When your friends say you have lost your way, it is time to listen

Charles Clover’s recent piece on WWF’s 50th is eye opening.  Olivetti, Hudson Bay Trading Company, Rover are former mighty companies. They are no longer with us. They failed to transform and change. They often forgot why they were in business.  These companies  have thankfully died, to see  scarce resources invested elswhere, and have better things done.

Whilst this may be happening for companies, the same may not be happening for NGOs. Charles Clover – a friend of WWF – calls for WWF to ” to talk less and do more.'”

The full piece is below:

That old WWF panda has got awfully arthritic

The 50th anniversary of the founding of the environmental organisation WWF falls this month. It was a largely British idea, conceived by three distinguished British environmentalists and led for 15 years by Prince Philip in a surprisingly hands-on way. So the date for the celebration of the birth of WWF and its familiar panda symbol looks a bit daft: April 29, the day of the royal wedding. Philip has been invited to the anniversary event in Zurich, but please, pandas, don’t be too cut up if he doesn’t come.

It may be a little thing but I couldn’t help thinking WWF’s rather undiplomatic dislocation from its past betrays a degree of dysfunctionality and self-obsession that has long dulled its effectiveness. It was not until I read a new, no-holds-barred history of the organisation —Saving the World’s Wildlife, by the historian Alexis Schwarzenbach —that I realised quite how much the failings of a body that now has 5,000 employees in 100 countries have their roots in its beginnings.

It was Max Nicholson, a British civil servant and head of the Nature Conservancy quango, who came up with the idea of a World Wildlife Fund at a time when the toxic effects of new agricultural chemicals were becoming clear and there was a wave of anxiety about the likely consequences to African wildlife from Harold Macmillan’s post-colonial “wind of change”.

Nicholson’s original idea was that the fund would raise money for conservation projects dreamt up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a science-based United Nations body, which few had heard of then or now. As Nicholson had complained in a letter to The Times, the IUCN’s budget for global conservation was lower than the then £9,000 annual income of Battersea dogs’ home.

The body that Nicholson and his fellow trustees set up —in Switzerland to sidestep the shadow of Britain’s imperial past —ought a close association with business. That was because, over the previous decade, scientists and amateurs were perceived to have failed to raise the cash to do what needed to be done.

The irony is that none of WWF’s three founders —Nicholson, Julian Huxley or Peter Scott, the naturalist and television presenter —were businessmen. (The founding trustee who was, Luc Hoffmann, may have continued to sit on the board of the pharmaceutical giant, Hoffmann-La Roche, but he pursued a career as a professional ornithologist.) The paradox is that these inspiring and imaginative individuals inadvertently imposed a blanket of corporate bureaucracy on those who tried to follow them —although the founders knew full well that the business of conservation depended as much on inspiration as perspiration.

WWF has scored successes by its proximity to business, for example in its creation of certification bodies that have led to the raising of standards in forestry and fisheries. But there was always a dark side. The top-down, neocolonial model that the founders created was funded by tobacco and pharmaceutical firms. And WWF’s edge was blunted for 20 years by the presence on its board of the president of Shell, the oil multinational.

There were other skeletons in its closet such as Operation Lock — a secret attempt by staff at WWF South Africa to hire former members of the SAS to track down rhino poachers. The rhino horns disappeared and the operation was infiltrated by the South African military. Schwarzenbach, curator of Switzerland’s National Museum, lovingly dishes the dirt. It is to the current organisation’s great credit that it has displayed such openness —as has Philip —in revealing its archives to him.

Schwarzenbach, as a historian, is good on the past. He charts the revolt of “national organisations” against top-down rule that nearly led to the secession of WWF US in the 1990s and has made the WWF family almost ungovernable from its headquarters near Geneva — great problem, this, as staff routinely waste their time on internal co-ordination and management-speak and are often “in a meeting”, even in times of crisis, when outsiders call. Sharper organisations pick up the phone —as I am discovering as the head of a charity myself.

Schwarzenbach is less good on the present. He hasn’t seen the huge delegations of mostly mediocre staff —doing mystifyingly little —that WWF takes to big meetings. He does not question the top-down model of funding, which pays for wasteful national offices before money goes to the field. As for the organisation’s current obsession with climate change, he does point out that Philip shrewdly thought it should be left to someone else. The amount of conservation that goes on now, one former employee told me, would have Scott turning in his grave.

The giant panda is okay for now and tiger numbers are rising in India after a long period of incompetence at the country’s WWF was sorted out, but the reality —which, to be fair, WWF’s finest campaigners know well —is that the battle to save the world’s wildlife is being lost every day. We can salute WWF for its achievement in making conservation a household word, but recognise that the pace of change requires a dynamism that was natural to its founders but eludes it today. If WWF wants to stick around for another 50 years, it needs to drop the corporate model. It needs to talk less and do more.


North Africa’s Dictators Go Fishing for the Last Blue Fin Tuna

The sons of dictators lives are kept busy. Mubarak’s sons have been arrested and questioned on how they became so rich through property deals in Egypt, London and elsewhere.

But, the press has not picked up some very fishy links. Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, the well known benefactor of the LSE, is also the major owner of Libya’s Blue Fin Tuna fleet. Through his companies he has forged partnerships with other dictators, like Mourad Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of recently ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali, to catch more of this profitable and rare species.

As the Blue Fin tuna fishing season starts the regime in Libya will still ensure cash flows to the family accounts.

Inner Dialogue Gone Bad – When Campaigners Speak To Themselves

Campaigns are about persuading your key audience. Usually that group is quite specific, it is the men and women who will make the key  political and economic decisions you need to happen. Your job as a campaigner is simple. Work out who they are, work out what drives them and makes them tick. Find the right messages and medium to put your case to them. And, then  start work.  Your ambitions should start high but remain realistic – for your own emotional health at least. But, organisations get big, and when they get too big the risk is they spend most of their time bickering and arguing inside the organisation and spending constant valuable time in internal meetings. Now, I think self reflection is a good thing. Clearing the head, testing assumptions and making sure that you have the best plan to deliver your goal is a smart thing. But, internal organisational dialogue in airless rooms for a hours on end is hardly the best way to release creative thinking.

This problem of the internal NGO self-monologue has ever been there. But, as this recent NYT piece suggests, it seems that the problem is getting worse. And, the reason for the even longer internal conversations is that NGOs are not winning. The reason many give for the decline in fortunes, and some of their  big own goals, is that industry opposition are involved in some great conspiracy against the common good. Having worked for all sides on all issues, the truth is that there are far fewer conspiracies than you’d ever imagine. Personally, I have never encountered them, but Edward Bernays,  on his own admission, seems to be devised some.

The reality is all together far duller.  Communicating effectively with your key audience works wonders. People really do change their mind for the better (or worse). The trick is spending the time communicating with them. If you don’t you tend to loose. Perhaps, now is a good time for some of the leading NGOs  to return to their  roots to save our wonderful planet.



What to Do on 29 April

The British government are urging the British people to take to their streets and celebrate a wedding. Not any wedding, but the heir to the British crown. If you are laid up on the day of national celebration, and unable to take to the streets in mass state sponsored celebration, you may enjoy Thomas Paine’s great ‘Common Sense’. You may even be glad you missed the fun.