Untangling the tangled bank – 1

Peter Marren dropped a stone into the pond whose ripples continue to spread.  His article in the Independent, followed by pieces (here and here) by the Independent’s Environment Editor Mike McCarthy, and aided and abetted by this blog, have opened up a debate on the tangled bank of UK wildlife NGOs – do we have too many or too few? And are they the right ones and are they doing the best job for nature?  This seems a debate worth continuing if you have nature’s best interests at heart.

And I wouldn’t describe it as a can of worms, although Darwin was very keen on his worms too.  There are quite a few issues about whether the NGOs we have are the NGOs that nature needs – so for much of this week, this blog will explore these issues.  I’d really like your comments as we go along please.  Today we will consider whether closer working together, perhaps as far as merger, would be good or bad. It’s a complex issue so I don’t regard my words below as the last word – please contribute your views.

At my home address there are two adults (although, granted, you might think that the adult status of one of them is questionable).  Between us we are members as follows:

National Trust, our local Wildlife Trust, RSPB (both life members), Plantlife (both members – I think an offer on a case of wine persuaded us to double up!), Butterfly Conservation, the BTO (although it isn’t really a conservation organisation it’s one of the crowd – and a very good member of the crowd) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.  We are both lapsed members of Buglife and know we ought to re-join and will when we get around to it (although the fact that I scored higher in Buglife’s Bird Fair quiz than did their own Chief Executive should get me a discount, I think).  I am very embarrassed to admit that I am not a member of Pond Conservation even though I am a rather useless trustee (and I will join I promise).  And the list could go on.

I’ve never added up how much all this costs – but it looks like a cool 200 quid a year and more.  And still I feel guilty about the gaps.

How does nature feel about this spend?  I think nature would be interested to know how much of the 2-300 pounds ends up helping nature.  And which pounds spent in which organisations do the most good.

I’m probably unusual (I do hope so) but I rarely read any or much of the magazines that these organisations send me.  I generally put their Christmas catalogues straight in the bin – although BTO Christmas cards are often very tasteful.  This means that half a dozen organisations are sending me magazines, catalogues, newsletters, invitations to AGMs.  And they are all trying to recruit more people like me to be multiple members of different organisations.  Many of them are doing research on the natural world, managing land, cosying up to industry and lobbying governments.  How much of this multiplication benefits nature and how much keeps the organisations going?

Is there enough multiplication of effort that we are kidding ourselves to think that our memberships are well spent?  Could some judicious sharing of expertise and resources make nature better off?  Are wildlife NGOs looking at this as a serious option?  It’s worth considering, I think, particularly as this can stop far short of merging organisations.

But what of mergers?  It’s often said that the tangled bank of NGOs ensures that the public give the maximum amount of money.  I don’t think that is true.  I have come and gone with several of these organisations – not renewing when they seemed less relevant or when they irritated me in some way.  Only the RSPB seemed such a reliable bet that it was worth life membership – and, so far, they haven’t failed me.  But if, to take a ridiculous hypothetical example, Butterfly Conservation merged with the Marine Conservation Society I know how I, for one, would react.  I would think – ‘that’s very good.  I am a member of BC and they are great. But I’ve often thought I should be a member of MCS and never got round to it. Now, for a few quid more than my BC membership I can be a member of both.  Yippee!’. I may be unusual, but I guess there are quite a few who would think like me.  So even a loss of identity – or a growth of identity perhaps – from merging some NGOs might well lead to increases in income rather than decreases.

So this blog believes that it is in nature’s interests for wildlife NGOs to work closer together – to share resources, and maybe, in a few cases, to merge identities for the good of nature.  What do you think?


23 Replies to “Untangling the tangled bank – 1”

  1. There’s some interesting ecology here – there’s no doubt scale can bring benefits and, in an era when a frequently flawed view of business efficiency frequently beats actual outcomes, bigger is popular.

    I’d agree that RSPB has done well as its got bigger – I think the key reason is it still has a unifying core philosophy – the same reason the FC estate has done well. But FC was lucky to escape the mother of all giants, NE, which, from what I’m picking up , is doing well in its broad countryside function of delivering HLS. The old Countryside Commission people functions have gone far less well. The National Trust seems to face similar issues – the countryside simply hasn’t done as well as the houses, and when you look at the challenge and cost of running 37,000 built properties its perhaps not surprising – in this case divestement rather than amalgamation might be the answer. Whilst the FC estate is cohesive the realtionship between the doers and the granters/regulators is less comfortable.

  2. Whilst there are benefits from collaboration, I’m extremely dubious if there would be many benefits from full-on mergers. It would assume that either the merging organisations’ funding sources were not in any way duplicated or that if they were, then their funders would happily give twice the amount to the single new organisation, I doubt this, so very likely total income would decline. Furthermore competition drives innovation and rewards the well-adapted (as followers of Darwin surely we should understand this). The fewer conservation organisations the were, the more likely that unchallenged, they would become complacent and slow and that wouldn’t help conservation. No, keep the small organisations nipping the heels of the likes of eg RSPB. It keeps the big boys nimble or if not (and quite rightly) they would over time be replaced.

    1. Alistair – you may well be right in practice. Although you aren’t right in principle. Everyone concentrates on how much money is brought in – and that is important – but I would like to know how much money goes out and is spent on nature, and to what effect. It’s not necessarily the case that bringing twice as much money in means that twice as much nature is saved. You have always been more wedded to the market than I, but this is an example where the market is not necessarily right (from the point of view of nature’s best interests). The organisations with the best marketting will get the most money in – and they may or may not be the best at spending that money for nature’s sake. The market does not directly reward competence and efficiency at nature conservation. What would the league table for return on investment (biodiversity saved per pound arriving) look like for the NGOs we have right now?

      But, as I say, I tend to agree with you in practice that mergers may not be a good idea. And in any case, they probably won’t happen unless imposed externally – and that seems unlikely to happen.

      On the other hand, closer collaborative working is a no-brainer? Maybe?

  3. Not a particularly intelligent point, but perhaps at least a little more of the marketing / publicity / fundraising spend could be done jointly?

    For example, a single ‘nature shopping’ catalogue, with branded shopping opportunities across several NGOs, and even – dare I suggest – advertising each others memberships!
    Or along a similar vein, a single online store instead of each organisation paying to maintain one, with memberships as one of the shopping options.

    Hopefully, pushing towards getting all that kind of stuff done online, and less and less material going out in the post – the RSPB sends me tons of paper and card a year, which is lovely, but much of it I would just as happily read online – I imagine that would be cheaper for them too.

  4. It is obvious that from reading comments so far that there are some simple things that can be done right away.

    The Chief Executives and Trustees of existing NGO’s can ensure that they are taking politicians to task on all issues which threaten our wildlife. They may already be doing a good job but it seems they are not communicating that sufficiently to the press or indeed their members.

    A more collaborated agenda is essential. To ensure this happens there must be a greater bond of trust between NGO’s when working together. To often in the past “The Big Boys” have taken the higher ground and given the impression that an initiative is theirs and not part of a partnership. I have personally suffered when working with the RSPB with even bullying tactics used. Too often in their own publications little reference or none at all was given to partners. This happens too often for that not to be part of policy. This competitiveness has to cease.

    There is a very big problem which is mainly one for Wildlife Trusts. Being separate charites all resources are used where they are obtained. With the south-east being the wealthiest this means that resources for nature conservation are unbalanced and not focussed where they are needed most. This leaves WT effort in Wales, Ulster etc being far less than is needed. A way has to be found to address this.

    I agree that mergers are probably not going to happen but all NGO’s need to think just how do they work in the future. There have been instances where working together has worked well. We just need more of it and a joined up agenda.

    There is no doubt that that most NGO’s are doing great work with education, nature reserve management etc. but sadly all of that we now agree has not stopped the decline of our biodiversity.

    We now need more evidence that all NGO’s are serious in putting themselves on the line for what is left of British wildlife and their habitats.

    1. Derek – thank you. I’d like to see the person who can bully you! But seriously, thank you for the openness of your comment. And thank you for what you said about the Wildlife Trusts which must be true – how can the distribution of resources across 47 (or 48?) organisations be claimed to be according to conservation need? It is much better that you say that than almost anyone else. Would the education work done by a large variety of organisations be better pooled? Does every organsiation really need a youth membership in the current model? Is this to help nature or to help recruitment?

  5. Mark, I pretty much agree with all of your views, here, but with caveats.

    My pattern is much the same as yours. RSPB (and I pay for a family membership for two nieces as well); SWT, NTS (family membership), BTO and SOC. I don’t think I’m a member of any more conservation organisations but if you told me I was, I wouldn’t argue.

    I too, read little of what I’m sent; like you, I’m too busy doing. The stupid thing is, I keep it all, on the basis that I might read it someday. This is causing no little marital friction:)- not to mention overloaded floors.

    I am a major fan of the RSPB; I think it does its job brilliantly. It needs to be better digitally, but it’s getting there. It does, however, overwhelm its little brothers and sisters. And whilst it has a very sensible biodiversity priority, there’s no doubt birds come first. So, if I were a Butterfly Conservation person, and was asked to merge with RSPB, I’d have serious doubts. If, OTOH, I had the money to fund half a research programme, I might well phone up the RSPB and ask them to fund the other half. They’d probably/ possibly do it; but they would DEFINITELY claim credit, because they have a huge machine to keep moving and they need the PR to bring in as much money as possible- so the chances are that poor old BC, having got its research finished, would then be in a worse position when it came to its next sponsorship/fundraising bid to raise the funds, because it didn’t get the kudos for the work already done. At least that’s what it would fear; and with some justification.

    I’m a fan of what BTO does, although, to be frank, it is a bit up itself about it. As a non-scientist, I’m often overwhelmed by what it asks me to do and by the published results. What it does could be done by the RSPB, but the problem is that, whilst it might be OK for a while, it would almost certainly cease to be a priority in the annual spending bids.

    I support SOC, because I feel I must, but I’m not sure anyone would miss if it were gone.

    NTS and SWT have both nearly crashed and burned in the last 10 years, not because they’re not worthy, but because they forgot to manage themselves in the rush for growth.

    There is synergy with NTS, but its priority is NOT nature conservation and there are tensions too. So collaborative working is a good idea. More, is almost certainly not.

    There must be case for the Wildlife Trusts to stay independent. They look after and care for and develop so many things that would be below the notice of the big NGOs, but which are precious in their own right.

    Being a sad soul, I don’t think I’ve ever resigned or let a membership lapse, and some of them are getting cash from me through inertia. SWT is the only one which has ever had a cheque through an appeal. The RSPB gets enough of me, one way or another, without more cash.

    So, definitely benefits of synergy; but benefits of merger depend on which side of the fence one is sitting.

  6. Mark – you have reminded me that a decade ago or more I did suggest that maybe Wildlife Watch and RSPB Young Explorers should merge. Both are operated at a local level by volunteers and sometimes the same individuals. The same is true of RSPB and Wildlife Trusts Local Groups. Doing something as simple as finding a way to merge this activity would send terric messengers through the NGO network

  7. Some very good points here. I can find something to agree with in each comment and little to argue against. The issue to me is highlighted by Sheila, these organisations could work together and do work together but they always claim individual credit. That is not surprising because they are are all competing to maintain individual budgets. I dont think combining the odd one or two would mean less income or even double subscription rates but it might send out the right message. I am in the school of being very unlikely to pull out of the core organisations I most strongly believe in (RSPB and Wildlife Trusts), but tend to come and go from the others. Now that is a good marketing project – what holds us to some but whilst being flexible on the rest.

  8. Hi Mark,

    Interesting blog and comments. I look forward to this discussion continuing, though I suspect not to a conclusion. Having worked in the conservation/environment NGO movement for more than 20 years I have every sympathy with the need for efficiency within and across organisations. But I’m not sure taking specialist ones and merging them into bigger ones will meet that need. Certainly, on the surface there appears to be advantages in economies of scale. But equally, I can name large conservation NGO who fail to deliver on that promise, often because they still act internally as if they are many separate organisations, as each speciality or discipline pursues its own agenda.

    It is also worth looking at the history of many NGO’s, and charities in the UK – not just in conservation. Here we find that many are set up on the whim of individuals who have a particular agenda, interest or passion. Many, it has to be said, can also have an arrogance that makes them very difficult to work with. A non-conservation case in point (though I stress I pass no comment on them as people) is Help For Hero’s who it seems to me were set up by a couple of people in response to a perceived need (but likely as not with no proper analysis) and immediately sucked funds from existing veteran’s organisations, such as the British Legion. I do wonder if we did every see merges within conservation NGO’s, then we’d also see individual members, staff and trustees of said organisations taking their bats home and setting up new organisations. Worse still Mr C’s so called “big society” might even encourage such a move. So unless there was a real concerted effort based on clear conservation benefit (which is measurable and demonstrable) we may, in seeking to solve one problem, be creating many more.

  9. Hi Mark

    Interesting contributions and discussions. Here are some views from the small things that run the world.

    When the Bumblebee Conservation Trust was established in 2006 it got 6,000 new members in a matter of a few weeks. Did those people stop funding other wildlife charities because they had started funding the Bumblebees? I strongly suspect not.

    Those of us who have a very keen interest in conserving wildlife probably do spend £150-200 per year on memberships of our favourite NGOs, but would we feel justified spending this amount on just one NGO? Would we not sometimes think ‘golly they are doing so well they don’t need my support’? We are pretty atypical people anyway; there are lots of people who just like birds, or just like bugs, or just like their local wildlife – these preferences are key to the blossoming of organisations to fulfil their needs – it’s a marketplace.

    BUT representing people is distinctly not the be-all-and-end-all – we also to different degrees speak out on behalf of the species and habitats that we represent. At Buglife this is very much the case, as the only charity in Europe looking after all invertebrates we are very mindful that we need to represent them and be a determined advocate.

    Do we do this economically? Well I think I would be happy to compare newspaper column inches per £ income with any other wildlife NGO!

    And there lies another important consideration, people and indeed society does not have a fixed appreciation level of wildlife. The RSPB did not get a million members by gobbling up the million people who in 1850 were supporting other wildlife NGOs. It got them by changing hearts and minds, by leading people into seeing birds in a completely different light: no longer as pests to be shot, but as expressions of freedom and beauty.

    This is not the only example, consider how our perception of bats has changed just in the last 50 years.

    Changes to our ethical valuation of nature affect not only individuals but also funders, they are just people as well. I am convinced that effective communication of ecological and conservation messages ultimately makes the boat we are all in much bigger.

    A single NGO or even a restricted cabal of big NGOs would maintain a deadening status quo. Which of them would run the ‘Love Spiders’ and ‘Stop Swatting Wasps’ campaigns that Buglife has? And which of them would stand up for the many endangered invertebrate species that live on neglected habitats like soft rock cliffs, river shingle, and open mosaic habitats on brownfield sites?

    Obviously 90% of the time the wildlife NGOs agree about the priorities and the policies, but not always, what is good for the goose is not always good for the goose barnacle.

    A good example is the SSSI system – very good for birds and plants because the initial series was defined around them – but very poor for invertebrates. Some key bug habitats are largely absent from the series, and a great many highly threatened bug species exist entirely outside the SSSI system. Even when they are on an SSSI they are very rarely a notified feature (only 15% of SSSIs list any invertebrates at all) and hence the invertebrates are not formally protected by NE (CCW takes a more inclusive approach).

    Have you heard this before? If not, why not? While there will be bug expert staff members in the big NGOs who understand that the failure of the SSSI system to properly protect bugs (64% of the British fauna) is a profound obstacle to the UK conserving biodiversity, the issue never rises to the top of the agenda of the big NGOs. It is not an issue for birds and it does not fit with the current priorities of the Wildlife Trusts either.

    Only an independent bug conservation able to grab the microphone and shout about issues like this is able to make invertebrate needs heard.

    Only by having a diversity of NGOs can there be movement, and new messages. NGOs focussed on neglected issues can change hearts and minds and ultimately convince millions more people to support wildlife conservation morally, financially and practically.

    Interestingly, Buglife did approach Butterfly Conservation and the Amateur Entomologists Society with a proposal to develop a joint junior bug membership scheme a couple of years ago, but the idea was met with little or no enthusiasm. I definitely think there is the potential for much closer working on the provision of ‘education’/child membership services between wildlife NGOs. There are ways this could be done that would maintain distinctive identities.

    We should also consider amalgamating support services to increase cost effectiveness, this may well happen for HR services as long as tax laws don’t make it prohibitively expensive.

    And Mark, our membership is half the cost of most wildlife charities, and we have to conserve 120 times as many species as the RSPB, so sorry no discount, but please do go to our website and re-join.

    All the best

    Matt Shardlow

    1. Matt – good to hear from you and many thanks for your first comment on this blog. You make a very good case, as always, for the excellent work done by Buglife. You certainly do get more column inches and broadcast minutes for your members’ investment than most (any?) other wildlife NGOs.

      But of course, in making the case for your own organisation, very fairly, you aren’t proving that all the NGOs that exist at the moment are as great as Buglife. And you didn’t deny the possibility that some closer working, perhaps to the point of merger, might be useful and workable. You make a good point about youth membership which is in some ways echoed by one of Danny Heptinstall’s comments here too. Interesting.

      And I have already reacquainted myself with the cost of your membership. It is quite cheap isn’t it? I’ll tell you tomorrow whether I have rejoined. Keep your fingers crossed – and i did beat you in your quiz so I am clearly the type of member that you need!

  10. I think merging the youth departments of all conservation organisations to create a seperate, stand-alone and targetted nature club for young people would be an excellent idea that would most efficently engage with young people

    I also think something along this line is urgently needed in university’s as there is currently large groups of students at all university’s who wish to get involved with conservation and observe nature but don’t know how to access it themselves and have no one to guide them in the right direction. Students are the people with the time, energy and in many cases the disposable income to play a major part in conservation yet I’m continually amazed how little (if at all) conservation organiations engage with students.

    Back to the unified youth group though – last time I checked youth members made up between a fith and a quarter of the total RSPB membership – so if the RSPB were to spin off its youth department it’d no longer be able to say it has a million members – is the RSPB going to let that happen.? I very much doubt it!

    1. Danny – welcome and thanks for your comments. You have just, to some extent, pre-empted tomorrow’s blog as you have started the train of thought, including the million members issue, that I was thinking of starting then. Well done! Let’s see where we go with that subject today.

  11. Mark – don’t think mergers are a good idea. I like being a member of mulitple NGOs partly because it justifies me spending more of my money on conservation 🙂 (our household NGO expenditure is about £500 per year and I’ll eat just beans before I give those up) but also because I need some certainty that each of my interest areas are getting the full attention, by the relevent experts, that they deserve. No offence, but I want BDS researching dragonfly conservation, not the RSPB. I’d love to know exactly what I’m getting for my buck in each case though.

    This mornings brainstorm! : I’ve run a series of highl level partnership projects in the NGO sector, the last joining WT and the RSPB at a nationally strategic level, the first of its kind at the time. I learnt a terrific amount, mostly about jossling, but also about how to work people and overcome misconceptions – it also brought out of the woodwork those that care so much, that they are prepared to work beyond the personality constraints of their NGO (and beyond their statutory bodies remit too). My own personal approach, perhaps as a niaive and trusting optmist has been to see all of the experts to hand, wherever they come from, who are capable and dedicated, as a virtual team and treated them as such. I can tell you for nothing, this did me few favours in the hosting organisation! Many of the reasons for this have been highlighted by others above and I don’t need to repeat them. This mornings brainstorm (and you know I like diagrams) is to in effect ‘formalise’ the virtual NGO (and include some select statutory people) team by undertaking a proper systems analysis of where the expertise and strengths lie right across the sector, and create cross organisational teams – and I mean proper teams in every respect except for who pays them. If this were sanctioned right, with all the unhelpful competitive elements removed and the right messages coming from above, it could totally transform our sectors efficiency and effectiveness. WCL could continue to be a vehicle for expressing some of this, but what I’m talking about is far more radical….Can I get my pens out?

    1. Andy – am irresistibly drawn back to a merger between WWT and BASC – Murder most fowl! But more seriously are there similar sisues in GWCT, BASC and Countryside Alliance? I wouldn’t know.

  12. In my chosen career as a herpetologist we had a great deal of excitement with the merger of HCT and Froglife. They did merge in July 2009 into Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. The local AR groups at last had a national NGO which could help on a similar format to the BCT and the bat groups. We had a workshop at the Herpetofauna Workers’ meeting concerning working with a national NGO as a volunteer network.

    Sadly we are now back to three organisations which are looking after our native herpetofauna – The British Herpetological Society, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation and the Froglife Trust.

    Now where can I get most for my money? I am a member of the BHS – very good publications and a yearly meeting in December. I also support Amphibian & Reptile Conservation as they look after many more reserves than Froglife does. The Froglife Trust has one reserve compared to the 80 reserves Amphibian & Reptile Conservation has.

    I have released some money by not joining a local nature conservation organisation after their appalling ‘habitat management’ which has led to the extinction locally of an adder population. I felt I could not support such blatant disregard for the wildlife legislation. I work with developers, public bodies, private individuals and they have to jump through hoops to protect wildlife why should I support an organisation which barely regards reptiles as a priority let alone protect them.

    Anyway I have recently joined Pond Conservation, and I also support the Essex Field Club, and Kent Reptile & Amphibian Group. i also work as a volunteer supporting organisations such as RSPB, Wildlife trusts, Buglife when it comes to their work and working effectively with reptiles and amphibians – I think that can add up to a lot of in kind help.

    I worked out that a survey I carried out in 1 year would have been valued at £30,000 pounds if I was paid my consultancy rate for the time I took to record reptiles on a reserve over the entire season. I am quite happy with that as another form of support to NGO’s.

    1. Jon – welcome and thank you for a very relevant comment, firmly grounded in reality. Excellent points

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