Disrupting the Disruptors: Restructuring in the Activist World

This is Part Two of a trilogy on the state of NGO activism. Part One looked at how public funding is not being properly scrutinised with many large NGOs redistributing taxpayer monies in a non-transparent, unaccountable manner. Part Three will examine why nobody seems to care about such bad behaviour.
See the French translation.

The voice of civil society on environmental issues has evolved recently:

  • The only news covered by the mainstream media during the COP-22 Climate Summit in Marrakesh was whether Donald Trump would reverse the climate “solutions”.
  • The activists leading the anti-GMO, anti-agri-tech food fight are unpredictable gurus and lone wolves like Vandana Shiva and Ronnie Cummins.
  • The anti-pesticide “Save the Bees” campaigns are now being led by social media upstarts: SumOfUs and Avaaz.
  • In front of a classroom of about 95 university students, I asked who could name the head of Greenpeace. About ten thought Kumi still was, the rest had no idea.

In today’s debates on climate change, food safety or chemicals, we have to ask one simple question:

Where are the big global NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth?

Within 18 months, it seems that the influence of these “traditional” NGOs has melted away. Bureaucratically heavy, slow and reactionary, the torch has been passed from the historically influential groups that grew from pressure campaigns and stunts in the 70s, 80s and 90s to nimble, engaging social media movements that are not afraid to manufacture fears with emotionally-charged, fact-free blitz campaigns.

It is not unusual to see disruptive technologies unleashed by the Internet undermine institutions and establishments from the pre-Internet age. But a group like Greenpeace had used the power of on-line communities to grow its ranks and move the needle even faster. All the more amazing thus to see how fast their influence has waned. In a corporate world, one would expect the big dinosaurs to buy out the small upstarts, but such structures do not exist in the civil society world.

Social media is where we get our news, and the most environmentally conscious news feeds are emanating from Internet gurus, small social media organisations and consumer groups. Millions are donating online, campaigns are forming from emails and grassroot movements taking hold in living rooms. While all this is going on, the former environmental NGO, WWF, doesn’t even have a serious social media strategy.

The irony is that the large NGOs had planned to farm out campaigning into networks of networks to create a perception that there is widespread popular agreement of their dogmatic theology. I am sure they had not anticipated that these sects would have evolved into independent and unpredictable cults.

Too Anti-Science for the Antis?

When I attempted to attend the fake Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague last October, I had noticed that the large NGOs had no presence in this highly-celebrated attack on GMOs and pesticides. Greenpeace, an organisation that had previously owned the issue (GMO used to stand for Greenpeace Membership Opportunity) and had done so much to vilify this one company was in no way involved (they merely published a one-pager on their blogsite the day before the event); Friends of the Earth had a speaker take part in a panel; otherwise, nothing and no one.

Lone Wolf Ronnie Cummins in full eco-combat gear

The Monsanto Tribunal was conceived and run by a collection of organic-industry-funded lone wolves like Ronnie “Che Aloe Vera” Cummins, hot-head André Leu and gurus like the ascetic Dr Vandana Shiva and teen sensation Miss Rachel Parent. They had raised 500,000 USD from pro-organic sources (mostly Cummins’ Organic Consumers Association with matching funds from supplements gurus like “Dr Mercola”) to fabricate fear about conventional farming. With that kind of money, the organisers of the Monsanto Tribunal did not need the support of the big, bureaucratic NGOs.

Or was it the other way around? Did the mainstream NGOs want to stay clear of the mudpit?

This motley crew of hate at the Monsanto Tribunal was quite unruly. There was no question of having to provide scientific evidence or reasonable behaviour. Speakers went off on tangents (like Shiva’s personal attack on Bill Gates). Cases against Monsanto that had been thrown out or discredited were once again raised (see a blog cataloguing the March of Unreason). The speaker list was changing from one day to another and the entire event lacked a coherent strategy. The organisers had only decided the night before that they did not want any dialogue of or engagement with participants that had a pro-GMO position (namely The Risk-Monger – they revoked the ticket I had bought). Rules did not matter at the Monsanto Tribunal, personalities did.

If I had been a leader of a large reputation-conscious NGO, looking at the chaos of such an event organisation, I too would have stayed away. But the important takeaway is that it is no longer necessary to have a large civil society organisation behind a campaign or large global event. Gurus and attention-seekers can use social media to mobilise a community to take action. Even the Risk-Monger was able to crowdfund a counter-event at The Hague.

Victims of their own success

I learnt a valuable lesson during my short time at Burson-Marsteller: Winning is not good news for lobbyists! There was one time when we achieved an exemption from restrictions on a chemical substance we were defending. The day after our celebratory dinner, we got an email from the client noting that our budget would be considerably smaller in the coming year. It would have been better for the consultants’ time-sheets if we had lost the issue, but not too badly. A concept like Brussels, built on endless compromise, is a place designed for losing “not too badly”. As a professional loser, it is an art I have come to perfect!

That is why I was amused when, after the COP-21 Paris Climate Conference, the NGOs all declared victory. I thought to myself: “Oh no, don’t do that! No one will donate to you next year if you claim you have solved the issue!” Large environmental NGOs, like any corporate entity, have an internal growth target of 10-15% per year and this climate “solution” was a threat to that.

True to form, large NGOs with a climate-focus all started scrambling for new fearable issues to fill the fundraising gap. In the last year there has been an increase in food fear campaigns (anti-pesticides, anti-additives, lunatic issues like acrylamide being resurrected …), a sudden interest in air pollution and more intensive anti-industry, anti-trade campaigning. After decades of continuous growth and prosperity, large NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have no concept of restructuring … yet.

Saint Donald the Redeemer


At the beginning of the millennium, traditional newsprint organisations were quickly losing subscribers, ad revenue and influence to the emerging and highly disruptive online news sources. Then came 9/11 and people momentarily returned to consuming traditional media. This blip in the steady decline bought the newspaper industry a little time to adapt and prepare for the now expected disruption. In the same manner, the election of Donald Trump has breathed some momentary life (a shot of adrenaline) into these dying traditional NGOs.

Ever the opportunists, large NGOs across America seized the moment to mobilise the outrage, increase donations and call their increasingly passive members to action. Donald Trump, and the drip-feed of anti-environmental cabinet nominations (from a climate denier at the head of the EPA to the CEO of ExxonMobil running the State Department), has given groups like Greenpeace USA a new lease on life. Greenpeace’s American head, Annie Leonard, even went so far as to capitalise on the collective Trump grief by cynically suggesting, a day after the election, that a donation to Greenpeace might ease the suffering. How crass can you get?

So while Trump may herald a return to the polarisation that the NGOs need to thrive on, it is but a temporary blip. The social media gurus are also tapping into the “Not My President” outrage, and with better community management, their social media pages are more focused and engaging.

Four years of a President Trump will definitely change the landscape for activist campaigners. One would expect that issues ignored at the executive/regulatory level will find their way back onto the street. But the “clicktivist” generation is maturing and very likely will not bother to expend any sustained energy to follow other people’s issues. In the coming four years, tribal bifurcations will no doubt continue and opportunistic gurus will become pawns in more localised regulatory battles.

The economics of fear

Sugar Daddy Soros. Source: http://www.hangthebankers.com

The large NGO funding model has moved from individual memberships and street-bucket donations to a reliance on large foundations and trust fund tithes (for groups like Greenpeace) or institutional (government) donations (for groups like Friends of the Earth). Note that I no longer consider WWF in this mix as, with the business of labelling, they have essentially become a corporate-funded body (and hardly an NGO). These strategies call for a more institutional approach, with fundraising in 2015 consuming close to 40% of Greenpeace’s total revenue at a whopping €117 million, only for the NGO’s head office (an increase of almost 10% compared to 2014, see page 28). This not only makes an NGO top-heavy and bureaucratic, it also separates the NGOs from their grassroots communities. Also, large donations don’t come without ties and this limits the nature of the types of campaigns NGOs can lead. It is hard to attack the banking industry when half of the foundations paying your programme management were founded by investment bankers and venture capitalists (not to mention whatever George Soros wants!).

Contrast this “analogue dollar” approach to the social media campaign-driven “digital penny” tactics of a group like SumOfUs or a referral fee or supplement sales motivation of a pro-organic Internet guru growing a tribe, and you can begin to see how the traditional NGOs have dropped the ball. The publics they once united with fear are now searching for trust. These frightened, vulnerable people are reacting to issues and entrusting individuals who are making personal appeals with simple solutions. Food Babe will tell me what to cook, Mamavation what product to buy, Mercola what supplements to pump in me, Wolfe what … OK, I have drawn a blank there!

While the big NGOs get mired in complex lobbying campaigns, compromises and regulatory failures, the gurus and social media groups are going around the system, appealing to the individuals’ needs and earning trust-building affirmation (that the people will set things right). Donate a dollar to SumOfUs and they’ll be your friend for life. If I’m a mother worried about what to feed my children, Greenpeace won’t give me the emotional support Mamavation will.

When you are feeling vulnerable, you reach out to the first opportunist offering you a hug!

As discussed in the first blog of this trilogy, groups like Friends of the Earth and the Transnational Institute are holding on to relevance by becoming a type of public funding clearing house – serving as Sugar Daddies to smaller NGOs. This fund laundering was central to their original network of networks strategy. At a certain point these smaller groups are learning how easy it is to raise sufficient funds directly from their social media tribes. At the same time, government funds for the large NGOs could dry up overnight should a system of proper scrutiny be imposed on these non-transparent and unaccountable organisations. Elsewhere, groups like Greenpeace or Corporate Europe Observatory are dependent on trusts and foundations and face greater insecurity. Another couple missteps (and there have been many) and that money could vanish immediately.

Lawyer-up Buttercup

The NGO game in Brussels is also changing in a rather curious manner. The Brussels policy arena is becoming Americanised. The lawyerisation of the EU policy process is well underway with groups like ClientEarth litigating first and thinking later. Litigious NGOs in the US have discovered that they can get more bang for their buck if they launch a campaign in Brussels, get the desired precautionary reaction that they can then take to Washington to badger science-minded regulators with.

How much of Brussels’ activist campaigns are being dictated from DC? A good example of the depth was when Environmental Defense Fund lobbyist, Christopher Portier, persuaded the American EPA to remove their CARC scientific publication acknowledging the safety of glyphosate because it may run the risk of influencing the European Council’s decision to reject the Commission’s proposed glyphosate extension. Why is EDF investing so much with their American in Europe? To ban glyphosate in the USA.

The glyphosate debate is important only in the context of making glyphosate-resistant GMOs harder to market and less valuable as an agricultural option (ie, harm conventional farming). As most GMOs are not grown in Europe, the debate on extending the approval of glyphosate is pointless (there are other, more toxic, alternative herbicides that farmers will be forced to use that are not under regulatory pressure).

The only reason glyphosate is an issue in Brussels is that the EU’s precaution-friendly hazard-based regulatory handcuffs make it a winnable issue that can then be exported to Washington.

Every American activist scientist from Christopher Portier to Stephanie Seneff to the incorrigible Endocrine Society seems to have a microphone readily waiting in the European Parliament or other Member State Advisory Committees. Fantastic lobbying, but … really poor science and … well … ethically questionable behaviour.

Part of the strategy of bringing the Monsanto Tribunal to The Hague last October (besides the idiotic idea that they could pretend that the case was actually being held in the International Criminal Court) was to keep the glyphosate/GMO issue on the European agenda. This kangaroo court was largely funded by the American organic industry and was aimed at establishing a legal basis for holding companies criminally accountable for ecocide. Only American activist lawyers carry that type of mindset.

As more American activist carpetbaggers start setting up shop in Brussels, EU regulators will have to start reconsidering the practicalities of the ridiculous hazard-based regulatory approach. That will be one small compensation for the explosion of all of those new pricy vegan restaurants opening up around Place Schuman.

In any case, with so many lawyers now speaking a language similar to activist empathy, there is even less voice or purpose for the big NGOs in Brussels. Lawyers don’t appreciate stunts – they prefer to hold on to that microphone.


So while it may be early days, and perhaps wishful thinking, things are not looking too rosy for the big NGOs. They are:

  • being crowded out of a market they had established,
  • growing too fat and depending on a high-fructose fundraising diet,
  • losing touch with online communities and grassroots support,
  • having gurus steal their issues and eat their lunch,
  • seeing the nature of the game in Brussels change …

It does seem like being a member of a big NGO may no longer offer long-term employment prospects. Some activists may have to start working on their CVs (and maybe consider applying for a few of those available corporate lobbyist positions … or that expensive new vegan restaurant).

Image source

9 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s