Management structures in Environmental Organisations – where they fail

The proliferation of environmental NGOs has seen a breadth of diversification and specification that is impressive, if in many ways counter-productive to the movement as a whole, with the appearance of a range of niche charities and organisations over the last 10 years. The overall result, compounded by recession, has been a diminishing of the pool of potential funding for each organisation. A quick search reveals over 100 charities and NGOs with an environmental focus with such specialised organisations as the Christian Ecology Link (formed 1981) and Surfers Against Sewage (1990). If you add into this the number of voluntary groups and friends groups, the number of people involved in the sector rises exponentially. Any increase in the people employed or engaged voluntarily working towards the improvement of the environment should be encouraged wholeheartedly, but the danger exists of too many interests pulling too few resources in too many directions, spreading funding even more thinly.

How then, does an environmental organisation stand out? How does it make the most of its slice of the pie? Against this backdrop of scarce resources but increased public awareness of issues it is a disappointment that no organisation, new or old, big or small, has taken the opportunity to develop a new way of working. Surely it is an ideal time to think about ways to fully utilise their most valuable commodities – the front facing staff. A real opportunity exists to reorganise the way we work in the environmental sector and focus our resources where they are most effective. To develop more streamlined and inclusive ways of working with what we have rather than expending energy and enthusiasm railing against what we cannot control. One of the main drains on financial resources and also a huge limiting factor for the pace and efficacy of any project, and one that is unsurprisingly rarely addressed, is the management structure that most organisations have adopted.

Is it time to cut down on the managers and celebrate the people on the front line?

How we work now


I needed an image to break-up the text and inject a little levity – so here’s a Capybara.

The majority of environmental organisation continues to ape a more corporate, hierarchical staff structure. This continued adherence to a system copied from sectors not directly comparable is holding back the possibility of a real, progressive realignment of working practises.

Currently career progression is dependant on such pre-existing systems. A standard industry sees a senior management position as the apex of career progression, a position to aspire to and the natural order of things dictates that this is accompanied by an equivalent monetary reward. Many workers will therefore be striving towards this, even though they may not have considered this or even desired this to be their ultimate destination. But why is this so? Why is management valued as a higher commodity than other, more specialised, roles? And why does this happen in a sector where more specialised roles are often the defining characteristic and chief driving force behind actual visual and reportable progress?

Many environmental professionals will reach a ceiling at some point during their career. Be it an ecologist, an environmental educator, outreach worker, etc. no matter the skill level or amount of experience, there will be a choice to continue with the same roles at in or around the same salary or take on project/staff management to move to the next pay grade. Some who choose the former may even find themselves being given greater responsibilities without the equivalent pay increase to compensate, often dressed up as a development opportunity.

Therefore most of the organisations we as environmental professionals will work with or for, consist of an upper management level which is often ill-suited or unmotivated, working in a role that they did not envisage or choose, or more often than not shipped in from other sectors with limited practical understanding of the on-the-ground issues faced by front-facing practitioners.

Who works for an environmental charity?

The value of any organisation in the environmental sector lies in its staff and particularly its specialists and front-facing staff. But what differentiates them from staff in most other sectors? It is a fair assumption that the majority of conservation practitioners did not consider financial concerns as a primary motivator when entering the sector. Most people have to start as a volunteer, earning nothing but keen to learn, and there are huge numbers of volunteers who take part in conservation activities of all kinds across the country every day.

This is perhaps fortunate given the limited funds and resources currently in circulation. Like few other industries, environmental charities generally consist of a passionate and intelligent workforce motivated by shared interests and beliefs. It would be an overly broad generalisation to suggest people working for environmental organisations (particularly charities) are degree educated, subject-passionate, proactive, altruistic and left-leaning, but it wouldn’t be that far from the mark. It is certainly fair to suggest that environmental practitioners view their area of work as a vocation rather than a job with most people getting into the sector to ‘get their hands dirty’, not to sit behind a desk and manage other people.

Opportunity for Change – alternatives

With such a workforce, the opportunity to self-regulate and direct could be endless. If a clear ethos or manifesto is in place there is the potential to eliminate the drag on impetus and resources that can result from an over-bureaucratised and hierarchical structure by adopting a more egalitarian modus operandi.

Removing unnecessary management positions and adopting a flatter organisational structure would allow a nimbler, more fleet of foot, and more adaptable workforce. Middle management and even senior management and executives could be dispensed with.

A quick look at the staff structures and pay grades in a standard environmental charity such as a Wildlife Trust or the RSPB would reveal the huge percentage of salary that is expended in this area. Anecdotal evidence suggests that rewards in the way of pay increases or bonuses are also frequently distributed amongst the higher managers whilst precious little is filtered done to project officer level staff. The reason for this may be the short-term nature of the majority of such contracts and the over-abundance of people trying to get in to the sector, willing to work at low wages and in many cases to actually do parts or the whole of normally paid roles as a volunteer.

How could a flat, more anarchic structure work? The process could, with great difficulty, be retrofitted to existing, large organisations but would perhaps be more relevant to relatively new and small companies. There is no reason why it cannot function at a larger scale however. Recruitment would be the primary way of producing an effective organisation, with greater consideration given to ensure new employees buy-in to a collaborative and collective culture. With such a set up it would also be prudent to recruit personnel for their area of experience and knowledge without necessarily having a role in mind, rather than recruiting directly for a post. This would produce a much wider ranging base-level of knowledge.

All project officers would be afforded a greater degree of latitude and would be able to develop their own skills and experience in a chosen area to a much greater extent. Project delivery would become a more communal undertaking, with different officers contributing where their skill-set is most relevant. Decision-making would become a more democratic process, with different areas assigned to different teams and sections of officers. A more collective decision making process would ensure much, much greater ownership of the organisation and foster greater loyalty, a primary driver of low morale being a lack of consultation with ground level staff by SMT on important operational matters.

Self-managing staff would be appraised and financial rewards allocated on a peer-review basis. This may have the potential to cause schisms and the development of internal cliques, so great care would need to be taken to ensure this remained impartial and transparent. Through this process, staff appreciation would be greater and expertise, knowledge and input would be valued over position and stature.

A comparison can be made with some technology sector industries, particularly software. With highly skilled and motivated personnel, some companies develop a much flatter organisational structure with a more fluid approach to task assignment. Increasing technical skills are rewarded financially and sideways moves with increased opportunity for personal development and salary increases are more common, allowing skilled staff to remain in and continue to contribute in their area of interest and ability. Staff remain motivated, more involved and able to progress their own development as they see fit and would not rely on managers to progress opportunities. In the environmental sector this could also equate to an increase in cross-discipline and departmental communication with high levels of experience directed into educating and developing other staff and volunteers.

A flat organisational structure would obviously include associated risks and potential problems. Extra care would need to be taken during recruitment and staff ‘not up to scratch’ or unmotivated could represent a severe drag on resources. Disciplinary measures would need to be taken collectively, with the greater potential to cause staff divisions. To some extent it may be better for staff to have a direction for their ire above their own pay grade. Areas such as finance and Human resources may still require some level of hierarchy in order to attract suitable staff, as these areas are much more likely to be filled by individuals who are not cause motivated. Short-term contracts are likely to be an important motivational tool in the initial employment stage with increases over time. This, however, would not be a new concept to anyone currently working in the sector.

Dilution and diversification of roles


Well done, you made it to the end – here’s a kitten

One possible outcome of adopting a flatter organisational structure could be a dilution of roles. Though staff would be afforded greater latitude to diversify and expand their skill sets, areas such as reporting, stakeholder liaison, budget managing, funding applications, and a likely increase in meetings could dilute officer roles. A careful balance would need to be struck, and in some cases (such as funding applications) specialist staff would need to be employed. Many officers would also welcome the opportunity to develop experience in these areas. There also remains a danger that an increase in communication and inclusion on decision making could lead to organisational inertia and in fact have the opposite of the intended affect of further reducing decision making time.

How will environmental organisations adapt and change in the future? Will there be a shift in structure to a less top-heavy pay-distribution? It seems unlikely that any existing organisation would so radically abandon or re-organise their staffing arrangement and management (no matter how fond of a re-structure some appear to be) and it might be the opportunity to distinguish itself from the crowd that yet another environmental charity needs. A utopian ideal it maybe, but the sector surely possesses the personal with drive and ideals to push an organisation from the ground level.


What if…Big Cats really do roam the Cotswolds?

After writing about Anomalous Big Cats the other month I had a thought- what if they really were really, really real. What if the Cotswolds really was riddled with them? What would that mean for them, and nature conservation, in the UK?

Now, as a subject, I’ll be upfront – I love Anomalous Big Cats. I love the very idea of them, I love the scant and fleeting little YouTube clips, I love the anecdotes of dubious provenance, I love the theories, the speculation and the occasionally bat-shit mental suppositions and conspiracies. It entertains me enormously. Maybe I’m the kind of person who can get overly caught up in the enigmatic. My wife (yes, I really have managed to get married) lives in constant fear that I will run away to search for a remnant population of the Thylacine or some such. OK, ‘fear’ might be the wrong word. Hope. Yes, hope, that’s what I meant.

So I pondered, well, just what would the ramifications be if somehow a feral population of melanistic panther/puma/whatever were discovered to exist somewhere other than the odd dog-walker’s subconscious? I’ve never bought in entirely to Monbiot’s theory that it is some kind of subliminal, hindbrain response to a world denuded of all that is wild. And I’ve never entirely discounted the notion that there might just be one or two anomalies scurrying around out there. But if a full, breeding population was proven? Then what? Do we protect them? Do we eradicate them? Do we work to encourage breeding?

I suspect there’d be a call to properly study the population scientifically, and that is certainly what Natural England would agree to. Almost immediately, the study would have its funding quietly trimmed and a suggestion would arise that a more focused study on the economic impact to farming concerns would be more beneficial. Despite concerns being voiced from the scientific community, all livestock lost to predators become listed as ‘potential Big Cat kills’, while the transmission of a disease from Big Cats to sheep is described as ‘not yet proven.’


Nessie: Sure to benefit from HLF funding, but who is looking out for Mothman?

Finally, the report would be published, and would clearly state that the Big Cat population presents no significant danger to humans or native wildlife and that livestock loss will be minimal. It even suggests the population might be beneficial for controlling the ballooning deer population. Having read this, Liz Truss will nod her head sagely and order a widescale, expensive culling program to eradicate the Big Cat menace. A year later and with no confirmed kills, the reinstated Environmental Secretary and UKIP MP Owen Paterson will announce that the Big Cat population never even existed in the first place and this is why you should never trust scientists. In the same speech he will state that Climate Change is an entirely natural process that the UKIP/Conservative coalition will be doing it’s very best to enhance while announcing the lucrative new opening of Farageton, a new port town on the Somerset Levels.

I have already extrapolated mentally to a whole host of other cryptids and maybe one day when I’m really short of ideas I’ll write about that (put briefly, it’s good news for Nessie (Heritage Lottery Funding) but bad news for Yetis (Chinese herbal medicine market)). For now, I’m off to pack my bags and look up flights to Tasmania.

Why We Must Keep Nature in Our Dictionaries – My favourite nature words and how they will save your children come the end times

It’s the latest harbinger of an apocalyptic future where machines become our overlords and we’re forced to communicate entirely in binary  – the Oxford Junior Dictionary are replacing ‘nature’ words with decidedly ‘unnatural’ counterparts. Is this a very audible bellweather of the inexorable move of the human race indoors and, ultimately, into the very machines themselves?

I do wonder, in my more pessimistic moments (generally, 75% of the day) just how this generation will turn out when they hit adulthood. It’s a virtual unknown. Yes, there were Video Games, before that TV, Radio and even books – all of which, if you listened with a gloomy disposition or with a miserabilist’s bent to the ear, would rot the brains of our youth, turning then into gurning simpletons with poor social skills. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t happened, though I often can’t quite tell when forced to interact with the service industry. Lamenting the ‘youth of today…’ is a universal right for anyone over the age of 30 (although I think I started at 21), it’s usually not particularly well-founded, though.

But the Internet, the many screens we are confronted with day to day – it’s all-pervasive in the modern world in a way that the others were not. They change the way we work, the way we think, even. What change, then, to a developing mind? I’m hardly covering new ground here though; Project Wild Thing (about which I was characteristically but perhaps unjustly mean about a while ago) is just the latest in a line of attempts to convince us to take our children out into the natural world and leave them to their own devices, may the strongest survive. A bit like the Hunger Games, or (more originally) Battle Royale. On second thoughts, maybe I misunderstood Project Wild Thing. Or maybe I’ve just been watching Battle Royale recently.

newts on facebook

I was doing a little research the other day – Wikipedia has really got it in for newts

Removing natural words from the dictionary is all very well, and I can see the point in an age where we’re teaching our kids coding, but where will it leave them come the Zombie Apocalypse*, eh? That’s the real question here. Knowing how to spell ‘algorithm’ ain’t going to help them when they’re scrabbling through the undergrowth, pursued by hordes of the undead, trying to work out if this strange nut thing they’ve found is edible or poisonous…if only they knew it’s name they could look it up on wikipedia and find out…except, wait, that Jimmy Wales chap has finally had to shut Wikipedia down due to lack of donations. Well, that and the Zombies eating every single online editor until its accuracy drops to an all-time low (I know, who’d notice, right?).

So here are my favourite nature words that you should go out and teach your children immediately – failing to do so is basically condemning your offspring to a real-life shuffle-on part in a George A Romero film:

Osprey – Os-prey, os-prey. For some reason I find something very agreeable about the two separate parts of the word when they come together. Plus, it’s an awesome, awesome raptor and who knows what role falconry will play in a dystopian future?

Hemlock Water Dropwort – There’s something about the way the successive syllables rise and fall…plus, in an apocalyptic society, you can disguise it as celery and poison your rivals.


Osprey Post-Armageddon fish delivery system

Juniper – Gin will be essential when society collapses (Who am I kidding, Gin is already essential).

Coppice – maybe it’s because I’ve done so much coppicing, but the word always brings on a warm feeling. Plus, if you want to make those hurdles for tripping undead pursuers or spears to stab them right in the face, then long, straight poles will need to be cultivated.

Tawny Grisette – Roles off the tongue, doesn’t it? Plus good to know the difference between this edible mushroom and some very similar, poisonous ones that you can then use to poison your rivals on the way to the top of the rudimentary feudal system that will evolve once the zombies have been dealt with.

Others on the shortlist were – Glanville Fritillary, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Ribwort plantain and Teasel. So what’s your favourite ‘nature’ word, and just how will it help us survive an uprising of hyper-intelligent Tesco automated check-out bays?

*I appear to have switched my end-of-human-race scenario from AI run wild to Zombie epidemic, lord knows why. Again, I may have been watching too many films over the holidays. Coming Soon: I write a piece where I explain that both are merely more cinematic stand-ins for environmental collapse, Zombies are in fact a metaphor for climate change and AI represents our own attempts to control a natural environment that will, inevitably, rebel and kill us all.

Social Media – Not Just For Tooting Your Own Horn

A while back I wrote a piece about the need for environmental charities to embrace the 21st Century and engage more innovatively with social media, before castigating one for doing just that. I know, I can be a bit of an arse occasionally.

Now while the Green movement has shown itself to be pretty new-media-savvy – the #greensurge on twitter is really gathering momentum – most environmental charities are still a little slow off the mark, still a little set in their ways, still a little misjudged. There’s definite scope for the larger use of social media platforms for means other than self-promotion and marketing.

Well, I can toot my own horn a little about a very, very, very small project where I’ve been attempting to do just that. Last month I used Flickr to set up a Fixed Point Photo project on Tooting Common – (Fixed Point Photography is, in it’s simplest form, taking a picture from the same point on a repeated basis over a long period of time. It can be used to show changes in vegetation etc. both seasonal and over a period of years). It was so simple even a luddite like myself could manage it – it took barely 2 hours, including the time on site actually taking the pictures – and though it hasn’t really got many people involved yet (it doesn’t really need that many, to be honest), it’s an easy way for absolutely anyone with a camera to help with surveying and monitoring. I’m hoping that it’s an idea that other greenspaces might take up too, as an easy way to engage and fill gaps of knowledge.

And it’s not the only way you can get the public involved in survey work. Citizen science projects are booming, they’re a great way to get the public involved, increase a sense of ownership and fill knowledge gaps. They don’t even need a great deal of training – take the Tower hamlets online bee survey, a great project that involved a wealth of new volunteers in 2014 (and one I shall be stealing the format of in 2015). So for those working in the sector – it’s time to get inventive with Facebook and Twitter, let’s see what we can come up with.