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
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
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.