Untangling the tangled bank – 2

There are some great comments on yesterday’s blog – do have another look at them if you first read the blog yesterday morning.

One aspect of the work of wildlife conservation NGOs which needs considering is that of devolution.  These days, and it’s been true for quite a while, decisions on most (not quite all) matters of importance for nature are made at a national (ie English, Northern Irish, Scottish or Welsh level) not at a UK level.  This is very clear to those who live and vote in the Celtic fringes but is still overlooked by the English (who do make up c80% of the UK human population though not necessarily 80% of the conservation interest or need).

For those NGOs engaged primarily in practical conservation work – managing land, talking to land owners, carrying out reintroduction projects – this makes a difference to their work but only to the extent that staff in different parts of the UK are working to different rules in different systems.  When it comes to lobbying, however, there are now four targets for political advocacy where once there was one.

Nature conservation policy, agriculture policy and the details of all policies are different, and becoming increasingly different, in the four UK countries.  You can’t so often influence land use across the UK by the stroke of a Whitehall pen – those pens need to be influenced in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh too.

Some wildlife NGOs are still UK organisations and are struggling with finding the resources to do four jobs where once there was one to do.  Surprisingly there are few countryside organisations, CPRE is an exception, which have the word ‘England’ in their title and yet, as far as I can recall, all UK wildlife conservation organisations have their headquarters in England.  Most UK wildlife NGOs are seen as too English outside England and not English enough in England.

Of course, we also need to look to Europe and the EU – the source of many a good thing as far as environmental thinking and legislation is concerned.  Does that make life any simpler?


11 Replies to “Untangling the tangled bank – 2”

  1. I am posting this for Professor David Norman who tried to add this comment last night but got some confusing error message. The least I can do is give him first comment this morning.

    Professor David Norman

    I feel that each of the charities of which I am a member – RSPB, Wildlife Trust, WWT, Woodland Trust, BTO, county ornithological society, my own ringing group – has a particular locus and that full mergers would not be helpful, especially in Mark’s key point of doing more/ better for wildlife. But joint working on specific projects has usually proved productive, both on the ground and in political lobbying.

    Surely more could be done in the area of ‘member benefits’, as other posters have commented, such as joint merchandising catalogues, preferential admission rates to each others’ reserves and events, and shared junior members’ activities (Watch/ Young Explorers).

    However, as someone who has been a trustee of several of the wildlife conservation charities, it is my universal experience that the non-executive (trustees) are always more keen on joint working with other organisations than the executive (staff) are. Trustees refer to other organisations as partners or collaborators; staff call them competitors. When I have challenged this attitude, I have occasionally been told that “it’s not that simple”, or even, in extremis, that I am naïve not to realise that “they” really are competitors, but I never feel that I have fully got to the bottom of why many (most?) paid staff of our wildlife charities feel like this when most of the voluntary trustees don’t.

  2. I laugh when I read Prof Norman’s comment; I was a trustee of the RSPB once, and had EXACTLY the same experience. One very famous falling out with the ethen CEO about it.

    Anyhow, that was yesterday. On the “Nations” debate (how I hate the “d” word), I think different charities handle it with different degrees of ease; and the ones with difficulty are usually the ones with land. Frankly, I doubt if Butterfly Conservation have made any impact whatsoever on the psyche of the average Scottish legislator. WWF does well, partly because it has a strong (if small) Scottish team as part of an international organisation. JMT (that’s another one I’m a member of) does really well because all its land is in Scotland. It also tries to look after people in remote locations and not just nature. That helps with the politicians.

    If you are not in a position to lobby/engage at the level of the RSPB, whose repostioning has been masterly, IMO, you’re rally constrained to work through LINK, which has the added advantage of being (apparently) a single voice, and thus carries more weight.

  3. Just to complicate things, there’s the often overlooked issue that the countries are actually very different indeed. I’ve been through this in depth trying to pretend that forestry & related issues in the 3 countries are the same. they are not: England is predominantly lowland, good quality agriculture. The situation is reversed in scotland and Wales, mostly upland. England’s chances of making itself energy/ carbon self sufficient (at least from land based activities) are low because of the area/population ratio – Scotland is very different – planting trees really could contribute significantly to a carbon neutral nation. I suspect we haven’t quite assimilated these & similar differences into institutional fraemworks that have been conditioned to believe the 3 nations are the same.

  4. Interesting to note that not one mention of the National Trust by the comments who in all, is a bigger player than the RSPB. It has a massive land base like the 1/3 of the Lake District it actually owns but does not manage for wildlife unless it is paid by HLS. If this debate is for looking at joining/sharing, it should also be looking at converting as another 3 million members added to the 1 million+ would then have a much bigger say in Westminster.

  5. I think David Norman makes a very good and accurate point and I have seen this from a trustee position on both RSPB and Wildlife Trust. It is interesting how trustees do see sometimes things differently to staff on the ground (but then why doesn’t the organisation change accordingly). David says he hasn’t got to the bottom of why this happens and we probably never will. My interpretation is if you employ someone to market your organisation then they are going to market YOUR organisation. I can see the advantage of joint member benefits but why then would I join WWT if I could get in cheaply through my RSPB membership.

    The reason for membership must change with the NGO concerned. Some you join because it is the right thing to do and you get a magazine (RSPB, Wildlife Trusts). Some must join others because they get free admission and a magazine (National Trusts, WWT). Finally there are others where even if you don’t join but do some survey work for them you will get a magazine (BTO). I might have hit on something here; why all these magazines, although I suppose doctor’s surgeries would look bare without them

    All this is slightly different to joint working but then we get the oddity that it is in the organisation’s benefit to push the ‘oppositions’ involvement politically but not commercially. I think there is a place for some mergers but it is difficult to see how these would be best achieved.

    A quick aside to John Miles. I don’t think the National Trust is a bigger player, it just plays a good defensive position rather the others who you would hope are much more of strikers when it comes to to dealing with the issues facing them.

  6. Another comment from David Norman – am trying to find out why he has problems posting here,

    With what delicious irony does Mark move us on from yesterday’s subject – that that our wildlife organisations ought to become closer together – to today’s, that our governments are moving farther apart?!

    The recent devolution of Scotland and Wales has been done for entirely political reasons even though it doesn’t make much sense for nature conservation, exactly as could be said about the break-up of the NCC into country-based quangos. I think that a large part of our effort has to be in persuading the governments of the different countries that much of wildlife crosses borders, and that they ought to adopt joint approaches to nature conservation wherever possible.

    This is surely true on land, but perhaps even more so at sea. With the recent emphasis on marine conservation, the folly of separate nationalistic policies is stark. The (small) Irish Sea has six different governments involved!

    One additional comment following Mark’s observation that all our charities have headquarters in England. I would go further and note that the RSPB, RSWT and BTO (and the JNCC) are all based in one small part of Eastern England. I think that this has had unfortunate consequences in tackling the decline of farmland birds, in that all these organisations tend to make the false equation that farmland = arable. Yes, there have been great strides made in understanding the declines of some birds of arable farmland, and applying stewardship options to help to reverse them in eastern England; but meanwhile the birds of pastoral and upland areas, in western and northern Britain, continue to decline, and their different types of agriculture are largely ignored.

  7. I am not a conservationist. I worked for the RSPB for a while (as you hopefully remember, Mark) trying to broaden the appeal of that organisation beyond what had previously been regarded as its core audiences.
    From my perhaps naive perspective, there would be four factors that should influence either mergers or devolved separate NGOs – the impact on (i) the strength and character of the resultant NGO(s) – will they be more credible and effective at the planning/policy table; (ii) biodiversity management – will more land be managed better for a broader range of biodiversity outcomes; (iii) public understanding of conservation issues (beyond sodding Countryfile and Springwatch) and (iv) improved use of finances through reduction of costs, increased asset pool etc.
    Regardless of the desirability of the first three outcomes, that last one is never going to happen. Because even when you can co-operate at a government level for funding, as member-based orgs each NGO _is_ competing against other NGOs (of all flavours / arts / sports / conservation etc). And while members may well be prepared to spend £50 / £200 / £500 per year in total on supporting biodiversity currently – through funding separate conservation NGOs – I find it highly implausible that people would be willing to give that same amount to a single NGO, or to do so in enough numbers/ at the right price point to generate enough admin/marketing cost efficiencies to make it viable. (ie if merging NGO A and B produces savings of 10%, you’d OTRTS need to set the membership fee at (A+B)-10% – which is a much harder sale than two smaller fees of A and B.
    Splitting the bigger NGOs into devolved orgs could, potentially be equally disastrous. If you were to pay for (say) Birds and Bugs Scotland separate from RSPB England, then all sorts of people would desert one for the other, for a whole host of reasons. The money (reduced) would (largely) stay in England, where it is not as productive / needed when set against broader conservation priorities.

    1. Ivan – welcome! and yes, I do remember you. You seem to be wanting to have it both ways – splitting NGOs to deal with devolution would cost money but merging NGOs won’t save money. I’m not saying that you are necessarily wrong but it looks a little like a contradiction doesn’t it? And although the RSPB’s name keeps coming up it is very obviously true that most wildlife NGOs are not the RSPB. Would your argument really apply equally to two small wildlife NGOs both working on invertebrates, for example?

  8. Well I had a very bad episode when a NT member and told them I would not renew membership which was considerable money for two people and we were arguing over £4 entrance as I had forgotten wallet with NT card and money so refused entry.NT customer service told me they had to make maximum take of money being a charity and how forgoing our subs for many years led to them taking more money I cannot work out.
    The difference in how the RSPB treats members and even non members could not be more different than my experience with NT so please never the two join any more than absolutely necessary on some projects.

  9. Dear Mark

    Yesterday you said you would let us know if you have rejoined Buglife?

    If it helps we won’t be sending you (or any other members) a Christmas catalogue and our newsletter can be sent you just by email if you prefer.

    The points about trustees and staff having different levels of enthusiasm about collaborating with other conservation NGOs are interesting. It reminds me that Buglife has a different organisational structure to other NGOs which might be of interest in this debate.

    Buglife is a charity and company. The company members are the trustees and 30 member organisations. The company members pay between £2 and £30 to be members (c.£400 in total!), they can vote at the AGM and attend Board Meetings. The main wildlife NGOs and all of the specialist invertebrate societies are company members of Buglife http://www.buglife.org.uk/AboutBuglife/memberorganisations (needs updating with Grasslands Trust and a couple of others!). They don’t often choose to exert their influence, and in 10 years none of them have left – we must be doing something right!

    We have a different relationship with each of our company members, but in my view the novel structure means that there is always an open door between us and our member organisations and working together is easier and more natural.

    On the devolution issue I would just say this: yes it is v.hard for a small charity to cover all 4 countries, but if you can get involved in their policy debates it is probably easier for a wildlife NGO to exert influence in Wales, Scotland or N. Ireland than in England.

    Yesterday my post started with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and today it finishes with them – a UK conservation NGO with its HQ in Scotland.



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