Why I’m Wondering How the USGBC Will Make Itself Sustainable

It’s time to question USGBC’s approach to transforming the building industry because at its most fundamental levels it seems to be failing—and failing miserably. Can the dramatic changes that most of us agree are required for meaningful results in the green building industry take place if the USGBC continues to be the leading national (and international) source of leadership and advocacy?

Please allow me to illustrate with two simple examples.

Using Social Media as a Cover Up for Lack of Progress

I am a loyal Twitter user and have posted nearly 5,000 times since I started in 2009, so I can’t help noticing that USGBC’s marketing department has ramped up their social media strategy in 2016 to Tweet dozens of times a week; however rather than providing the type of leadership and insights that you might expect, more often than not, they are just republishing older material or issuing “puff” materials, nothing involving thought leadership or even honest reporting of results (compared with the task ahead). The in-house "Green Building Studio" on the USGBC website shows 21 people on the roster, more than the number devoted to improving LEED's customer experience, I'll wager!

Is this social media behavior the result of a conscious decision to ramp up PR to cover up the lack of progress in convincing people to use the LEED system? From their posts and PR, you might think that there is a lot of momentum for green building certification, but the truth is otherwise. Let me explain.

Running a Money-Losing Organization

Figure 1. Chairman Rick's Message at Greenbuild in 2015

Figure 1. Chairman Rick's Message at Greenbuild in 2015

I recently read and analyzed USGBC’s 2014 Annual Report (available online) and, more importantly, the federal tax returns (called a Form 990) for 2013 and 2014. I couldn’t believe that an organization now heavily promoting Greenthink, i.e., “profitability” as essential for “sustainability” (and vice versa, see Figure 1), itself ran a massive deficit in those two years, the most recent for which we have public reports.

In the 2014 Annual Report (on page 13, buried amid all the hoopla about successes, is the financial report), USGBC discloses a consolidated loss of $14 million for 2013 and 2014 on continuing operations, including results from the profitable GBCI certification organization.

In the Form 990, required by the IRS to be filed by November 15th each year for the preceding year, USGBC discloses its own $9.1 million loss for calendar year 2014 and, if you subtract the $34.4 million gain in 2013 from the sale of its crown jewel, the Greenbuild tradeshow, to Hanley Wood (now Informa), an $8.9 million loss in 2013.

In other words, USGBC sustained a net operating loss of $18 million during 2013 and 2014, or $750,000 per month, for the two-year period. This downward trend has been evident since 2010 (see Figure 2).

Moreover, the same IRS reports show a decline in membership dues from about $15 million in 2012 to $10 million in 2014. The fact that USGBC member dues decreased one-third in just two years indicates further erosion of support for the organization, one that is likely continuing as more companies find USGBC's activities irrelevant to their ongoing work in design, construction and building operations..

Looking at these numbers, anyone concerned about the future of the green building movement should be concerned about the long-term sustainability of the USGBC.

I think there is an alternative path to a more sustainable future. In my new book, Reinventing Green Building, to be published in June by New Society Publishers, I present five future scenarios, including an approach that USGBC could take, to cut current LEED certification costs by 90% or more and, by so doing, dramatically expand the green building market in the next five years. I’ll share more insights from the book in upcoming blog posts. Please stay tuned and subscribe by email link if you want to be notified of new posts to this blog.

Figure 2. USGBC/GBCI Revenues and USGBC Operating Profit/Loss Since 2008

Figure 2. USGBC/GBCI Revenues and USGBC Operating Profit/Loss Since 2008