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Academics are from Mars, NGOs are from Venus – Looking at Conservation from Two Sides of the Solar System

By Joshua Tewksbury

The following post appeared last month on the Leopold Leadership blog, Leopold 3.0.  This is a great collaborative blog focused on catalyzing environmental change as an academic, and a resource for communications, team building, networking and a whole bunch of related material. Comments are enabled on the original site, so that is a great place to get involved in a conversation on this subject. I have made a few small edits to the original text, indicated in red and strike-through.

I was brought up as an academic. PhD, Post-doc, 10 years as a professor in a big research university, all in the general area of ecology, conservation biology, evolution. But now, and for the last couple of years, I am clearly not an academic (or at least not in the way that anyone in an academic job would recognize). Two years ago, I started a new job as the Director of theLuc Hoffmann Institute, and I have been building this institute as a boundary organization within WWF International, the secretariat office of WWF.

I used to teach conservation biology; now I am trying to create better conservation outcomes by bringing research more closely into the process. The learning curve has been steep. Most days it is a little bit like drinking from a firehose, but I think I have now been in my current role long enough to appreciate some of the differences in the culture and practice within academic organizations and within large conservation organizations. At the same time, I have not been out of academia long enough to forget what it was like to be an academic.

While the memories of being an academic are both bitter and sweet, I think I would like to remain in this place, perched between these two cultures, because I am more and more convinced that a big part of the difficulties we have connecting science to conservation action and policy comes from the mystery of how the other half works. For more on why we need to strengthen the links between these cultures, see my argument, with Gernot Wagner, here). Here are a few observations on the cultural differences, and the challenges these present:

1. Language and goals. In academia, everyone speaks the same language (science), but nobody shares the same goal (unless you count the “pursuit of knowledge” as a common goal). In an NGO, nobody speaks the same language (as people come from a huge array of backgrounds — business, policy, journalism, advocacy, policy, science, management etc.), but everybody shares the same goal. And that goal is explicit and measurable (and generally quite difficult to attain).

2. What can you do for me today? Because the goals are shared in an NGO, what matters is what your team can do to get the organization closer to the goals. Your resume, your schooling, and your past successes are not nearly as important as your ability to solve problems. This leads to a bit of advice for newly minted PhDs wanting to work at an NGO: show that you can solve problems, that you can work an issue from knowledge creation all the way to an outcome, and that you can do this with a diverse set of stakeholders.

3. Sitting at the side table. The goals are always big and action-oriented in the NGO world (“sustainable production,” “zero poaching,” “30% reduction of the human footprint,” “preservation of the rainforest,” etc. etc.). Science shows up as just another wrench in the toolkit. There are many conservation and sustainable development problems where the science, however elegant, just does not get you much closer to the solution. I call this “science at the side table.” There are also problems where science is critically important, but even in these cases, the science is almost never sufficient to get us the outcome we are looking for. This is “science at the main table,” but not at the head of the table. Finally, there are a very few issues and situations where a science process is at the center of decision-making, and these are the times when I sit at the front of the table. Effectiveness is knowing the difference between these situations, and being comfortable in your seat.

4. Fast or not at all. Policy windows are narrow, and they remain open for only a short period of time. Big NGOs are perpetually in a rush to deliver solutions. About the only times these organizations are not focused on delivering on a “Theory of Change” are the times they are re-evaluating their Theory of Change. This urgency means that science that does not arrive when it is needed simply does not count.

5. Who do you know? No matter where you work, who you know matters, but it matters more in some work cultures than others. And in the NGO community, it matters a lot. In academia, who you know can influence grant and paper reviews, and it can even influence where you get hired out of graduate school, but a great resume can break through that noise. In addition, because peer reviewed papers are a major part of the academic currency system, finding out who controls what information is relatively easy.

In the NGO community, where knowledge is a tool rather than an end in itself, knowing where the knowledge sits is more difficult, and it is generally more important. Almost anything you do in a big NGO will be a networked effort. It will almost always involve working with people spread among different locations, often in different disciplines, and typically across organizations. Keeping everybody up to speed, and staying up to speed on developments that affect a project, becomes a big part of the job.

Tip to job seekers: Your network matters. A lot. If you want to bring an idea to a big NGO, and you have not done this before, here are a few tips:

First, get to know folks within the NGO community. Building your network before you get started is critical, and you will be much more successful if you have a well-respected champion inside the NGO.

Second, interview people so you understand how they approach the issue you are working on, who they see as the most important “actors” in the system, and what their goals look like. Most folks in an NGO measure their success against clearly defined goals, and if your issue is not squarely within one of those goals, you will have a hard time getting their interest.

Finally, ask and answer, for yourself, the following questions about your idea: how does it fit into the larger political landscape? How can it be scaled to create bigger impact? Who is the audience? What are the milestones and products and when can they be ready?

If you want to work in an NGO, here are a few additional tips. Having a boss can be a good thing (really, it is quite cool), but like all relationships, it takes some work. Working with and learning to respect people with divergent views is crucial. Working from knowledge to impact requires a lot more communication than creating research, it requires respect and trust between people with very different skill sets, and the work of the team is much more important than the brilliance of the individual. Go-it-alone individuals often find themselves isolated in the NGO community, and their effectiveness is compromised.

Big NGOs have the network, the convening power, the brand, and the access to private and public sector stakeholders to incubate an idea and bring it to scale. In many cases, working with an environmental NGO is the best way to plug into the knowledge to action continuum, but if you go in knowing a few things about how the ecosystem works, you can have a lot more impact.

Josh Tewksbury, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, directs the Luc Hoffmann Institute. Follow him (@tewksjj) and the work of the institute (@LucHoffmannInst) on Twitter.

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