For the last five years, I have been lucky enough to volunteer and work in the Australian environmental not-for-profit sector. I have had the pleasure of working with tireless, committed and passionate individuals who have spent many years fighting to protect the world. Despite some hard fought wins, the assault on the natural world continues in the presence of rampant industrial growth and conservative political ideology. As the challenges being faced by the natural world continues on its rapid downward trajectory, I think the time has come for many ENGOs to shed their conservative approach.
Below are some of my personal observations that might help ENGOs have more impact and shift the tide towards making the world a better place to live in.
We spend a lot of time in front of computers planning, executing and reviewing campaigns. These days, creativity and execution is measured by whether or not something has gone viral on the internet. Don’t get me wrong, innovation and new ways of storytelling is fantastic yet there are days where I feel like we are not spending enough time being creative. By creativity, I mean getting a chance to spend some time pursuing a personal project or hobby. Some may argue that hobbies or projects should be pursued in one’s own personal time. I disagree. I feel like there are lessons to be learnt from tech giants such as Google, Atlassian and even Facebook. Atlassian for example has a program called ‘Ship It’, where one day each month the employees are encouraged to work on their own personal projects (with some minor rules) and all of the company’s resources are available for them to use. The true lesson here is not about a designated day or access to resources but the fostering of a work culture that embraces and encourages creativity. Maybe a personal project or hobby could lead to something that might have more positive impact on the environment than a campaign.
ENGOs both big and small rely on volunteers for the daily operations. In fact, many of the most successful ENGOs started off as a group of passionate people who volunteered their time and expertise for a particular cause. To me volunteers are more valuable than senior management and they need to be treated accordingly. Why? Because I think that when someone chooses to volunteer for an organisation, it is a vote of confidence in what the organisation does and the values it stands for. I also think that volunteering is a deeper commitment, compared to ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ on social media or donating money to an organisation. Lots of ENGOs take on volunteers but they do not know how to manage them or what to do when a volunteer is coming to the end of his/her tenure. The most successful volunteering programs are ones that are actively invested in the growth of the volunteer, in mentoring and making them feel like an invaluable part of the organisation. In a few years time, these same volunteers might become the organisation’s greatest champion and ambassador and help influence decisions that better protect our environment.
Mentors are invaluable and great mentors are hard to find. I see so many people who work in the ENGO sector who are not taking the opportunity to pass on their experiences, ideas and knowledge onto the next generation. The most common excuse for this is being ‘time poor’. I am not a fan of this excuse. I feel like mentoring someone is not a huge burden and even one hour a month is sufficient. It is a rich and incredibly rewarding experience. Mentors need to be generous with their time and genuinely honest in their responses. They need to challenge their ‘mentee’ to become critical thought leaders so that past mistakes are not repeated. And for someone who is seeking a mentor, I think it is important to find people from outside the profession you are interested in so that you get exposure to as many thought leaders as possible. The same goes for experienced and seasoned campaigners at an organisation.
(I want to give a special shout-out to my mentor who is generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and discuss his ideas and experiences with me. Thanks Elder!)
- Coalition building
As much as I hate to say it, no ENGO is going to save the world single-handedly. Even with the best staff and the biggest budget, it is simply not going to happen without people from all walks of life. There are a lot of organisations that are very good at forming coalitions and mobilising their supporter base to rally behind a particular environmental cause. Yet often at closer examination, these coalitions are ephemeral and segmented. To build a long-lasting movement for the environment, I believe we need to start talking to people from outside the ‘bubble’ (people already sympathetic to the cause) and reach out to unlikely community stakeholders and groups including people from low socio-economic backgrounds, different faith groups, traditional owners, local councils, people from non-english speaking communities and even other ENGOs.
And yes, it would be nice to see organisations share ‘unbranded’ resources with each other.
- Local groups
Local groups have been working to protect their local environment for a long time. They are the ones who are often poorly resourced (in terms of finance) yet have a consistent group of volunteers. Everyday I stumble across a local group that is doing something amazing in their area that is not only having a tangible and positive impact but is also shifting behaviour in the community. Whether it be litter collection, conservation of riparian zones and watersheds, transitioning towards renewables or encouraging their community to divest. Often it seems like these locally run programs are more effective than a large campaign being executed by a well-resourced ENGO. Maybe it is time for ENGOs to start working with local groups to support their programs and help build the grand coalition I mentioned above.