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.