Are environmental groups corporate lapdogs?
<p>A recently published book makes some claims that caught my eye. In Christine MacDonald's new book, <a href="http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/08/when-green-becomes-inc/">Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad</a>, she claims that working with corporations has corrupted some of the largest, most respected environmental groups in the world. According to her, "organizations that become dependent on corporate dollars to pay for programs and salaries don't want to risk losing the funding," so they compromise their principals to keep the money flowing. She also criticizes the executive salaries at the largest groups, seemingly implying that they have become dependent on those corporate dollars to fund their high salaries.<br /><br />Sounds reasonable, until you look at the facts.<br /> <br />I admit, I haven't read the book (I don't think it is published yet in London), just the reviews and interviews the author has given. But it is a good catalyst to address some lazy thinking about environmental organizations. Particularly, I will address two myths:</p>
<p><br />1) that large environmental NGOs are so dependent on corporate dollars they are compromising their principals<br />2) people that work at NGOs should make crap money and get satisfaction from doing good in the world<br /><br /><br /><strong>Myth Number One:</strong> Large enviro groups are too dependent on corporate money to be objective.<br /><br />First, some background on me. I worked for environmental groups in Washington DC since 1997: WWF, National Parks Conservation Association, American Rivers. I am not what you might call an uncritical participant in this world. Pretty much every boss I've had can tell you about how I constantly peppered them with questions about all aspects of their strategy and implementation, and I've never hesitated to disagree with them. You want to hear some choice words about leadership at some of these green groups? Drop me a line.<br /><br />But I'm telling you now, to claim that "organizations that become dependent on corporate dollars to pay for programs and salaries don't want to risk losing the funding," is to completely ignore the reality of funding.<br /><br />Corporate donations make up a tiny percentage of revenue for environmental groups. Even in huge, corporate-friendly organizations like Conservation International (a target of Ms. MacDonald's) it made up a mere 5% of their funding in 2007. Also, here's something corporations don't mention when they announce big-dollar partnerships with non-profits: a lot of that amount isn't in the form of actual cash, but "in-kind" donations (often staff time or product giveaways). <br /><br />In fact, in the case of <a href="http://www.conservation.org/discover/about_us/annual_report/Pages/annual... International</a>, they get five times more funding from government or multilateral organizations and nearly ten times more from foundations than they do from corporations. All of that money is awarded based on their credibility and the rigor of their science, and would quickly evaporate if they became known as nothing more than lapdogs for corporations.<br /><br />Do some organizations develop over-sized egos and an inflated sense of self-importance based on the prestige of their corporate partners? I'm pretty sure the answer is yes, and worth investigating. But that is not the same as selling out your principals for cash.<br />#break#<br /><strong>Myth Number Two:</strong> Non-profit employees should never be paid competitive wages.<br /><br />As a long-standing non-profit employee, this myth perhaps irritates me the most. On the one hand, critics like to charge we are nothing but Birkenstock-wearing do-gooders, and on the other, you want to only pay salaries that will attract Birkenstock-wearing do-gooders? Please.<br /><br />Here's the reality. When people donate money to environmental organizations (and the vast majority are funded mostly by individual donors and foundations), they do so because they think those organizations will be effective in saving the Earth. Donors expect results. <br /><br />The truth is that it takes a LOT of skills to achieve results on the environment, especially in the United States. You need scientists, GIS specialists, lawyers, community organizers, marketers, people who understand how to motivate elected officials, fundraising specialists... The USA isn't a country where environmental problems are self-evident anymore: there are no rivers on fire or soot falling from the sky. You have to work to get people's attention, and work to get them to do something once you have that attention. <br /><br />If you want to waste money, hire people who don't know what they are doing and hope that passion gets them where they need to be. If you want success, hire people who are passionate AND have the skills. This takes money, and since the skills are specialized and in-demand, you have to compete with the private sector for the best minds- that includes CEO searches. I'm not saying non-profit employees should expect to get wildly rich, but let's stop treating them like they are glorified volunteers please. <br /><br />As it is, environmental groups are facing a crisis in hiring, though they don't realize it yet. They have relied on people's passion and dedication to attract and retain them in the field, despite the crappy salaries that force most entry-level employees to seek out a second job. How much longer can they depend on that as the average student loan burden rises year after year? Is the strategy just to rely on rich people who have no debt burden to fill the ranks in the future? How is that going to help the environmental movement become less white?<br /><br />So, the book got me thinking about a lot of things. What do you think? Do you have examples of green groups corrupted by their own success, or examples of selflessness by employees? What about salaries?</p>