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Charity, Environment, Sustainability

Cooling burnout in a nature conservation association.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the job of a forest ranger is one of the most tranquil out there. Not so much. In reality, forest rangers are heavily emotionally invested in a job that’s never finished. Nature’s struggling to thrive due to myriad human-caused factors, piling personal and professional pressure onto ranger teams. Sadly and ironically, burnout is common.

Bernadette Wijnings, founder of The Strategy Office, was brought in to revitalise a Dutch nature association’s regional personnel strategy. Board-approved, it’s now set to safeguard the longevity of its purchase-to-preserve model and, crucially, its people.


Many of the regional team’s experienced forest rangers were due to retire over the coming years. Besides leaving an employee gap to fill, lacking digital processes raised a risk of their knowledge leaving along with them.

Adding to the pressure, the current ranger workload was already much too high. The team was set on boosting hiring, and saw Bernadette as their route to making a successful case to their board.

But was upping hiring the first, best solution to their overwork problem? More hires would be costly for the association, in time and cash. Burdensome at the best of times, and worryingly so given pension obligations for the client’s incoming wave of retirees.


First things first: Bernadette advised the client that extra hiring should be the last button they pushed. There were other branches to explore first:

  • To remedy overload, was there work that, frankly, didn’t need to be done in its current format?

  • How about changes to ways of working, organisational structure and cooperation?

Increasing hires would be a sound strategy only if those avenues didn’t bear fruit first.

Digging deep

Bernadette analysed business plans and financials, comparing the association’s operation in the focus region with others. She also interviewed and workshopped forest rangers, office managers, and everyone in between.

The easy, conventional route wasn’t enough for her, by the way. She joined a forest ranger to see first-hand what their day involved: the workload, the niche skills, the challenges faced by rangers and the nature around them.

You wouldn’t normally get that from the suits. But, at The Strategy Office, we walk our talk when it comes to appreciating the value in all layers of our clients’ organisations. Whether roaming forests or overnighting on shipping tankers, our consultants don’t let their decades of experience cocoon them in an ivory tower.

That would ruin all the fun.

For nature’s sake, say no

Bernadette’s interviews and workshops raised a clear flag: the organisation as a whole, not just our client region, had a detrimental yes culture.

No matter the importance of a given task or its relevance to their role, rangers (and other employees) would take it on. Out of duty; out of desire to help; out of lacking structural boundaries. Overload was draining the organisation’s vitality.

So Bernadette took the strides needed to articulate the region’s goals: what did they need and want to do? Clear on this, they were free to say a resounding no to other requests. Goodbye, unreasonable pressure.

The client team were chuffed with this, to say the least. It was simple, but transformational.

Bernadette’s no stranger to strategic pruning, though. She’s course-corrected always-yessers in her own scale-up company, and in the others she advises. When you’re in it, you can’t see the wood for the trees. But an outside pair of eyes lets the light filter through.

Old knowledge, fresh faces

Bernadette also dug into further questions needing an ask:

  • How best to manage the co-existence of paid/volunteer forest rangers?

  • Was the role division between them logical?

  • What did the current hierarchy of forest ranger roles, skills and authority levels mean in practice?

  • How good was cooperation within the regional team — corporate organisation, rangers, volunteers?

  • What ranger functions should be outsourced, and who could coordinate outsourcing?

Insights gathered, Bernadette charted the following up to 5 years ahead:

  • Structure, team capacity, and role and responsibility divisions the region would need

  • FTEs the regional division could officially have vs its actual FTEs

  • Knowledge transfer needs from retirees to new hires (justifying associated employee overlaps)

  • New hire profiles needed

These last areas were particularly key: for longevity, hiring and knowledge processes needed to evolve significantly. Both paid and volunteer rangers would need digital and commercial skills, alongside their green fingers and love of nature.

Knowledge transfer needed to move from analogue to digital, too. The wonder of learning the ranger craft out among the trees, from a senior with decades of experience, would remain precious. But their skills and learnings needed to be digitalised, too. Available in a database, not in a handful of heads; accessible and searchable; ensuring ranger knowledge transfer would last and accumulate beyond individual handovers.

Respect for deep-rooted culture

Emotional intelligence was essential to reaching consensus on this project. The rangers, understandably, wanted to take time for ideas, analysis and proposals to sink in. Discussions had a deep-democracy feel (and length, on occasion). And workshops would be punctuated with collective shifts of focus: if someone spotted a rare bird out of the window, the binoculars came out, and unpacking the association’s inner workings took a temporary backseat. (A worthy source of distraction, though.)

Bernadette rolled with it all, tuning into the client’s rhythm and range of priorities. She kept her project timeline sapling-supple, giving the right ideas time to take root.

All factors considered, even with improvements to existing ways of working, new hires would be needed. So Bernadette penned a board proposal for the organisation’s corporate team, alongside coaching them to present a united front.


New shoots

The hiring proposal was approved by the association’s board, and the client team is already working differently. Safeguarding performance with clear ownership and delegation, and transferring knowledge from retiring employees to fresh hires.

The trust that Bernadette built with this client was fundamental to the outcomes. Her no-nonsense attitude, combined with engaged appreciation of rangers’ values and burdens, avoided a cynical non-corporate vs corporate impasse.

She followed through, from analysis to tangible outcomes, in true The Strategy Office style.

Kies taal: NL EN