Appalachian Mountain Club's Top Man Talks About Running One of the Country's Oldest Outdoor Groups

September 19, 2016

Joe Halpern of the Boston Business Journal recently interviewed alumnus John Judge ’89 who, as the president and CEO of the Appalachian Mountain Club, has led America’s oldest outdoor recreation and conservation club since 2012.

The Appalachian Mountain Club website states that the 140-year-old association has more than 100,000 members, advocates and supporters, including 12 local chapters, more than 16,000 volunteers and over 450 full-time and season staff. That's a lot of people.

We are certainly very, very fortunate that we live in this region. We have phenomenal paddling, sailing, cross-country skiing. We’ve got some of the best hiking in the world, and we have all this incredible nature around us. Along with that, I think people are working harder than ever and are looking for an outlet. … Then we have that added digital piece, where the average kid is spending something like seven hours a day in front of some kind of a screen. I think people are definitely craving the fun of the outdoors as a de-stressor and as a way to build community and rebuild their families.

Obviously a big part of your job is fundraising. How is that going?
It’s going extremely well. Last year we raised well over $12 million, which is an all-time high. That included $3 million or so from membership and almost $3.5 million from our annual fund. We raised money to purchase Baker Mountain in Maine, a 4,300-acre mountain. We raised about $8 million for capital-related projects, including a camp we opened up recently in New York, 45 minutes from Manhattan, which includes a new outdoor program center. We put $1.5 million into that.

We’ve got a core group of donors, individuals who give on a regular basis. Foundations continue to be important to us. But unlike some other conservation nonprofits, we do not get any help from the government. It’s pretty much all private donations for us.

How much of your time is spent on fundraising?
On the resource development side of things, I probably spend 70 percent of my time. On that I mean not only fundraising but also finding good partners and reaching out to find talented and smart staff and volunteers.

And what are the biggest challenges you face, when it comes to fundraising?
You probably hear this from other nonprofits that it’s a very competitive landscape out there. The competition is fierce. One of the things we (all nonprofits) need to do is think of how to get the millennials into philanthropy now, and whether we lean on Kickstarter or some of these other (social networking) opportunities to do crowd funding. Getting young people to give is going to be one of the biggest challenges for all nonprofits.

AMC is headquartered right in the middle of Boston, in Beacon Hill where there aren’t a ton of trees. Why be headquartered there?
We were founded in the city in 1876 by (Edward Pickering and) a bunch of other outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to get out of the city and protect and enjoy the outdoors. Getting people connected in the cities to nature is one of the biggest challenges for our generation. So it makes a lot of sense for us to be here in Boston.

For a lot of nonprofits, diversity hiring has become priority. Is that the case with AMC?
I think there are many, many reasons. The first is, we need to do a better job of getting outside of our comfort zones. I think what happens at many organizations is, it’s a who-you-know kind of network versus a broadening of that network. Especially in a city like Boston, I think we need to do more in terms of reaching out to new neighborhoods and getting folks involved in the outdoors. I don’t think it’s necessarily been a priority for us in the past, but I am proud that we’re doing more of that now. We’ve hired some dynamic folks — three new people in our New York City office who are people of color — and will continue to work in that direction.

A board is so crucial to a nonprofit’s success. What have you done to manage and make your board more effective?
We have a very interesting board structure. We have 23 board members, including myself, and then we have five board members who have to come up from the 12 AMC chapters. One of the things we tried to do with our board is have people come to the table with the right amount of learning and assigning them with specific tasks and projects that best match their skills. We’ve tried to tap into their collective intelligence. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of engaging our board and then tapping into their network.

Your background suggests you’re a city guy. What drew you to this role?
I am a city guy. I was born in Dorchester and lived in Boston almost all my life. I love the city. My dad was Massachusetts' longest-serving registered (landscape) architect when he passed away. He worked at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. He designed the green space around City Hall, which we never saw. It was going to be a beautiful park, but some people wanted it surrounded by concrete.

We were always out with my dad, always hiking. I’m an Eagle Scout, so that is a big part of my background. I worked at summer camps in New Hampshire all through high school. So the outdoors for me has always been just a terrific outlet. Getting out there and hiking a 4,000-footer and checking that off my list has always been important.

What do you typically wear to work?
I was at an 8:30 meeting this morning and someone said “Why are you in a tie?” (Laughs.) I’m usually in shorts. We’re very fortunate that it’s part of our job to go out and have fun.

Is there any Wi-Fi in your AMC huts?
There is for staff and for emergencies. But we don’t broadcast it. We’re trying to create more of that community feeling and get people off their electronic devices.

Do you have any personal pet peeves on the trail?
Just trash. That drives me crazy. We’re all encouraged to carry a little plastic bag or shopping bag, put it in your backpack and as you're walking along you pick up what people drop along the way. It’s all about teaching a respect for the outdoors.

I thought you would say one of your pet peeves is seeing people on their cell phones while on the trail.
I don’t see that very often, to be honest. On a lot of trails, you don’t get signals. Most people use their phones on the trail for taking photos. We encourage that.

Have you had any close calls on the Appalachian trail?
I’ve had close calls in terms of weather, being out on the trail in hailstorms. Other than running into some angry squirrels, nothing too exciting.

What did you think of Bill Bryson’s bestselling book “A Walk In the Woods,” which featured the misadventures of two men hiking on the Appalachian Trail?
The great thing about the outdoors is, it’s a surprise. It’s always going to be mystery in terms of what you’re going to encounter. To read about (Bryson and his buddy’s) antics and all the ups and downs they had, I think, was fun. It’s one thing if people are humbled in the outdoors. It’s another thing if they’re humiliated. And we don’t want people to have that kind of fear that they’re going to be humiliated (on our trails). Our job is to educate people on how to get the most enjoyment in the outdoors.

An economics major at Stonehill as well as President of the Student Government Association, Judge graduated in 1989. In addition to leading the Appalachian Mountain Club, Judge has served with distinction the following: Boy Scouts of America, Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, and Habitat for Humanity, Boston.