We are experiencing a new age of protest, a different type of activist and an intriguing role for media. The issues are evolving and the speed of the activist outreach (via fear and outrage) is accelerating. As the game changes, what will happen to the old generation of game changers?
Greenpeace had always been the game changer but over the decades it has run its business like an empire. In the halcyon days of the 1990s and 2000s, the global NGO could afford to take on governments, buy ships and bully companies. But Greenpeace could not adapt to the shift to social media tribal communities. As the activist game changed, Greenpeace had grown too fat while much more nimble activist upstarts and social media gurus were eating their lunch. It seems now the old lady of environmental NGOs is starting to starve to death.
I looked at the last five years of Greenpeace International’s financial statements (2015, 2016 and 2018) and tabled their income and main expenditures on one page. What I found was a very dark situation for the NGO. Namely, between 2014 and 2018, there has been:
- An increase in fundraising costs relative to global campaign spend, from 32% to 66%
- A nearly one third decline in campaign spending
- A 50% cut in funding for their forests, climate and energy campaigns
- A 25% increase in grants to support struggling national and regional Greenpeace units
- Escalating running costs for the NGO’s fleet of ships, surpassing campaign spending by more than 25%
If Greenpeace were a business, its share-price would be in free-fall. Since the NGO does not provide trending data, I produced the following table.
A few points for clarification. The results are for Greenpeace International, the “holding company” for all of the national and regional operations bearing the Greenpeace name. It serves as a bell-weather for the entire group. They take a percentage from the profitable parts of the organisation, run global campaigns, redistribute funds to struggling operations and operate a fleet of ships. The odd results in 2016 was likely due to it being the first full year of the new management team after Kumi Naidoo’s departure as executive director. I did not include office or labour costs in the table as it fluctuated between 12 and 15 million euros per year.
Greenpeace’s ship is sinking. Their budget line for “Marine Operations”, the costs of maintaining four large ocean vessels, is choking the NGO more than the diesel fumes they emit to transport a grand piano to the Arctic Ocean for a useless stunt (see cover image). The Rainbow Warrior, Esperanza, Arctic Sunrise and Argus are now costing the NGO 25% more than they spend on all of their global campaigns (over €13 million in 2018).
Greenpeace’s financial statements declare a number of loans the head office has taken from national Greenpeace units to keep these ships afloat but I cannot see where these added expenses are being booked in the total budget. In a world where campaigns are run by volunteers and students in the streets, these four bleeding dinosaurs should be sunk, sold off or scrapped.
Kumi Naidoo took over at the helm of Greenpeace in 2009 with a cult of personality and visionary perspective (of himself). Having fashioned himself as the environmentalist’s Nelson Mandela, Kumi sought to reposition Greenpeace as the social justice liberator of the South. His ambition and his campaigns, however, devastated the reputation of the NGO. Escalating the anti-Golden Rice campaign, attempting to launch a civil war in Turkey, trampling on Peruvian sacred ground and openly taunting Vladimir Putin revealed more arrogance than aptitude.
By the time Naidoo left Greenpeace in 2015, the organisation was in ruins. Greenpeace clearly missed the social media boat, was no longer a leader in global campaigns and found itself on the losing end of court cases like the Resolute Forest Products RICO allegations. Worse, 110 Nobel laureates got so pissed off at the NGO’s anti-science campaigns that they accused Greenpeace of crimes against humanity.
It was enough for many wealthy eccentrics to write Greenpeace out of their wills, and that they did! It is interesting that the post-Kumi heads of Greenpeace, Bunny McDiarmid and Jennifer Morgan, have tried to strike a more humble tone. In the 2016 Annual Report, they quietly restated some of the supposed irregularities Kumi must have left on the books in the 2015 accounts. But is it too little too late?
It takes money to make money
The increasing amount Greenpeace is having to invest in fundraising in order to continue operations is alarming. From a little over five million euros for fundraising costs in 2014, this budget line now stands at over seven million (for the same income). To make matters worse, this period should have shown the opposite trend as the global economy emerged out of the tight money environment of the sovereign debt crisis in 2014 and was flush with cash from market highs and historically low interest rates in 2018.
Greenpeace declares they receive no funding from governments and corporations but their funding sources and revenue varies from one national office to another. In the US for example, much of the Greenpeace revenue comes from large foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or the John Merck Foundation. This money could dry up in an instant if the trustees have a change of heart.
Getting money the old way, via individual donations, is hard work (and why most NGOs now go directly to the heirs of rich grandparents). Looking at a table from the 2015 Greenpeace America IRS filing showing the group’s return on investment in external fundraisers (using traditional NGO “ask” techniques like telemarketing, direct mail, street soliciting, events…), I saw a very grim picture of the NGO’s funding options.
This table is a stunning acknowledgement of the failure of traditional fundraising techniques if total funds received is less than 20% return on funds spent. People are still giving, but not in the same manners they donated in the 1990s given the technology and communications evolutions. It is strange to see Greenpeace has not changed their fundraising techniques or strategy (or has not got the message that individuals are less inclined to donate to them). Many trusts and foundations are also shifting their focus to smaller groups they can have more influence on. For large NGOs like Greenpeace, the well is drying up.
Social Media Upstarts and Gurus
Almost three years ago, the Risk-Monger predicted the demise of Big Green. I had just come out of the Monsanto Tribunal experience – a significant activist stunt performed with little to no input from the large NGOs. Online gurus and small social-media-driven community organisations are now capable of raising needed funds, acting quickly from a decentralised decision-making process and garnering sufficient media attention and followers. I noted then:
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.
Disrupting the Disruptors: Restructuring in the Activist World
So while Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth are wonking about on policy issues and regulatory affairs, becoming, well, part of the establishment, groups like AVAAZ, SumOfUs and a loosely organised band of gurus are engaging at the community level, scooping up digital pennies (rather than the foundation dollars the big NGOs rely on).
And while these large environmental groups produce glossy annual reports nobody reads, the nature of campaigns and activism has changed – there is a new “grass root”. Hashtag movements and micro-campaigns can have immediate impact at the community level while large protests (like the yellow-vest movement, the Hong Kong protests and Extinction Rebellion) are largely leaderless, collaborative and loosely structured. Engagement here matters more than budget or institutional recognition.
When Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder, Roger Hallam, says environmental NGOs had failed to make any impact over the last 30 years, he was not only referring to the systemic challenges. They failed, according to these climate rebels, because they were playing the wrong game. Greenpeace was not involved in any of the Extinction Rebellion global campaigns – their hierarchy is too old, too slow and too pragmatic.
New Actors, New Issues
If one wonders why the environmental-health issues gaining media attention are becoming so bat-shit crazy (anti-vaxxers, agroecology, glyphosate, anti-vaping…), this has to do with the nature of the activists and gurus now holding the microphones. These upstarts get their “science” from Google searches.
As grandparents and teenagers weep in the streets over the imminent extinction of humanity; as parents panic at the thought of carcinogens lurking in their children’s cereal; as stakeholder dialogue breaks down and consumers are left in an unbridled state of fear, egged on by an activist driven media; we need to understand how the shift in activism techniques is having dire consequences on our capacity to reach sensible ecological solutions. We are no longer talking about air, water and soil; we are no longer talking about sustainable development; we are no longer talking about innovative technologies. These activist upstarts have delivered nothing but grief, cynicism and eco-anxiety.
At least Greenpeace employed scientists and sought positive solutions. Farewell old adversary … I think I’m going to miss you after all.
Cover image: Greenpeace
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