I come to praise Bezos, not to bury him

The Bezos Earth Fund May Be Just What NGOs Need to Reach the Next Level

The Quick Rundown: 

The Instigator champions private sector environmental leadership. But we also believe that NGOs are critical players. For NGOs to achieve their full potential, they need two things.  First, they need more and better funding. Otherwise, NGOs take the “lean and mean” concept too far. Second, NGOs need to offer greater disclosure so that their performance can be better understood. The Bezos Earth Fund can address both of these needs.

(Full disclosure: I served as CEO of The Nature Conservancy — an Earth Fund grantee — from 2008 to 2019.)

Last week, I wrote that I was excited about Jeff Bezos’s initial Earth Fund grants. Looks like I might be in the minority. Or maybe it’s a silent majority.  Either way, the Twittersphere was ablaze, and it wasn’t exactly praising his decisions about where to allocate capital. What I read was surprising to me for two reasons. First, the criticisms were pretty weak. Criticism is valid and important. But we can and should do better. Second, they reveal a lack of appreciation of NGOs as capable and important organizations. 

When Jeff Bezos originally committed $10 billion to a new climate-focused philanthropic fund, environmental journalists and podcasts immediately began to discuss and debate where the money should go. (See herehere, and here).

While lots of interesting and cool ideas were proposed—investments in education, new far-out technologies, ambitious R&D programs, efforts to build stronger, bigger, and more diverse political coalitions—none of these smart and well-intended commentators (so far as I could find) suggested that the money go to funding the big NGOs so they could build on their success and do more of their important work. 

But that’s just what Bezos did.  Bravo, I say.  

Unsung Heroes 

NGOs are the “essential workers” of the environmental movement. They know and can do things that neither the government nor the private sector know or can do. So why is their value so underappreciated? 

Back in 2005, after 20+ years as a mainstream investment banker, I was asked to lead Goldman Sachs’s brand new environmental initiative. I immediately did what we always did at GS. I reached out to the world’s best experts to ask for help. That meant calling environmental NGOs. My colleagues and I were amazed. The people and organizations we turned to were great—smart, creative, full of ideas backed by strong science and substantive experience, savvy about evaluating our new environmental business strategies. In short, they knew their stuff. Even us arrogant Wall Street bankers knew right away that the NGOs would help us get off to a much stronger start than we would get to on our own.

What the NGOs had in smarts, however, they lacked in capacity. They had a difficult time keeping up with us. Their teams were too lean and had too much work. In hindsight, we should have provided them more funding. And the NGOs should have asked for it. We’ll come back to this point. As for me, I was so enthusiastic about what NGOs could accomplish, I decided to leave my comfortable perch on Wall Street and join the fray.  

Target Rich, Short on Troops  

I was enormously fortunate to serve as CEO of the Nature Conservancy for 11 years.  Being there gave me a front-row seat into how talented and productive the staff of NGOs really are.  

Hands down, the hardest part of my job at TNC was saying no. We were overwhelmed with worthwhile project opportunities—opportunities that would have had a big impact and that aligned with our capabilities. 

For better or worse, there is just too much to do for environmental organizations. As military types like to say, it’s a “target-rich environment.” The limitations are on the supply side, not the demand. 

Even at TNC, the largest of the environmental nonprofits, we had to painstakingly prioritize and do our best to maintain laser focus. We didn’t want to spread our resources too thin. Just because a project looked worthwhile, and just because we probably could execute it well, didn’t mean we should do it. 

Our Board supported us in this effort, but it was difficult to sustain. Sometimes even they got excited about new, attractive but off-plan opportunities. I remember one Board member urging us to tackle the e-waste challenge— a noble cause, but definitely not on our priority list. And this happened immediately following a full Board discussion about the need to stay focused. I declined (politely, I hope).  It was right to say no but difficult. NGO leaders always want to please their supporters.  

 Sometimes project-specific funding would be offered for the new opportunity, making it even more tempting to say yes. But the incremental funding was usually insufficient to cover the full organizational cost of taking on a new initiative.

I admit, I often made the same mistake too. I’d come back to headquarters after a business trip excited by many great ideas and initiatives. My excellent and more disciplined team would stop me by quoting me. “No,” they’d say. “Remember what you said—we need to stay focused.” 

Why does this matter? It’s simple. Environmental NGOs are under-resourced relative to the huge, important, and urgent opportunities they face. And they stretch their resources too far too often.

Along Comes Bezos . . . and the Critics 

NGOs may be under-resourced in many respects, but one thing they don’t lack is critics. There are lots of them.  And that’s a good thing.  

When I was at TNC, I always said:  “Our critics are our friends. They usually want the same environmental outcomes that we want. If they see something they don’t like about how we are going about our work, let’s pay close attention to them. They might see something we miss. We might learn something.” 

But this time around, I think it’s the criticisms that can be improved.  

Let’s look at the initial reactions to the recent Earth Fund grants. Take this commentary from The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer.  Meyer is a very good environmental journalist. I subscribe to his excellent newsletter, “The Weekly Planet.” But I’m underwhelmed by his arguments against Bezos’s grant allocations. 

“Bezos’ gifts indicate that he isn’t trying something new on climate so much as boosting an ancien regime“ [emphasis mine]. 

I’m not sure exactly what he means, but my Google dictionary says “ancien regimes” are “political systems that have been displaced typically by one more modern.” Ouch.   Is there any evidence that’s true here?

Meyer goes on to write: 

“…these first grantees represent an older and some would say [ed. nice hedge;who in fact says this?]— outdated [emphasis mine] approach to the problem of climate change.”

Outdated?  Really?  

Take another look at some of the Earth Fund’s grantees.  

  1. The Environmental Defense Fund is getting $100 million to launch a satellite to monitor methane emissions. Sounds like a cool project to me. Perhaps there are some shortcomings, but I don’t think we can reasonably call this strategy “outdated.”  It’s never been done before.  
  2. The World Resources Institute is getting $100 million to develop a satellite-based network for monitoring carbon emissions, as well as changes to forests, wetlands, and farms. Sounds worthy to me.
  3. The Salk Institute is getting $30 million to advance work in plant genetics to increase the ability of crops to capture and store atmospheric carbon via their roots in the soil. Who thinks that is an outdated approach?  

Does Size Even Matter?

Meyer is not an outlier. Turning to other journalists, many emphasized that some of the grant recipients are the biggest NGOs. They imply that’s a bad thing. But before we address whether their size should be a disqualifier, let me first ask the question, is it even true that they are so big?  

Yes, by the standard of NGO size, some of the Earth Fund grantees are big. But by almost any other benchmark, these organizations are not really big at all.

For example, compare the size of the biggest environmental NGOs to the companies that they engage with on the climate front.  It’s tricky to do this comparison because good data is not readily available when it comes to NGOs. And, of course, it’s somewhat of an apples to oranges comparison. But it doesn’t matter. Take a look at these bar graphs in comparison to corporations. NGOs are by all measures tiny.  

(per Charity Navigator) vs total revenue for the biggest companies (per Fortune 500)

Think revenue is the wrong way to assess relative size? Okay. How about the number of employees? That’s who does the work at both companies and NGOs, right?  See below. Again, NGOs are not big.

Are there too many NGOs?

People also complain that there are too many NGOs and they all do the same thing.  This really seems silly to me. NGOs are very few in number relative to companies, not to mention the size of the planet they are trying to protect. And they each have their unique strengths and areas of focus. Of course, if some of them were to consolidate the field by merging, they’d be vulnerable once again to the critique that they are too big. They can’t win. 

Wait — I Thought You Said that The Instigator Welcomes Criticism

We do. I don’t want to overstate this pushback. And I will also note that there were other balanced analyses about the Earth Fund grants.

Critics and analysts of NGOs have a valuable role to play. But they need to play it fairly. Criticism should be based on facts and careful analysis, not hearsay, or rumors, or general impressions. In fairness to the commentators, their task is not easy. Good information on NGO performance is lacking. See for yourself. Try doing some Google research to determine which of the environmental NGOs are most effective.  You’ll be frustrated. It’s not easy to do. You’ll find some opinions, but not much based on rigorous analysis on who gets what done. We need more data and more accurate information on who is doing what.

Therefore, One More Ask of Bezos

The Earth Fund can help us solve this problem. What if  Jeff Bezos and his team committed to a new level of transparency? They could set a new standard for NGO disclosure.  Here’s my ask. Please report publicly every year on how each of the grants is doing. 

  • What’s going well?  
  • Where are the NGOs behind schedule and why?  
  • What can we learn from any setbacks or better than expected progress?  

Please guide the grantees to report on a standard basis so that: 

1) we can compare progress on one Earth Fund recipient’s project to another; and 

2) other philanthropists can use the same format for their grants.  

This should be easy. It’s exactly the kind of information that Jeff Bezos must be asking for when monitoring his businesses, whether it be Amazon, the Washington Post, or Blue Origin. It may not be quite as easy to report on NGO progress as it is in business. But there are many ways to measure progress. Start— say—with five-year goals and clear annual milestones to assess progress along the way.

By requiring his grantees to track and disclose this type of information, Bezos would be acclimating these organizations to a new way of tracking and reporting on their work, while paving the way for others to follow. And it would not only help ensure he gets a better return on his investment, but it might also help NGOs more clearly demonstrate their value.