10 things I learned as CEO of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos

10 things I learned as CEO of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos
21 December 2018
Between 2011 and 2015, I led the restructuring of a high-profile conservation organisation, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. At the time of my arrival, the organisation hadn’t been able to pay salaries for three months. It was a very complex and urgent turnaround situation to get involved with.

The subsequent three and a half years were among the most difficult, but also most instructive in my life. I did manage to turn the ship around, as is quite vividly described in this article by the Financial Times weekend magazine. I also managed to get myself fired at the end of this period after falling out with the board of directors, as described in this article which an independent Ecuadorian media site published.

Read on at your own risk, because it includes inconvenient truths about the conservation NGO sector.

My career and my life have long moved on. However, I keep getting asked about the experience: mostly by students, young professionals, and people with an interest in philanthropy and nature conservation.

That’s why I decided to write this article. Read on at your own risk, because it includes inconvenient truths about the conservation NGO sector. I decided that I’d only publish it if, despite addressing difficult issues, I managed to give it an overall positive and constructive slant. I hope you will agree that the article achieves that.

I am eager to help anyone who makes an attempt at getting involved with conservation organisations, and this article is primarily aimed at:

  • Students and young professionals with an interest in a career in the conservation NGO sector.
  • Leaders of such organisations who are looking for ways how to improve the performance and change the scale of their operation.
  • Current and prospective philanthropists/donors who wonder how and where they can best contribute.

Protecting nature is too important not to get right

I do feel passionate about our need to protect our planet. There is no doubt that at the going rate, we are losing an incredible amount of natural assets that could be and should be preserved.

It’s the year 2018, and we can’t even effectively protect iconic animals such as elephants; never mind species that are not lucky enough to be so iconic. Unique habitats are being destroyed to satisfy our insatiable desire to own the latest generation smartphone; just read up about the effects of mining the rare earths required for these devices. Toxins from drugs and pesticides as well as micro-particles of plastics are making their way into each and every part of our food chain and our drinking water, when there are perfectly feasible ways to prevent or minimise that. It’s frustrating to see all this, and I want to be part of those people who do something meaningful about it.

Nevertheless, my short but intense period in a conservation NGO gave me insights into what many say are typical and timeless systemic weaknesses that can be found across this sector.

I see this passion shared by a lot of younger people, in particular. Students and graduates have repeatedly asked me to speak to them about my experience as CEO of the Charles Darwin Foundation. The enthusiastic feedback I received after some of these talks made me realise how useful my experiences and insights can be to the next generation of people who are entering – or considering to join – the conservation NGO sector as an employee in some capacity.

This came as a bit of a surprise. I had only worked in this sector for just under four years, and it wasn’t even my primary career path. My work was limited to one organisation in one geographic region, and I left this field for good in 2015 to return to the world of finance, private enterprise, and start-ups (as is evident to anyone who occasionally follows this blog).

Nevertheless, my short but intense period in a conservation NGO gave me insights into what many say are typical and timeless systemic weaknesses that can be found across this sector. These are today all the more apparent to me, casually observing from the outside and with my own experience to frame my observations.

With all that in mind, here is my list of 10 things I learned to view critically after my time in the conservation NGO sector. As you’ll see if you go through the entire list, many of these points either overlap or tie into each other, which then has ramifications that I’ll talk about in my conclusions.

1. “Wishlist Syndrome”

In the world of private enterprise and start-ups, where I usually work, people are obsessed with focus, focus, focus.

In the world of conservation NGOs, I’ve found the opposite.

As a high-ranking executive from one of my donors once mentioned to me (paraphrasing from memory about four years later): 

“I wish the world of conservation NGOs would team up to solve ONE of humanity’s big problems. As in, focus on that one problem, all big organisations work together to solve it, and then use it to show that it can all be done.”

When I took over the reign of the Charles Darwin Foundation, an organisation that at the time had about 100 employees, no less than 78 different projects were going on. I doubt you could have possibly spread the organisation thinner even if you had tried.

When external factors make your life even more difficult than would be the case elsewhere, there is all the more reason to focus.

Conservation NGOs by default often struggle with manifold practical issues and challenges, even without trying to “focus” on 78 different projects at a time. E.g., in the case of the location I am writing about, the labour pool for qualified staff is thin because locals often lack qualification, and mainland Ecuadorians, as well as foreigners, are subject to cumbersome work permit regulation; the general infrastructure for doing just about anything is as basic as you’d expect on a remote island, and you are up against unique factors such as the unusually large number of political bodies that are involved with governing the place because Ecuador gave the islands a complex governance umbrella.

When external factors make your life even more difficult than would be the case elsewhere, there is all the more reason to focus.

Still, in the organisation I directed and other similar organisations in the archipelago, I’ve regularly seen priorities and activities getting defined by what I ended up calling the “Wishlist Syndrome”:

  • Ask everyone and anyone what they view as a problem and what they’d like to do.
  • Create a document that constitutes the broadest possible consensus.
  • Based on that, spread yourself thin to be seen to be doing a lot and pleasing everyone.

In other enterprises I have been involved with in recent years, we had access to the infrastructure, labour pool, and funding sources of world-class locations (i.e. places such as London). Nonetheless, there was always a strong focus on, well, focus. Focus is something that companies actively and critically discuss: “Are we focussed enough?” is a question I often hear at board-level. Even well-funded companies tend to focus on one area and one area only. Even then, achieving success is difficult enough.


Don’t ask your staff to pursue too many targets

With the benefit of hindsight, ahead of agreeing to join the organisation (make that “any organisation”), I should have asked for a mandate to focus the operation on no more than three projects; and even that still would have been a stretch from a management perspective.

Such a mandate would never have been granted. It would have been too great a change in mind-set, and against the entire ethos and system in place. From where I stand today, I wouldn’t join any effort that doesn’t have a crystal-clear focus.

This subject has recently been getting attention elsewhere. E.g., this YouTube discussion between Dr. Bjørn Lomborg and Prof. Jordan Peterson about “How to make the world a better place. Really.” went viral just as I was about to publish this article. It discusses why the so-called United Nations development goals are a largely useless exercise. There are simply too many of them (“everyone gets to add something to the list”), and they are missing a prioritisation based on bang-for-the-buck and operational feasibility.

If I were to apply for positions in this field, I’d start my search for a suitable organisation by asking about the organisation’s view of focus. Assuming you are impact-orientated rather than in the search for other outcomes for yourself (e.g., the opportunity to live in a stunning place for a while), I wouldn’t work for any organisation that is too dispersed.

Lesson learned: Find an organisation that doesn’t attempt the impossible task of being all things to all people.

2. Too many Chiefs

Peter Thiel may be a controversial character, but he is arguably one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. No one else springs to mind who can claim to have been involved, from an early stage, with the creation of not just one or two, but three multi-billion, global companies. He was part of the team that built PayPal, then became the first outside investor in Facebook before launching intelligence firm Palantir.

His experience and advice for successfully growing an ambitious, successful organisation are summed up in this book, “Zero to One.” In it, he advises limiting a company’s board of directors to no more than three people, until the point that is has become a genuinely sizeable operation (i.e., hundreds of millions if not billions in revenue).

Had I known this at the time, I could have found a vital clue in the publicly available statutes of the Charles Darwin Foundation. These set out that its board can have up to nine members. Currently, as per its website, it has eight. The organisation has an annual budget of just about $4m!

An organisation that hands out governance titles and honorific positions like candy indicates that it has got the overall approach all wrong 

Furthermore, the board is supervised by an annual General Assembly, a body that has up to 50 governing members. At last count, it had 34 governing members. (There were also nearly 100 additional members without a vote, though many of them have soft influence through other means, such as funding decisions.)

I once helped to energise a company that also had eight board members when I joined. I advocated for a reduction to three, which was implemented. This step led to much quicker decision-making and an overall more agile operation, but without foregoing the benefits of having an extensive network of people who can provide advice and guidance when needed. It isn’t necessary to give people a governance-related role to tap into their advice. An organisation that hands out governance titles and honorific positions like candy indicates that it has got the overall approach all wrong.

Remarkably, since I left the organisation, another layer of governance was introduced, in the shape of an Ecuadorian government committee. This also goes to show how difficult it is to change a culture.

Lessons learned: Include the governance structure in your due diligence. Is it lean and agile? If yes, that’s an excellent sign! If not, it’s better to move on right away.

3. Over-eager donors spoil the broth

As if multiple layers of governance didn’t already make for a cumbersome-enough structure, the observation I made at the time was that conservation NGOs tended to give way too much power to certain kinds of donors.

Some donors get actively involved in the running of the operation. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • Being mistrustful of the organisation (which may be entirely justified) and wanting to have a say to ensure their funds are used in the right way.
  • Having a keen personal interest or motivation for the cause, and feeling passionate about contributing to the running of the organisation.
  • Having governance rules themselves that weren’t thought through or outdated, and thus being obligated to pursue such an approach, no matter what. 

If you are a cash-strapped conservation NGO that is trying to raise funding, the temptation will always be to give in to whatever conditions a prospective donor makes. All the more since many a donor objectively has valuable aspects to contribute besides their funding; or because the donor has become a friend and it would be delicate to turn down their requests (cf. #8).

Whatever the specific reason, the result is the same. Organisations already suffering under a plethora of boss-people get yet another layer of de-facto decision-making power added to them.

There would be a fairly simple solution for this. Conservation NGOs simply need to set the rule that they only accept the following as a process for donations:

  • Donors can ask for any form of (sensible) information and carry out whatever due diligence they like to see if they are comfortable with how the organisation is managed and how funds are administered and spent.
  • If the organisation passes the due diligence, only “unrestricted” donations are accepted, i.e. funds that are exclusively put under the decision-making power of management. All donors receive the same reporting about the organisation, to minimise the amount of time that has to be invested in creating reporting; instead of each donor asking for their own reporting format, as many of them do!
  • Else, the potential donation is turned down.

Deadline sheet

Don’t ask your staff to produce a different report for every single donor

The Mulago Foundation, which operates on this basis, has published an insightful article about the subject in the Stanford Social Impact Review.

Lessons learned: Organisations that operate on this basis may be harder to find, but they do exist. Since leaving the Charles Darwin Foundation, I have been involved with fundraising for a conservation organisation that works just like that (cf. below preview to the sequel of this article). These organisations focus on allowing potential donors to carry out due diligence, and deliver standardised impact reports to all their funders. If there is a will to get to the most effective way of working, then this issue can be resolved.

4. No income model to support maximum impact

Do you fancy working in an organisation where paying for an Internet connection or paying for accounting is seen as a negative?

The separation of expenses into what is generally seen as “good spending” and “bad spending” is just another way this sector is keeping itself from ever functioning smoothly.

Welcome to the world of conservation NGOs (and other charities – the following is a feature across the entire charity sector).

If you raise funds for a private enterprise, you go about it like this:

  • Create a budget for everything that needs to be done.
  • Present the budget as a whole, i.e. “This is the budget for running this operation.”

In the world of conservation NGOs, there is an unhealthy obsession with what they call “overhead” or “non-programmatic expenses”:

  • You create a budget.
  • The budget is then divided into “programmatic expenses” (e.g., counting elephants) and “overhead” (e.g., all the HR admin required to manage the elephant-counting staff).
  • You then frantically try to somehow match your funding needs with the plethora of different funding approaches that donors take, which can range from providing 0% to allocating a certain percentage of their funding (usually: insufficient) towards overhead. Since many projects are funded by several funders, this can get extremely complex.

The separation of expenses into what is generally seen as “good spending” and “bad spending” is just another way this sector is keeping itself from ever functioning smoothly. No funder of a private enterprise would ever argue about necessary expenses to keep an operation running. In the world of conservation NGO funding, this is an issue.

Beware sign

Overhead costs are simply a reality of running an organisation

To make matters worse, a foolish amount of time and energy is spent on “bending the meaning of words” to make it all fit together in neat percentages. It’s a terrible waste of already limited resources, but done regardless.

Lessons learned: As I continue to contribute to the conservation sector financially, I’d nowadays always ask what policies an organisation’s main donors have in this regard. If this separation into good and bad expenses is happening and/or if an organisation doesn’t generate sufficient of its own income (e.g., through a trading-arm) to cover missing financial needs and achieve a higher degree of financial stability, then I will consider an organisation too ineffective and (as a result of the complexity introduced into the system) too risky. If it’s the opposite, then that’s a great sign that this organisation is getting a crucial aspect right.

5. Dispersion of fundraising

Fundraising for conservation is incredibly tricky. I describe it as the single most challenging thing I have ever done.

There are few sub-sectors of fundraising that are as difficult as conservation. If you look at the philanthropy landscape, the most significant part of donations goes towards health (27%) and religious purposes (20%). Conservation ranks somewhere close to the bottom (7%). These figures are taken from UK statistics but are likely to be similar elsewhere.

Try operating a conservation-related operation in a remote, under-developed part of the world; with more ongoing challenges than you can imagine, AND the task of continuously having to fundraise.

It’s no surprise that many organisations therefore pursue some kind of outsourced approach to fundraising. For example, they set up so-called “Friends of…” organisations elsewhere in the world to handle fundraising locally. These sister organisations are legally independent and have their own governance and regulators to answer to; or they hire consultants to pursue fundraising for them.

What seem like admirable, well-intentioned efforts come with in-built issues that, overall, can lead to more harm than good. The downsides are either harder to capture or appear once they are seen in the context of some of the other points detailed here: 

  • “Friends of” organisations add yet more governance, more boss-people and more restrictions to how an organisation is run. Overall funding is broken down into smaller sources which then adds yet more overhead and management time, a vicious cycle (cf. #1, #2, #3, #4).
  • Hiring consultants, which is hardly ever successful, leads to personal relationships being built outside of the ownership of the organisation itself. Instead of institutionalising relationships so that they can continue for a long time or perpetuity, the opposite is being achieved.
  • Adding another layer of governance and management to the fundraising process, in any case, slows down the funding cycle. Instead of funds being available immediately, they are often only available months, if not one or two years later. There is plenty of literature in existence how such “Friends of” organisations lead to conflict, e.g., when, for whatever reason, the sister organisation ends up keeping funds to build up its own reserves, instead of passing it on to the organisation that they were created for in the first place.
  • The messaging used for fundraising differs depending on which arm of the fundraising octopus a potential donor is speaking to; instead of an organisation pursuing a laser-sharp focus in its messaging, fundraising and overall branding.

If you speak to people in this sector, they’ll probably give you seemingly convincing reasons why they are doing their fundraising the way they are doing it.

Car crashing in river

When “friends” point you into the wrong direction

In the case of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the “Friends of” organisations had been set up in a day and age before email and the Internet, and the Galapagos Islands were too remote for it to carry out its own fundraising. With the advent of technology, the model should have been changed. This was looked into during my time there, but hindered by factors such as detailed in #2, #3, #8.

As Woodrow Wilson once said: “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they are the ones who keep me walking the floor at night.”

Here is an informative article about the pros and cons of such organisations, written by a law firm that operates in this field.

Lessons learned: Do your due diligence on involvement with “Friends of” organisations. If there aren’t any, then that’s a good sign! The focus set out in #1 should also apply to how fundraising is handled. Strong focus and strong control over the organisation’s fundraising is the best – and only – way forward.

Note: I consider it one of my gravest misjudgments to join the Charles Darwin Foundation despite knowing of some of these issues; all the more as I previously was a trustee of one of these “Friends of” organisations! Everything is bound to be too opaque for anyone from the outside to get to the truth of these relationships. It is objectively – through the sheer existence of this structure – an added aspect of risk and complication for the main organisation, one where no outsider will ever be able to understand the full degree of accumulated problems and toxins.

6. Fantasy ambition

If your nature is being ambitious and actually meaning it, you may want to carefully question that true level of ambition of a conservation organisation before joining or supporting it.

Naive as I was when entering the sector, I believed that when an organisation states ambitious goals, it actually means it.

Little did I know that there is such a thing as fantasy ambition, i.e., a show that is put on to keep up appearances but without really meaning it.

Anyone doubting this should refer back to this 1970 (!) article written by scientists in the Galapagos Islands. Virtually all problems outlined in this article persist until this very day, only with their order of magnitude having changed. There are exceptions of large ambitions having been achieved, and I’ll come back to them later. But on the whole, the sector can today look back at five decades of (mostly, but not exclusively) co-managing the slow decline of the archipelago.

For the Galapagos Islands, you could pick out virtually any point in time and find a policy document aimed at achieving large-scale change and ambitious goals. These documents would inevitably be called: 

  • “Galapagos 2000”
  • “Galapagos 2010”
  • “Galapagos 2020”

And so on…

Little did I know that there is such a thing as fantasy ambition, i.e., a show that is put on to keep up appearances but without really meaning it.

They’d basically be a regular rehashing of all the known problems, but with dates and other figures changed.

All of these documents will be brilliant pieces, only that no one ever sets out to actually turn them into reality.

In private enterprise, you work along the following lines:

  • What is the biggest imaginable “problem” (= market opportunity!) I can find?
  • What is required to find a solution that is the equivalent of shooting for the stars?
  • Once you have answers and a plan, you go and look for the support to make it happen.

I wish such a culture existed in the conservation NGO sector because without being hyper-ambitious, the challenges that the world is facing in protecting and restoring nature are not going to be met. E.g., in the case of all conservation work done in the Galapagos Islands, I would have said it requires an annual budget of ten times what exists now. Scaling up by a factor of ten is entirely feasible and common practice in the world of start-ups, but is often deemed too risky in the world of NGOs. To which I would say, how big are the risks caused by keeping ambitions low?

This entire point is, as I freely admit, harder to nail down. As a practical way to go about checking an organisation’s level of ambition, I’d look at two aspects:

  • Is there a clear focus? (cf. #1)
  • Does the solution to the problem require scaling up by a factor of 5, 10, 20 or even 50?

Lesson learned: If there is a clear answer to both of these points, then you are probably looking at an organisation that is genuine in its ambition.

7. Duplication of efforts

In the UK, the outgoing chief executive of the Charity Commission once told the media: “There are too many charities doing the same work.”

There is also a worthwhile book about the subject: “The Great Charity Scam – What really happens to the billions we give for good causes”. Duplication of work was one of the big themes in the book, e.g., in the UK there are 354 charities for birds!

One of my former colleagues from the Charles Darwin Foundation once told me: “Look at the number of NGOs in the Galapagos who all do the same bleedin’ thing!”

In private enterprise, sectors get consolidated by companies that buy up their smaller, weaker competitors; or by merging with each other. Such a mechanism doesn’t exist in the world of charities and NGOs. There are also a number of cultural factors that lead to lots of small organisations that somehow manage to cling on to life. 

Several organisations forever falling over each other’s feet in uncoordinated actions that duplicate work that someone else has already done is a waste of donor funding and does damage on multiple levels.

Add to this a real lack of transparency in a sector that often praises its own transparency but doesn’t truly deliver it. Case in point, even for such a high-profile, high-interest conservation philanthropy destination as Galapagos, prospective donors still cannot easily access an overview of what has already been funded by whom. If someone wanted to support a truly worthwhile project, it should be an overview (historical and current) of who has been funding what.

Several organisations competing with different approaches is a good thing, provided that eventually a winner emerges and takes matters forward. Several organisations forever falling over each other’s feet in uncoordinated actions that duplicate work that someone else has already done is a waste of donor funding and does damage on multiple levels. An excellent piece of reading about how to get it right is Jane Wei-Skillern’s article on the four network principles for collaboration success.

It’s not an easy task to pull off, but before joining any such organisation (or donating funds to it), I’d research who else is already active in this field and what level of competition or duplication is happening. Anyone who looked at this in the Galapagos Islands would quickly conclude that the different Galapagos-related conservation NGOs are clearly not working in a collaborative way – staff of these organisations would probably immediately tell you as much!

Lessons learned: If it’s possible to find a clear answer to this question and provided it points towards a minimum level of duplication, then that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if it’s not possible to come to a clear answer because there is a lack of transparency, then that in itself gives a vital clue. If in doubt, I’d stay clear of the situation.

8. Fear of discussing hard topics (don’t address the elephant in the room!)

It’s terrible writing about an otherwise admirable character trait in a negative way, but it’s a great case study of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the world of private enterprise, it’s often seen as fashionable to be a disruptor, or someone capable of enacting tough change to enable an organisation to then charge forward with clear focus.

Not so in the world of conservation NGOs.

The prevailing culture is:

  • A general fear of upsetting people or stakeholders.
  • Consensus is highly prized.
  • It’s imperative that everyone remains friends.

A culture that wants to make everyone happy leads back to the “Wishlist Syndrome” (cf. #1). When priorities get defined, everyone gets to add something to the list. Everyone needs to be kept happy, after all.

Even though I have no scientific evidence, I am convinced that the sector as a whole tends to attract people who have a predisposition to that sort of thinking. It draws the kind of people who believe that the word “negotiating” means “giving the other side everything they ask for.” In an overall setting, as described in the previous few points, it adds further to an environment where changes in direction, ambitious progress and pulling rotten teeth become even more difficult than they would be anyway. It leads to organisations missing a few powerful tricks, such as utilising digital media for mass mobilisation.

Lessons learned: For the intrepid job applicant still looking to venture into this sector, it’s important to ask yourself the question: Is the status quo that your prospective employer offers something you’d like to be involved with? For it’s unlikely ever to change – see point (7).

9. Salaries of leaders and high-performers

Two critically important points I learned the hard way: 

  • Never, ever make yourself available below your market value (or even worse, for free) just because it’s a good cause.
  • Organisations that can’t (or are unwilling to) pay for top talent have other inherent, serious flaws that need resolving first.

In the competitive world we live in, organisations stand little chance of succeeding if they can’t hire the best talent that the labour market has available. It’s difficult enough to succeed if you have an ace team. If you can’t attract the very best people to work for you, success becomes but a remote chance.

With a few exceptions, top people simply come with a high price tag.

Here is how a private company approaches the issue:

  • What do we need to spend to hire the best talent?
  • How does that affect our budget, i.e., relative to the goal we are aiming for, is it worthwhile to pay for top talent?
  • If “yes,” we raise the money, and then pay the price for the best possible person available.

In conservation NGOs, the conversation all too often goes like this:

  • What’s the average that the sector pays for a particular position?
  • What did the previous person in this job earn?
  • Who in the organisation would we upset if we paid someone new a higher salary?
  • Is the new person from the commercial sector? Well, in that case, he/she should accept a pay cut: “It’s for a charity, and you are working for the cause!”

By approaching the issue from this perspective, you forever limit your potential pool of applicants and the calibre of person your organisation can attract. There are always exceptions, but on the whole, this applies.

If you can’t attract the very best people to work for you, success becomes but a remote chance.

The media, too, plays a role in this. How many headlines do you remember where a newspaper or magazine article chastised a charity executive for having a seemingly high salary? When in reality, a high absolute figure doesn’t mean anything if it was based on extraordinary results. A chief executive earning $500,000 a year is cheap if he/she brings in $20m in donations (salary = 2.5% of funds raised), whereas a chief executive earning $100,000 a year is overpaid if he/she brings in $1m (salary = 10% of funds raised). Mind you, conservation organisations also still have a strong cultural dislike of performance-based pay, which further holds them back.

Lessons learned: I would advise anyone against being easy or forgiving in salary negotiations. Be just with yourself and with the employer. Work for your usual rate, or don’t work for them at all!

10. Authenticity (and lack thereof)

In my observations of the conservation NGO and charity sector, I have come across a few statistics that may seem somewhat off topic, but which provide compelling evidence for some of the issues laid out herein, and which I, ultimately, attribute to the sector’s lack of authenticity.

  • In the US (the only relevant place where such long-term statistics are available), since the 1970s, over 200,000 new charities have been created. Of those, a meagre 144 have managed to grow to an annual budget of more than $50m. That’s a tiny percentage. These figures are taken from a fascinating article by the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  • WWF, Greenpeace, Conservation International, the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy (to pick a hand-full of the biggest, most widely-known conservation organisations) taken together can spend a budget of about $2bn per annum; based on the last available figures. So the combined budget of a handful of the leading behemoths of the sector is equivalent to what Apple generates in net profit in a mere two weeks.
  • After nearly 40 years of lobbying and a squazillion of funding from countless sources spent on promoting the cause, man-made climate change regularly ranks towards the bottom of all problems that Americans or Europeans are concerned about. Or as the Financial Times once put it in an article headlined: “Green lessons from gay marriage”:

“It’s startling how few people in rich countries care about climate change.
The campaign… is ‘the greatest science communication failure in history.’”

How is it possible that during a period when the world regularly sees important new enterprises grow from zero to multi-billions in the space of a few years, the conservation NGO/charity sector produces so few new organisations that are of a size that is even worth mentioning in the grander scheme of things? Never mind the lack of any conservation organisation having the kind of multi-billion dollar annual budget that you’d need to start moving the needle given the sheer size of the problems the planet is facing.

The wider public just don’t believe that these organisations and their respective leaders are indeed the right ones to solve these problems. 

How come that after several decades of environmentalism, conservation and related issues getting so much attention, even five of the largest and highest-profile organisations in the field have such a minuscule budget? The funding that the conservation NGO sector manages to mobilise has remained the proverbial drop in the ocean. 

What has led to the environmental movement not achieving widespread success and consensus in the one area – man-made climate change – when funding from various sources, including governments and supranational organisations, has provided them with a unique operating platform?

Based on personal observation and gut-feeling, I believe that a lack of authenticity is at the heart of things. The wider public just don’t believe that these organisations and their respective leaders are indeed the right ones to solve these problems.

A counter-example to illustrate the point: One man alone, Elon Musk, has mobilised $19bn to create a solution for an allegedly more environmental-friendly personal transportation. All his imperfections aside, why did Musk manage to raise such a staggering amount of money and build a company that is currently worth over $50bn? Because the public has come to believe that Elon means it, and then he will do anything in his power to get the job done.

Elon Musk and Grimes

Sky Cinema / Shutterstock.com

Crazy, but authentic (and the same is true for Grimes’ boyfriend, Elon Musk)

Authenticity starts with an organisation’s leadership. I have glimpsed such authenticity in the conservation sector in the shape of a few individuals, e.g.:

  • Paul Watson, who successfully built Sea Shepherd into a global, impactful organisation and who has become a bit of a household name. No doubt his creating his own organisation based on previous disappointment with Greenpeace (which he co-founded) made a difference. On the back of Watson making it his life’s mission to help protect the oceans, Sea Shepherd has grown into an organisation with considerable impact.
  • Doug Tompkins, who created new national parks and protected areas, and models how to make them financially sustainable. His bringing his own billions to the table instead of having to rely on conventional conservation funding models no doubt made this happen in the first place. However, others have now started to emulate his model, e.g., there is now even a real estate agent specifically geared towards helping wealthy individuals to buy natural areas and put them to sustainable use and have them protected legally.
  • Al Harris, the successful social and environmental entrepreneur who has made it his focus to place the management of fisheries and marine resources in the hands of locals. Notably, his organisation is structured as a social enterprise.

I’ve also met outstanding individuals in the Galapagos Islands. Suffice to say, those I’d rate as outstanding were (primarily) institutions of their own rather than a member of an institution. When backing them, you know that you’ll get authentic, efficient and robust engagement. Supporting such individuals is actually the central element of my second upcoming article, about how I also found one conservation organisation that works.

Man lifting car

Luckily, the world of conservation does have some amazing individuals!

As you will have gathered from all of the previous points, such outstanding individuals, much as they exist, are relatively unlikely to turn up in conventional conservation NGOs. Instead, traditional conservation NGOs are more geared towards attracting a different kind of person for key management and governance roles, which makes it so hard for these organisations to develop the type of authenticity that would help to propel them forward. The kind of people attracted to over-populated governance bodies – places where you get a grand title but in actuality aren’t truly held to account for what you contribute or fail to contribute – don’t exactly add to authenticity either.

It’s people that make organisations. If your structure is geared towards actively attracting one kind of person and keeping away another type of person, then it’s pretty clear what result you’ll get from it. Unless organisations invest to a larger degree in developing leadership skills – and retaining them for the long-term – I don’t see this changing.

Lessons learned: How might organisations that suffer from such a lack of authenticity improve their situation? Based on all the prior points, it’d probably be feasible through a large-scale restructuring (which primarily means cutting back layers); establishing better models for using digital media, and establishing better leadership models. Given the thick layers of problems and cultural issues that would have to be tackled, realistically, the impetus for something like this could only ever come from donors. If donors were serious in asking for maximum performance and scale, it could be done.

Taking up the cudgels for conventional conservation NGOs

After so much critical review of current day realities, I’d actually like to finish with a positive note about organisations like the Charles Darwin Foundation (and the hundreds, if not thousands of similar conservation NGOs around the world).

Amidst all their structural weaknesses, they do a lot of excellent work. Primarily so, because there are still so many passionate, hard-working people in the engine rooms of these organisations. No matter how big the failures on the upper deck, the people on the frontlines of daily operations keep slaving away to keep things moving forward. They do so often for below-average salaries which are caused by some of the reasons mentioned above.

I have no doubt whatsoever that it’s better to have these organisations than not to have them.

Amidst all their structural weaknesses, they do a lot of excellent work.

So, how can sufficient change and success be achieved within these organisations to make significant progress towards saving the planet from destruction?

New organisations and ways of working are needed.

It was my own failing to latch onto an organisation that just wasn’t geared towards that. I should have done more due diligence before getting involved. Still, I didn’t have the experience at the time to come to these observations and conclusions.

Conventional conservation NGOs:

  • are the platform from which smaller but nevertheless important and valuable steps towards saving natural treasures are achieved;
  • make suitable employers for those who want to work in this area but have a preference for factors such as working in a stunning place and not being challenged too much;
  • provide a home for funds from donors who aren’t overly ambitious in their asking, or who have funds or income streams that were dedicated to this form of organisation in a distant past and simply have to be spent this way.

But what about reform?

My bottom line is, you can only lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. For those who feel that the time has come for bold, ambitious action to save nature from destruction, many of the kinds of organisations described above will simply not be suitable because they are too stuck in their current way of operating at below-scale.

Setting free organisations from what is holding them back isn’t rocket science.

Luckily, though, there are also exceptions.

E.g., you can study the changes and turnaround managed at the Royal Institution, one of the oldest scientific charities in the UK. The organisation went from being heavily in debt and lacking agility, to having spare cash in the bank and growing parts of its operation as well as its impact rapidly. I am sure not all is perfect at the Royal Institution just yet, but it makes for a great case study on how an existential crisis was used by those who were in charge of its governance, to resolve a few key issues.

Setting free organisations from what is holding them back isn’t rocket science. It simply requires the will and skills at governance level.

What else can one do?

In the last two years, using my experiences and my network, I have gotten involved – in a modest but impactful way as it had turned out – with a shark-related conservation organisation in the UK, trying to achieve positive, ambitious change in the world of conservation. What started as an experiment in how to do things better has in the meantime grown both to be a success as well as an interesting case study in:

  • How to back an authentic, impactful individual.
  • What an effective funding model looks like.
  • The value of focus and ambitious goals.

I’ll be writing about my experience as a donor and occasional co-strategist of this organisation in my next article, due out next week!


The disappointing side of my time at the Charles Darwin Foundation aside, the number one memory I kept from this era of my life is all the great people I’ve met through this work. Much as I am critical of the people who populate the governance level of such organisations (and some types of donors), I’ve met many wonderful people who were working in the actual operations of the organisation; who were supporting it as individuals, or who came into the fold through one of the corporate sponsors or partners of the organisation.

I’ve remained in touch with some, and for the purpose of this article reached out to half a dozen of them to ask them to review my thoughts. I wanted to ensure that:

  • Everything was factually and historically accurate.
  • I was using objective language, and focus primarily on general lessons.
  • Others with an understanding of the sector would judge my article as a worthwhile contribution to what can be found in the public domain; much as this is ever possible given that this is the personal experience and opinion of just one individual.

What you were reading above went through a fairly extensive process of reviewing and rewriting. We didn’t reach consensus on all points ;-), but the finished piece benefitted mightily from the expertise I’ve been able to tap into.

I extend my thank you to all my reviewers.

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