“Passionate Collaboration” or: Forty Shades of Green

John Vidal, the Guardian’s Environmental editor, who can write an eyewitness report on the effects of climate change in Tanzania (complete with desperate quotes from the locals) while staring out of the plane window on a flight to Pretoria, has been plugging a new report

“Passionate Collaboration? -Taking the Pulse of the UK Environmental Sector”

from the Environmental Funders’ Network, which is a network of funding organisations whose mission is “to increase financial support for environmental causes and to help environmental philanthropy to be as effective as it can be.” Vidal’s article is at

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/27/1-in-10-uk-adults-environmental-group

and the report can be found at

http://www.greenfunders.org/wp-content/uploads/Passionate-Collaboration-Full-Report.pdf

Most of the EFN’s publications up to now have been studies of where their money’s going – a series of five reports entitled “Where the Green Grants went”. This one is a bit different; it’s a study of where the recipients would like it to go, and what they’d like to do with it. It’s an opinion survey sent out to chief executives of 300 environmental NGOs, 140 of whom replied.

Vidal gets hold of the wrong end of the stick in his very first sentence of course, claiming that because the combined membership of the 140 organisations that took part in the survey was nearly 4.5 million, this means that  “one in 10 UK adults is now a member or supporter of Britain’s environment and conservation groups”. Since the “Stop Climate Chaos Coalition” alone claims 20 million supporters, there may be some undercounting. On the other hand, since the RSPB with its million members are in there, together with dozens of local wildlife organisations and Birdlife International, there may be some double counting. Or perhaps a bit of both. Trying to extract information from a survey of 140 organisations ranging from the Natural History Museum to Surfers Against Sewage is a delicate affair, but let’s see what we can learn from it.

The most important thing is probably not what’s in the report, which will probably never be read by more than a few dozen people, but what Vidal quotes from it, which will be read by rather more and get recycled around the media and into the consciousness of environmental activists.

Vidal focusses on the finding that: “.. of the groups’ combined income of £984m a year, only 7% of the money they spend goes to tackle high-profile issues like climate change, with 44% going to traditional biodiversity and nature protection” and says that the report “… dispels the myths that suggest environment groups are full of radicals. Only 1.2% of their income is spent on activism towards government or corporations, and less than 3% of their income went on trying to get people to behave differently.”

It rather depends how you define things though, doesn’t it? I’d have thought roughly 100% of the expenditure of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace went on trying to change people’s behaviour, whether it’s the behaviour of Vladimir Putin or of the average listener to the Today programme.

In fact I’m willing to bet that even such a worthy organisation as Surfers Against Sewage spends the greater part of their time and money hectoring people about the need to make the world a better place for surfers, and very little actually fishing the stuff out of the breakers.

And the meagre 1.2% spent on influencing governments or corporations has to be seen in the context of the fact that a quarter of the billion pounds spent by these NGOs comes from governments and corporations in the first place.

(It really does seem rather pointless lumping together the activities of the RSPB, which is a million people willing to spend their weekends scraping oil off seagulls, and E3G, which is basically three men in suits with vast brains and the ear of government ministers. Of course they don’t spend much money influencing governments. Governments spend money paying to be influenced by them. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

Vidal seems rather miffed by the fact that the NGOs only spend 7% on Climate change. (In fact it’s even less than that, because climate is lumped together with atmosphere) So saving the planet gets only a miniscule proportion, while the biggest chunk goes to protecting bugs beasts and hedgerows, not surprisingly, given that a large proportion of the participating organisations have names like Bat Conservation and Buglife and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.

(Or maybe that’s what they tell their members they do, while in fact they spend their time burying CO2, switching lights off and measuring their carbon footprints). Climate change is their raison d’être, their meal ticket, not their problem. In fact, it’s the lack of climate change which could turn out to be a problem. If the threat to bats turned out to come, not from climate change, but from MPs turning their belfries into second homes in which to invest their expenses, then  batwatching would no longer be a priority for aid from governments or foundations.

The results of their survey are pretty incoherent, which is hardly surprising given the vast differences in size and type of organisation. What is the point of averaging out responses from Tree Aid, Planning Democracy, and Keep Britain Tidy? It’s like asking for an Identikit picture of a typical inmate of the Zoo. (The Zoological Society is in there too, along with China Dialogue).

One interesting table lists the organisations which respondents felt accomplished the most relative to their resources. The most popular choices were Greenpeace, FoE, RSPB, WWF and the National Trust. Since they all have vast resources, one might expect envy or suspicion of topheavy institutions to weigh against them.

The same question was then asked of EFN members – the foundations that dish out the loot. Greenpeace was still top, followed by Carbon Tracker, Client Earth, European Climate Foundation, Environmental Justice Foundation, Green Alliance, and the New Economics Foundation. Clearly, the moneybags prefer the men in suits with the pie charts to the twitchers and bugwatchers.

The EFN website lists “some of the trusts and foundations that have been involved in the EFN since it was launched in 2003” (74 by my count). Some are familiar names like Comic Relief, Body Shop and Sainsbury’s. Some are foreign, which is odd, given that it’s all about money being spent in the UK by UK NGOs (even if they include “Elephant Family”, “the Forest Peoples Programme”, and “Save the Rhino”).

“Passionate Collaboration” is a followup to a series of reports on the financing of  environmental NGOs, the latest of  which is at

http://www.greenfunders.org/wp-content/uploads/Where-the-Green-Grants-Went-Five.pdf

There’s rather more information in the “Where the Moolah Went” reports. For example, from “Table 8: Comparison of UK and US environmental movements”, we learn that in the UK in 2008 there were 5,300 environmental organisations with a total income of £2.4 billion, of which just £75 million (3%) was in the form of private donations. There’s a lot more to be wrung out of these reports, but what I’ve seen in an afternoon’s browsing has given me something to be thinking about.

You have to be a certain sort of person, or in a certain kind of mood, to find these reports interesting. Maybe it’s writing about Robert E. Phelan that has put me in a state of Buddhist tranquility, the benign neutrality of the unbiassed social scientist, where I no longer make judgements on my fellow human beings. I’m willing to believe, just for a moment, that those pillocks at E3G swanning round the world making speeches about the need to build windmills in order to avoid the imminent collapse of civilisation are really normal human beings, as normal as people who do real jobs, like fracking for gas or making stuff for peope to buy.

And if I ever come into a fortune, I’ll remember to make a donation to Surfers against Sewage. I bet they have some awesome photos on their website.

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