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Has WWF-International left the building?

Given the extraordinary range of new obligations and opportunities encompassed in the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the emerging UNEA, why would the world’s largest environmental NGO suddenly choose to down-size its international capacity?
taken from Some Blogsite

“We shan't save all we should like to, but we shall save a great deal more 
  than if we had never tried.”
   – Sir Peter Scott, co-founder and first Chair, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) 

By Felix Dodds and Michael Strauss 

Little noticed among the many more prominent – and frequently tragic – international news events since the start of the year, the world’s largest international environmental NGO decided to drastically re-make the structure of its international secretariat.

In early April, the World Wide Fund for Nature (still iconoclastically known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) announced it would implement a consultant’s plan to reduce 100 of its 170 full time staff from the WWF International Secretariat in Switzerland.  A certain number of those 100 positions would be relocated and opened for ‘re-interviews’ and possible rehiring at locally prevailing wage and benefit levels, predominately in five regional locations. The rest would be eliminated entirely.

The regional sites are reportedly Cape Town, Nairobi, Singapore, Woking (UK) and possibly Bogota (or another Latin America or Caribbean location).

Despite the seeming pre-eminence of its title, the WWF International Secretariat comprises just a small fraction of the nearly 6,400 positions that WWF employs around the world, through their national independent offices. The vast majority of WWF staff are employed by and based in the 36 WWF national organizations most of those in the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. (There are also ‘programme offices’ in a total of 65 countries.) The four leading national organizations (which might be called the WWF ‘P-4’, or permanent four) wield considerable financial and policy-setting influence within the organization.

The stated reasons for the move include an effort to achieve greater efficiency and to “more effectively implement the new conservation strategy”.

But the WWF International Secretariat's 100 positions that will be affected represent just a tiny fragment of the total WWF global staff positions – less than 2 percent. Assuming even a 50 percent reduction in each position’s cost would reduce expenditures by less than one percent of payroll – hardly an impressive savings.

According to its Annual Review, total WWF annual expenditures for 2015 were EUR 674 million (or about $740 million), of which 9 percent (about EUR 62.3 million, or $69 million) was for finance and administration, 17 percent (about EUR 117 million, or $ 129 million) for fundraising.  This is more than UNEP or UNDP.

Indeed, as WWF director-general Marco Lambertini, who took over WWF International just two years ago, told the Associated Press, WWF’s financial “position is very healthy,” with revenue up 10 percent last year.
So financial efficiencies would not seem to have been a necessary motivation.

As for the goal of implementing a new conservation strategy, that does make some sense.

With the broad range of obligations and potential opportunities encompassed in new 2030 Agenda for the SDGs, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, all stakeholders will have greater responsibilities to help advocate, educate, implement, monitor and communicate to the public tangible programmes that make bringing those goals closer to a reality.

But this will require more investment in staff and resources, not less.  And it will require greater coordination between national and international levels of the organization, and among international issue experts working to effectively track and hold accountable the actions of governments and the private sector.

Over the years we have worked with the extremely talented staff of WWF International on a number of policy areas and summit, conference, convention and commission processes.

We have seen WWF working closely with other environmental, development and social justice NGOs at the UN Rio summits in 1992 and 2012. From 1997 to 2001, WWF under the leadership of their advocacy team were one of the major NGOs that supported the NGO coalition at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development – a collaborative effort that had an enormous impact in those formative years of sustainable development policy.

In recent years, we have seen WWF International send highly prepared and effective teams to sessions of the critical 2030 Agenda and biodiversity meetings and also the Paris high level negotiations.

In the era of increasing multilateral agreements and interdependent economies, one of the critical functions of NGOs is to actively participate in policy negotiations with governments at the international level.

It is a role that requires policy expertise across traditional environmental, economic and social policy lines; access to real world financial and technological expertise; high level legal and governance knowledge; and the inside-the-corridors personal diplomatic skill to be able to contact, communicate with and convince often uninterested or recalcitrant representatives of governments and intergovernmental agencies.

In effect, a successful international policy NGO serves as an independent (non-)governmental foreign ministry, able to negotiate on par with the actual foreign ministries of even the largest national governments.

While ideally, broad coalitions of smaller, local and more specialized NGOs should be able to build the coalitions that enable them to actively and sustainably do this, the reality, unfortunately, is that on their own they only sometimes are able to.

Those NGOs who have those capabilities – and who can integrate them in a strategic and timely manner –constitute only a very small handful of the world's thousands of organizations.
The WWF International team has been one of those few.

WWF’s activities outside the intergovernmental arena may have at times raised questions or accusations – but its actions inside the UN and other intergovernmental fora have been highly effective.

All organizations go through re-organizations and with the new SDG agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement all stakeholders should look at their programmes and reorganize them where possible to help deliver the goals and address climate change. The goals and targets do require a more complex approach than previously as there are many interlinkages that need substantive work.

There is therefore a big question that must be asked of the Board of Directors of WWF International. Do they realize what the impact of this is likely to be? Or has the Board been asleep at the job?

Despite the fact that WWF was founded 55 years ago as an international organization, it is clear that the four largest WWF national organizations have always had a problem with the WWF International Secretariat holding the coordinating role of the family. It looks very much like they’ve now decided that they should have the run of the roost.

The staff relocation can hardly be about putting the staff in the field. That is also not the role an HQ should play – there are 6,400 WWF people in national affiliates to handle that.

To reiterate, just when all the world’s national governments have agreed to sweeping new actions to implement the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs it is not a time to reduce a once great organization to a shadow of its former self. Assuring that UN agencies, national governments, local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders fulfill these highly complex and nationally differentiated agreements doesn’t need less staff and resources, but almost certainly requires more.

And the synergies of having those staff in one place isn’t replaced effectively by google documents or skype or dropbox.

It may or may not be too late for this decision to be changed, but over the coming decades it will impact on the ability to hold governments and other actors accountable to their promises. The current WWF Board of Directors – or its successors – may seriously regret what it has done.

One wonders what Sir Peter Scott would feel … and whether his visionary quote (at the beginning of this blog) is even still applicable? 

Felix Dodds is an Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Global Research Institute and a Senior Affiliate at the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina. He was Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum from 1992 to 2012.
Felix has written or edited 13 books the latest edited with Jamie Bartram is 'The Water, Food, Energy and Climate Nexus: Challenges and an Agenda for Action'. 

Michael Strauss is Executive Director of Earth Media, an independent political and media consultancy based in New York, that promotes environmental, economic development, and social justice issues and activities.
Michael organizes press conferences, coordinates public communications campaigns and supports policy advocacy for governments, UN agencies, IGOs, local authorities, NGOs, labor unions, academics and responsible business associations.
He has lectured at university courses on international policy and journalism, and is co-author of  “Only One Earth – The Long Road, via Rio, to Sustainable Development”(2012); “Negotiating and Implementing Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) – A Manual for NGOs (2007); and “How to Lobby at Intergovernmental Meetings” (2004).


  1. This is an interesting topic for you--and I sense a lot of emotion that suggest you know the players. That said, my experience of "headquarters" organizations is that they are OFTEN out of touch, not accountable, and not accessible. Well intentioned though the creation of such an office may be, over time they fill with policy wonks and pundits who have little understanding, affiliation or love of the field. It seems a management decision that you may not have enough insight on to draw (or suggest) the conclusion that it is a drawing back from international focus. I suspect an effort to shift the culture to one that is more responsive to the field.

    If I wanted to know for sure, I'd get a multitude of opinions from within the organization. And then again, as long as they are on mission and using my donations as well as they do, and stepping up in the ways that I consistently seem them do, it's not my business.

    Hope you are well.

  2. From someone in the organisation, I can confirm the widespread feeling that the new structure will be less efficient than the current one. First because in this transition it is foreseen to have 50 % of the staff "leave", as many will not accept to move in Kenya or Singapore...on a local salary, as it is currently proposed. So I tend to agree with the writers that this is quite an unfortunate move in a time where everybody's strength is needed.


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