Untangling the tangled bank – 3

I am now a proud member of Buglife – why don’t you join too?

I am going to write mainly about closer collaborative working in this blog but I do want to put in a word for mergers before I do that.

Let’s take some of the smaller wildlife conservation organisations as examples.  Let’s imagine they sting you for £35 a year membership and they have 12000 members.  That’s a membership income of about £420k.  Obviously you have to spend money on getting and keeping members, and obviously you can try to get more money out of those 12000 good folk by asking them for more money, flogging them Christmas cards and asking them to leave you some of their wealth in their wills.  But you can’t save much wildlife with £420k and most smaller NGOs rely on grants and contracts from the statutory sector – which itself has been cut hard recently.  So membership receipts are not what all wildlife NGOs are based on – the extent varies quite a lot.

Now imagine another similar NGO with a similar number of members and charging the similar amount as a membership fee.  Are you sure that they would be worse off if they merged? I’m not. They could cut their membership costs by a lot and shouldn’t lose in the competition for contracts and grants.

And it is the position of this blog that we should be looking at how much money is spent on nature conservation – and how well it is spent – not how much money is raised.  There clearly are economies of scale and they probably apply strongly at the ‘small’ end of the scale.  If diversity is such a good idea why aren’t we all asking for NGOs to split?  Do we need Moth Conservation AND Butterfly Conservation; Funguslife, Mosslife AND Plantlife?  Funny that some seem to think that we have exactly the right mix, right now, at this point in time.  That seems unlikely to me.  We are such a conservative lot – let’s think outside of today’s box a little more – for nature’s sake.

But I am not, except to provoke, a strong advocate of mergers in the tangled bank of wildlife NGOs.  I am, though, a strong advocate of closer collaboration in many ways, including in the nuts and bolts ways.  That hypothetical small NGo with 12000 members could surely benefit by persuading a larger NGO to do that work for it.  Surely there is a good chance that both would gain financially – the larger from gaining an extra income from something that it does a lot of already and the smaller from paying less for the service than it pays to do it itself right now.  That is the type of collaboration that could lead to a gain for nature as more money heads its way.  Worth thinking about – or not?

And I think that a ripe area for collaboration would be in enthusing kids about nature – a point that has been made by several people commenting here over the last few days.  Many wildlife NGOs have something for children – it’s seen almost as a sin not to do so.  But is it sensible to have a kids club bolted on to a middle-aged person’s club?  Because, let’s face it, the membership of most wildlife NGOs tends to the not-so-young.  If children immediately grew up into adult members, supporters, volunteers and advocates then it would make more business sense for everyone to be chasing the children’s support – but they don’t.

And is it sensible for most wildlife NGOs to be trying to enthuse children – most have a rather small membership and the provision of exciting wildlife events for children is very patchy across the country.  I would have thought that this is an area where lots of NGOs could gather together and do a much better job.  Such a venture would probably attract significant grant funding too – anything to do with children tends to be attractive to donors.  One magazine, one set of well organised events covering the whole of nature?  Joint branding or no branding? The option of reduced adult subscription to any or all wildlife NGOs once you pass the age of 16 for youth members of 2+ years?

A collaborative approach to enthusing the next generation about nature?  What do you think?




16 Replies to “Untangling the tangled bank – 3”

  1. I am posting this comment from Chris Mahon who is Chair, IUCN National Committee for the United Kingdom

    If ‘mergers’ are unpalatable, is there also a question over how well conservation NGOs use their ‘umbrellas’ for effective collaboration? Collective lobbying through Wildlife/Environment Link and convening and mobilising of the 30 NGO Member organisations of IUCN in the UK through the IUCN National Committee for the United Kingdom are two examples of umbrella groupings that many NGOs are already signed up to and which could provide the platform required for delivering focused initiatives together without the angst of developing new partnerships. A good deal of work has gone into achieving the internationally agreed Aichi targets signed up to in Nagoya – what are the chances of collective working to achieve them?

    I recently coordinated a petition to Save the BBC Wildlife Fund and was impressed to receive the electronic signatures of 60 NGO leaders to append to the petition letter. Results still pending but collaboration and cooperation on single issues such as this can be effective and certainly is in the private sector – ask the house builders and road hauliers!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly.

    So where do we start? How do we get individual organisations to start thinking about their true purpose – saving nature – as opposed to their corproate purpose of growing thier organisation. We can’t do it alone and so nature will continue to go down the pan.

    I think we need to answer a couple of questions first before pursuing one route or the other. Will a smaller number of merged NGOs get more support from more people than a larger number of smaller NGOs where people can support more than one? Will government and business be pursuaded more by a single large NGO than a swarm of little ones?

    Whatever the right way, I agree we should only be look how much we spend on conservation and not how much we raise in the name of conservation. For nature’s sake

  3. Another thought…

    Most of this talk is about the NGOs and not about the supporters and potential supporters. Ultimately, the fate of nature conservation, and therefore nature depends on enough people caring about nature and realising there is a problem. I think enough people do care, but I’m concerned that not enough people really think there’s much of a problem. A wildlife tragedy to many is when some soppy presenter on Springwatch reports that 2 of the bluetits under the watch of a nestcam have sadly passed away.

    To borrow a collegues phrase, until nature is a popular as sport and as politically relevant as health, whether we are a tangled bank or a small collection of big hitters doesn’t really matter. Getting all of the conservation NGOs to collaboratively build this marketplace for nature conservation, rather than compete for the same number of caring souls would be a good first step in working better together.

  4. I dont disagree with possible mergers but a comment was made the other day about the effect of Help for Heroes against income for the Royal British Legion. It made me think about how charities develop. I live in Wootton Bassett so this type of charity has become very noticeable in recent years. Since H4H there have been many other similar charities set up and the old ‘military’ charities are still there. I now see collecting boxes for a different charity most days. I do wish them all well but it does strike me that in 20 years time someone will say ‘why are we all competing in the same field for the same money’.

    Is it just in our nature that if we combine Butterfly Conservation with the British Dragonfly Society in a couple of years someone will see the need for an arachnid society (or perhaps that already exists). Someone once said put 4 birdwatchers in a room for long enough and 3 societies will emerge.

  5. Mark, I think moth conservation already is already integrated with Butterfly Conservation and that’s fine, in principle, and at national level they do a good job for moth conservation. At branch level however my experience is that the poor old moths tend to miss out in favour of the butterflies in terms of funds and conservation work; so mergers of wildlife conservation groups may make financial sense but some organisations could run the risk of losing their identity within the larger unit.

    Regards, Tony

  6. Hi Mark,

    You touch on an interesting issue here and I’d like to look at your membership fees example from a different angle. There is a case that if diversity is good in nature then perhaps keeping it within nature NGOs is also good. However, with diversity comes costs, and often if you look across all of these organisations much of that cost is duplicated, so maybe the question is how can we avoid duplication and thus ensure more of the funds get spent on conservation?

    From my experience your calculation on membership fees lacks one vital aspect. For many organisations the cost of recruitment is high, and coupled with administration and other costs it is often the case that the organisation sees no benefit from the membership fee in its first year. It is only years two and on when the money starts to become meaningful in terms of being available for conservation.

    On the other hand (and perhaps here is where savings can be made through closer collaboration) one of the most important aspects of membership type funding is that it is often the most important source of “free funds” which can be used to run the organisation and provide salaries etc for paid staff. And we should not under estimate the importance of ensuring that staff are able to be employed under proper terms and conditions, have the experience of good and professional support services (pensions, HR etc) and benefit from good management. But there could be a way of pooling many of these functions across organisations and delivering savings through the use of common back office functions. So a number of organisation could make use of (if they don’t already they should be) a common HR service, training and staff development services, IT support services, pension provision, pay roll, etc ,etc. This would certainly reduce costs and ensure more money available for conservation.

    Well that’s my proposition. Would it work in practice? Is it already happening?

  7. I think we might all be missing the point. It is easy too think of reasons why any NGO in the nature conservation field should exist. The small specific societies can easily find words to justify their existance but having so many wildlife NGO’s is confusing for the members of the public showing a mild interest in wildlife. There have been many surveys done over the years asking members of the public who they think of when wildlife issues spring to mind.

    It may surprise many that WWF used to always come out on top and miles below them the rest. WWF has had little to do with nature conservation in the UK but the public perception has little to do with facts.

    My point is that mergers and affiliations may be helpful in some ways but what I believe is needed is a much more courageous approach. Are all the current wildlife NGO’s willing to stand back and enter a debate as to whether the whole structure needs rethinking. I admit I am one who believes that one massive all embracing NGO would be more effective in delivering nature conservation on the ground and making life difficult for governments of all persuasions. There would be little chance of politicians being able to divide the movement.

    All through the discussions on this blog the tendency is to tinker with what is already there. That is never going to be good enough.

    Remember we are still losing most of the battles to save our wildlife. The media continue to make loads of meaningless programmes which give the impression that all is well in the British countryside, our NGO’s scrap for every column inch mostly to help them market their product and although there are many farmers doing a lot with agri-environment schemes they tend to be islands in sterile prairies.

    Surely the major challenge is to make the point once and for all that healthy biodiversity reflects the health of all of us. It is not something “that can be balanced” with development etc. The health of our countryside and environment should have primacy over everything else.

    It would be a sad epitaph for our wildlife if when most has gone the blame lies with the lack of vision exercised by our nature conservation bodies.


  8. It is refreshing to read someone who knows the environmental NGO world so well, apply some rigour to this question. The prospect of conservation organisations failing, collectively, to do the best thing in pursuit of their charitable purposes and even perpetuating a cycle of self-serving charity bureaucracy, is a depressing one.

    We in the charity sector would do well to remember the deal we have with society: we get special status in return for working for the public good in ways which are explicitly set out in our founding documents. We are not elected and our legitimacy comes through scrupulous adherence to our charitable purposes.

    And here lie some of the significant problems with the idea of merging charities with apparently compatible objectives:
    1) Any merger requires serious and solemn legal re-founding, accommodating all the original purposes of each organisation; otherwise, merging might be construed as abolition or partial abolition of an organisation. All previous work, commitment and donated resources and dedicated funds in the history of the organisation must be respected. This is not impossible, but it is demanding and can be expensive.
    2)The trustees of each charity involved have serious responsibilities to safeguard the on-going pursuit of their organisation’s charitable purposes; they will be rightly wary of change, takeover or weakening of their charity.
    3) (and this is not a good reason, but a powerful one nonetheless) trustees and officers of a charity may be very reluctant to relinquish their status, control and influence.
    Pursuing closer collaboration, almost always a good idea, does not have these problems. It has others, however. I have far less experience than Mark in this sector: merely nine years in the campaigning NGO world (and five before that as a steward of land for the National Trust). But even in that time, I became steadily more exasperated by the reluctance of senior figures in conservation organisations to take collaboration seriously. Too often the Wildlife and Countryside Link umbrella organisation was either bypassed or exploited, particularly by larger charities. Rarely was it clear that its members were taking other organisations concerns seriously, thinking hard about how they could support each other or recognising the benefits of a diversity of special interests.

    I found this strikingly the case with planning policy and landscape. All too often wildlife charities could see no further than the minutiae of PPS9 (and even that was beyond some). Now look where that has got us. And landscape protection, the extraordinary gathering together of so many aspects of the natural and semi-natural world, links to peoples’ own habitat, culture and identity was resolutely ignored, or worse. Beauty and place association had no place for some of the Hard Carbon Men and Women. But for most people, protecting their local walks and views is at the heart of their association with nature and its future.

    To be most effective, collaboration needs to be across wide spectra of interests. And there again, failure of imagination was all too evident. Leading figures in charities seem frightened to acknowledge the legitimacy of their fellow campaigners.

    And here lies another big impediment: Once a charity is established, there is an almost inevitable tendency for that organisation increasingly to focus on its own internal perpetuation, prosperity and expansion. The cause becomes the organisation itself. Its leaders calculate their actions in terms of increasing membership, territory and exclusive influence over government. Sometimes they make announcements about public policy that appear to be those of elected politicians and covering issues far beyond their charitable purposes. Dare I say it, the RSPB, amongst others, has been associated with this sort of thing on occasion.

    And here lies a final paradox: Mark is right to observe how many small charities can spend an inordinate amount of time doing very little in the world for reasons of inefficiency of scale. But some, at least, of the larger charities, spend an inordinate proportion of their resources doing rather less than one might hope for the common good too, consumed by the logic of their own perpetuation.

    Encouraging environmental charities, large, medium-sized or small, to collaborate in a genuinely selfless and enlightened way will take a lot of effort and a significant cultural change. It will take leadership. But the rewards, in terms of reputation and effectiveness, should surely be persuasive?

    1. Tom – thank you so much for a characteristically thoughtful and beautifully written argument. Very persuasive.

  9. Tom’s comment really resonates – I think he’s getting to some of the really key issues.

    Its all very Darwinian: how do you keep the fire burning, promote rather than squash new ideas, go for the brave rather than the safe ? More and more difficult as you get bigger and marketing is always whispering ‘you’ll lose members if you say that’.

    My personal experience, which the NGO sector has had huge difficulty swallowing, is the trajectory of the Forestry Commission – bluntly, it survived the Flow Country by a toenail and it was absolutely clear if it sat where it was the next breeze would blow it away. So some of us set out to change it – and with a speed and imagination that reflected a fall back of extinction- 2011 has been quite a vindication but its been dissapointing that the conservation NGOs have been almost unable to cope with the change and have continued sniping at Fc from the sidelines rather than thinking seriously about what happened – and whether they could, possibly, learn from it. When you know if you do nothing you’re gone it’s easier to take the brave not the safe decision. As I’ve said before, I think we’re at the sort of break point the FC faced in 1988 – but how will the NGO sector respond ? Not much sign of big ideas from where I’m sitting….

  10. This is important and Mark challenges us, as ever. In my view, mergers are not really going to be the answer. Mark raises the question to dismiss, and Tom adds detail. It is perhaps worth remembering the saying about ecumenism – that if you merge two churches you get three not one: the merged church and the two wings who refused.

    But then what? I spent the latter part of my career in government viewing with increasing dismay the “shared services” agenda. I could say the people doing it were rubbish, but the main problem was that the principals did not want to play. I ended up thinking it was not worth the effort without wider reform.

    Can the NGO world do better? Surely it should because whereas Defra might fight against sharing services with DfE, should Buglife fight hard against doing so with RSPB? The latter, for example, has database management tools (eg for membership) that must surely be beyond Buglife. And they could be shared (without infringemment of DPA).

    I have much sympathy with Derek. A bit of thinking big might say that the RSPB was by far the most influential player in the poitical world but can still be consigned to the “bird box”. It’s a membership organisation, of course, but could it spin off its policy and political capability to an umbrella organisation on the lines of the National Children’s Bureau, yet separately keeping birds and the membership? Even thinking about it makes my head hurt, yet surely we should consider it.

    I have huge admiration for the RSPB and others in the field but we should recognise that in the real world we are in managed – or sometimes unmanaged – retreat, despite all local successes. And so we do need to find a way of doing better.

    On young people and education, of course I agree strongly but Andy Simpson or others need to comment. I would just say that in these difficult time the need and the will is strong but the capability is challenged. I simply do not know the way through that.

  11. Lots of interesting and very knowledgeable comments on mergers, but not much discussion around the practical example sited of youth engagement work and how the possible risks and rewards of this. Is it because everyone thinks its a no-brainer?
    The potential rewards are pretty obvious in terms of economies of scale and perhaps allowing engagement across all age groups. If I had a criticism of the excellent work already carried out by many organisations, it would be the tendency to focus on certain age groups and effectively write off others. I understand fully the need to maximise bang for your educational buck by focussing on areas where it is perceived (but perhaps not well understood?) that most influence over a person can be had, but this can leave black holes in the process.
    To give a pretty realistic example, I’ve often heard it said that the focus should be on young children, as they’re most likely to be influenced and there’s not much point doing anything with teenagers, as they don’t want to think about the environment and are all off getting drunk and chasing after girls. While there might be some truth to this (certainly the drink and girls bit), it rather depends on what you want to get out of it. If you want to persuade the largest number of people that the environment and conservation are, in a vague way, good things, then yes, it probably is best to focus on younger age groups. However, if you want to develop the next generation of conservation leaders, then arguably it makes more sense to focus on older groups, teenagers and perhaps university students. You might be hitting a narrower cross-section of the population, but I’d argue equipping the next generation of advocates is equally beneficial as the broad and show approach. Full disclosure – I’m biased having benefited hugely from the RSPB’s work in this exact area, but in a way, that’s my point. I was lucky to end up being the recipient of this and its helped me ever since, but I’m certain there are many people far more skilled and knowledgeable, but who miss out on these opportunities through shear luck. A broader push might open up more opportunities for more people.
    Of course the obvious answer is we need to both. Would this be easier or harder with merged youth engagement work across NGO’s? I’m not sure.
    One final point, and its a personal bugbear of mine. I don’t think its right say closer cooperation would work differently for youth engagement, but not other age groups. Its easy to slip into the mindset of thinking about “youth” as a homogenous group. Clearly this is not true across the huge range of age groups generally included, but its equally untrue for any specific age group. No-one would ever suggest that we have a single approach for all 30-40 year olds, so why is it any more sensible to suggest it for teenagers? In practice, I suspect there would be just as great a range of interests amongst youth age groups as there would be any other. Some will be more engaged by discussions about climate change and sustainable living, others more by species (be they birds, bugs, plants, etc). The danger of a joint approach would be that this diversity of issues would be lost, narrowing the range of people engaged by the discussion.
    So, while joint approach might make it easier to hit all age groups effectively, it would be vital to ensure the full range of messages presented by all individual organisations was preserved. And ultimately the question is, if closer joint working allows us to talk to a wider range of young people more effectively, while preserving our diversity of messages, why isn’t the same true of engagement work across all age groups?

  12. Our conservation NGOs have been set up by enthusiasts for particular groups of species/habitats, their members usually share that enthusiasm. I would guess members would vote with their feet(and subscriptions) if “their” enthusiasm was merged with something else. The reason most small and local NGOs exist is because monoliths often pay insufficient regard to the small and local and cannot provide a focus for the full gamut of species diversity that enthusiasts require for their selected subject area.

    The idea of shared services is a good one which should be promoted much more widely. Two examples spring to mind. The magazine Natural World, which I have always enjoyed now comes merged with my local wild life trust magazine. That looks like good progress to me. My local bird club are in the process of passing the handling of our membership subscriptions to our local wildlife trust, also sensible.

    The provision of a combined youth wildlife organisation would be a great boon and could perhaps help reduce the mass of red tape that engulfs anyone having the temerity to want to work with our nations youth. There are certainly far too few youngsters out birding these days though whether that is because of too few adults to take them, put off by all the obstacles our society has placed in their way, or because the youngsers prefer other pursuits, I don’t know. If a single conservation organisation could get them through electronic media, perhaps they could be coaxed out?

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