H. Hedrick Belin '86 has served as president of Potomac Conservancy of Silver Spring, Maryland since 2007. Drawing on more than 25 years of organizational strategy, fundraising, program development, and government relations experience, Belin is grounded by a profound personal connection with the environment and outdoors. He has committed his entire professional career to making sure that others have the opportunity to connect with inspiring, protected, and accessible lands.
Belin entered Hotchkiss as a prep in 1982, following the footsteps of his grandfather, Charles W. Belin '21, and his uncle, Charles W. Belin Jr. '63, to Lakeville. He adds, "A number of my cousins and my younger brothers, David '88 and Daniel '91, also attended." His interest in the environment was initially launched where he grew up. "In rural, northeastern Pennsylvania, we didn't have any neighbors close by, so once we got home from school, any adventures were outside. Our time was spent sledding and playing pond hockey in the winter; building 'forts' in the woods and sleeping outside in the summer; and jumping into piles of leaves in the fall. Once at Hotchkiss, I played sports all three seasons, so there wasn't a ton of free time to explore the local environment. In the winter, I cross-country skied in the woods and on the golf course, and then trained for sports by running all over the campus and the surrounding area."
Once at Yale, where he pursued a B.A. in history, Belin joined the Student Environmental Coalition. "It wasn't until I got to Yale that I gained greater awareness about environmental issues. I was fortunate to have two outstanding professors, Howard Lamar, who taught History of the American West, and Bill Cronin, who taught a junior seminar. I also took several courses at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences. I learned about many connections - the swamp where we caught tadpoles in the spring was actually called a wetland and was a very important ecological resource. There was an unnamed creek flowing through our property, eventually draining into the Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore nearly 300 miles away. During my summers in college, I worked for several different organizations, including the PA State Forestry Department and also The Nature Conservancy."
At The Nature Conservancy, Belin gained experience in fundraising campaigns for state and chapter offices, sharpened his research skills, and drafted reports on potential foundation funding. "At that point, I knew I wanted to have a career in environmental non-profits and ultimately run my own organization. After evaluating my geographic options, I decided to move to Washington, DC because of the importance of federal policy. With that in mind, I deliberately picked up a range of experiences to be able to be an effective executive director. This included learning more about fundraising as well as working on federal clean-water policies at the Izaak Walton League in the early 1990s. At age 25, I was co-chairing the national environmental community's work on federal wetlands policy, which included a debate over what should be considered a 'water of the United States.' Interestingly, this definitional debate continues today, nearly 30 years later!"
In 1996, Belin became senior director of field development at the National Park Foundation in DC, which was a newly created position. His responsibilities included providing leadership and strategic support to seven direct reports and a total staff of 10 in six offices. He was credited with improving the integration of field offices with the central office through alignment of goals, enhancement of communication systems, and implementation of new financial reporting standards. He participated in the Foundation's senior management team that increased the organization's total revenue from $10 million to $50 million from 1999-2005. During this time, Belin concurrently worked on his Master's from the George Washington University School of Public Policy and Management, receiving it in 1998 and further expanding his knowledge in fundraising, program development, and government relations experience.
Joining Metropolitan Group in 2005, Belin spent the next two years honing his fundraising skills, first as senior resource development director and then as vice president. He led the firm's environmental practice, growing total annual contracts from $200,000 to over $400,000 in less than 12 months, and expanded a major individual donor program for a client that tripled contributions in less than a year. He served as campaign counsel on several multi-million-dollar fundraising campaigns.
In 2007, Belin brought his considerable expertise and strategic planning experience to Potomac Conservancy and has now served as the organization's president for the past 13 years. He is credited with the transformation of the Conservancy into an effective and agile environmental advocacy organization that drives innovative public policy and on-the-ground solutions to improve the health of the region's rivers and streams. "The good news is the Potomac River is making a comeback in terms of its overall health. Pollution levels are down; fish populations are rebounding; and more and more people are getting out on or along the local creeks and streams. Much of this success today is because of the federal Clean Water Act.
"That said, this progress is threatened, so we still have lots of work to do. The current Administration has proposed every year for the last four years to eliminate funding for clean water initiatives that would benefit the Potomac and all the other rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, we have been able to build a bipartisan coalition of support that has increased funding for these programs that are delivering incredible clean water results. Much of the pollution still going into the Potomac happens every time it rains and water flows over the land. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, nearly all pollution coming out of large industrial pipes has stopped. When it comes to water quality, the Potomac River is a microcosm of rivers across the country. There are parts of the watershed that are very urbanized, and there are parts that have heavy agricultural uses, with other parts that are very rural. So, we have to deploy a suite of tools in partnership with other organizations to drive forward on clean water, employing a two- pronged strategy. First, we seek to protect healthy water quality in the more rural parts of the watershed through land protection techniques. Then in the more suburban areas, we work to restore degraded watersheds, including floodplains, wetlands, and stream banks, to reduce pollution.
"At Potomac Conservancy, we're driven by the belief that the foundation for healthy, sustainable and connected communities starts with clean water. We seek to build a local movement of clean water champions to speak up; stand up; and show up for our region's creeks and streams. That is where I spend lots of my time - figuring out resources and partnerships. We're fortunate to have an incredibly experienced board of directors; many have been leaders on environmental and clean water issues at a national or even international level. They donate their time, talent, and treasure to our organization because the Potomac is their hometown river."
For Belin, "There isn't a typical day at Potomac Conservancy. In a week, I might be on the Hill meeting with House and Senate staff about clean water funding; pitching a family foundation on a six-figure investment in our land protection work; or running a board committee call. The most challenging part of my job is to know when to call it a day. The Potomac and other rivers and streams didn't become polluted overnight, and we're not going to achieve a healthy river in a week either. But what I really enjoy is empowering others to make a difference. That might be mentoring our staff who then move on to national environmental organizations in DC, or it could be collaborating with a funder to make his or her idea a reality."
Belin credits Hotchkiss for shaping him in a number of ways. "Starting as a prep, I learned to be independent. Because of the challenging academic and athletic environment, I learned resiliency - to literally pick myself back up when I got knocked down in lacrosse or figuratively when I bombed a pre-calculus test. One of the most valuable skills I learned (and continue to learn) is how to write, starting with the Hawk (Mr. Hawkins) and Daily Themes during the dark winter months in Lakeville. In addition, I can still hear his voice drilling all the preps with the rules of grammar around the passive voice and proper punctuation with a compound sentence joined by 'and' or 'but.'"
For current students considering a career in the environmental space, Belin says, "I encourage you to pursue a liberal arts education in college. I'm a history major and have limited scientific expertise. But at Hotchkiss I learned about how to do research, analyze what I've gathered, and then how to best present it to my target audience. And at Hotchkiss, I got to try different forms of writing depending on the goal and audience. It was there where I first took on leadership positions, such as dorm proctor or editor-in-chief of the school paper. Leadership is an invaluable skill, but looks different depending on the situation. So 'trying on' different leadership roles and responsibilities are also important. Just like writing Daily Themes prep year, you always have to be 'practicing' your leadership skills to get better.
"If there are any graduates in the Washington, DC area who would like to get their hands dirty for clean water or their feet wet with some of our summer paddling, please visit Potomac.org and sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter, where we share events and activities."