When a NGO admits it’s wrong. WWF and it’s (non) involvement in the Save Our Forests campaign

It’s not often you see a big NGO come out in public and admit that they got something wrong.

So it’s great to see WWF put out a statement today effectively apologising for its lack of public action and clarifying its stance on UK forest sell-off in response to some harsh criticism it’s received in the press this week.

It’s a spat that started in the Guardian on Monday when environmentalist Jonathan Porritt accused major charities, including WWF, RSPB and the National Trust of “collectively betrayed” for their failure to support the grassroots campaign that has grown in the recent weeks to halt the sale of English forests, while Polly Toynbee put the boot in on Tuesday accusing green groups of keeping their heads down over selling off forests’.

Today, WWF have responded with an excellent statement on their website confessing that they should have done more from the start. 

Porrit stated “There have been no statements, no mobilisation of its massive membership, no recognition that this is an absolutely critical issue for the future wellbeing of conservation in the UK. Nothing”.

Suggesting that the lack of action had “made themselves look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them.”

There is no doubt that the campaign mounted by 38 degrees and others has gathered a huge amount of momentum in a short time, it’s petition has just gone over the half a million mark.

Perhaps most interestingly, it feels like it’s not only the ‘usual suspects’ who are signing on. A non-campaigning friend of mine posted the link to the petition on Facebook tonight encouraging people to sign, and the Observer reported of the opposition of many land owners last weekend. 

So I’m impressed to see the response from WWF today, who write of the statement that ‘It’s fair to say this is a bit overdue as loads of you have asked us what we’re doing about the proposed government sell-off (or long-term leasing) of UK forests’

Going on to explain ‘Not having much of a history working on UK forests, we did most of our work behind the scenes and focused our public firepower on issues like illegal logging via our ‘What Wood You Choose?’ campaign. We are working with peers getting an amendment tabled in the House of Lords and had questions asked in parliament, but to be honest we did precious little in public (emphasis mine)

In time it might be right to ask if criticising environmental NGOs in such a public way was the right approach by Porritt? As an unnamed source in the original article says ‘Rule one of clever campaigning is that you don’t criticise members of your team, at least not in public’ and WWF say they’ve been working on this behind the scenes.

But for me this spat has once again highlights some of the challenges that the more ‘traditional’ NGOs need to address in their campaigning.

1. Agility
Movements like 38 degrees are so well placed, because they can respond within hours not days. They lack the restrictions of charitable status and often no desire for a seat at the table in ongoing consultation. Combine this with a phenomenal e-mail network mean that they can be ‘first to market’. The challenge that many ‘traditional’ NGOs face is that they’re not set up to turn around a response in the time that online campaigns like 38 degrees.

No doubt heated discussions have been happening at all the NGOs that Porritt choose to criticise (as you can see implied by the response from WWF), but the very nature of these organisations mean that multiple departments need to be involved and opportunities and risks needs to be carefully calculated, but that whole process takes time, and internal compromises often have to be negotiated. In this digital age waiting even 24 hours to respond or act can be too long.

2 – Collaboration
Within a day or so 38 degrees had already collected the first 50,000+ names on its petition, and then you have to ask how much value there is in starting a second competing petition. This for me is the second challenge are traditional NGO prepared to ‘brand’ and ‘profile’ aside and collaborate for the common good when situations like this arise?

Would the NGOs named be prepared to promote the 38 degrees petition assuming they agreed with the essence of what it was calling for?

On this regard I’ve got a huge amount of respect for WWF for saying in their statement ‘To their great credit, 38 Degrees organised a massive public response (sign here if you haven’t already)’ but no doubt that line will cause some anxiety in the organisation as supporters are encouraged to share their valuable data with others. 

Collaboration is essential, and to do it well campaigners need to recognise the different roles and approaches needed for effective campaigns.

Save our Forests is no different, surely it’d be of huge value to have organisations with both years of experience in nature conservation joining the campaign and impressive contacts within Parliament to be involved.  But to do that requires someone to initiate the collaboration, and in situations like this perhaps it’s not clear who that should be.

3. Accountability 
Perhaps it wasn’t Porritt’s criticism and the Guardian articles that lead WWF to clarify their position. The statement from WWF certainly indicates that they’ve also been hearing complaints from supporters saying ‘The scale of passion around this issue has led to a lot of emails as to WWF’s role’.

This case seems to be another example of the increasingly complex relationship that organisations have with their supporters. The tools of collaboration and campaigning aren’t just in the hands of a few professionalised campaigners, they’re available to supporters to lobby the organisations they belong to. It also shows that many campaigners are active in more than one campaigning network.

So congratulation on an excellent response from WWF, a response that already seems to be yielding appreciation from supporters with one writing;

Thank you. As a WWF member and supporter of the Save Our Forests campaign, I’m very glad you’ve joined the campaign. The statement above is everything we could have hoped for.

Now I’m left wondering if we’ll see the National Trust and RSPB come out with a statement in recent days.

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2 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Johnston, Tom Baker. Tom Baker said: New Post – When a NGO admits it’s wrong. WWF and it’s (non) involvement in #SaveOurForests – http://bit.ly/fJ0AcE […]

  2. Interesting. One of the many great things about working in coalition is that it lets campaign organisations share expertise, so if they trust each others’ expertise several groups can campaign on the basis of one or two groups’ research, thus maximising the impact of the movement as a whole. For which, of course, you have to commit time to building trust and good communication between groups, and see yourselves as part of the same movement in the first place.

    WWF’s collegiality has been on display in Stop Climate Chaos, and respect to them for that.

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