toward Parke.
“The programming she has in place is wonderful,” Klem said.
One of the society’s goals is to expand the definition of environmental journalism, Magill said.
“Environmental journalism is much more than trees, mountains and flowers,” he said. For instance, mold in public housing is an environmental issue.
A broad definition of environmental news presents an opportunity to expand the organization’s membership.
Klem agrees: “Other journalists will come to realize they are covering the environment” even if they aren’t specifically writing about climate change.
She is a fan of the outdoors and runs a small horse farm in Sykesville, Maryland (Budget Travel’s “Coolest small town in America”) that includes Serenity – her own young mare that she is preparing to compete in dressage – two boarded horses, a chicken, a German shepherd and a barn cat.
That means she’s outdoors a lot.
“Even when it’s 22 and very windy,” she said.
When she takes a vacation, she wants to be outdoors. She took her family to Yellowstone two years ago, has visited the Costa Rican rainforest and hopes to become certified in scuba diving.
“And I love to fish,” she said. She left the Seafood Nutrition Partnership last summer for family reasons, but remains a seafood fan.
Klem said she likes to dabble in the kitchen and one of her favorite dishes to prepare is mussels. “Sustainably sourced, of course,” she said.
One big decision left to be made about Klem’s tenure: where the society’s offices will be. The group’s lease will expire at its current location near Philadelphia. Klem is hoping for a Washington, DC-area office close to her home in Sykesville, Maryland.
If that doesn’t happen, Klem’s got one thing going for her when it comes to travel: her husband works for Amtrak.
“It’s a wonderful perk, to be able to travel for free,” she said. “I’m just a huge fan of taking the train.”
By this time next year, Magill hopes the society will have grown, become more diverse and be more engaging on a local level. What Klem brings to the society will help it accomplish that, he said.
For at least the first few months of 2017, Klem, who formally stepped into the role on January 3, has Parke’s help. Beyond that, Parke isn’t sure what will happen.
The board of directors gave her a “lovely title of executive director emeritus,” but she doesn’t think she’ll use it very often.
“I wouldn’t want to cast a shadow on Melisa,” she said.
Klem’s already thinking about how the changing political landscape affects her new situation.
“I think it’ll be an interesting year going forward, especially with the new administration,” she said. Creating and maintaining access to subject matter experts and supporting Freedom of Information Act requests are top priorities, she said.
“I want to make sure that SEJ and environmental journalists writ large have access to subject matter experts,” she said. The details of those plans will come together in the new year as she works on the new strategic plan for the society.
Asked if she thinks spokespeople for agencies are a help or a hinderance to journalists, she said she wants to build bridges.
“I think that’s a strength of mine, building relationships,” she said.
Editors note: Story updated to correct reference to mold in public housing.