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

In his new role directing the Luc Hoffman Institute, Josh Tewksbury works with a wide range of policy makers, including the European Parliament.

In his new role directing the Luc Hoffmann Institute, Josh Tewksbury works with a wide range of policy makers, including the European Parliament.

I was 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 the Luc 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 the 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.

Why I Write – Or What We Can All Learn from George Orwell

George Orwell

Sixty years later, George Orwell’s advice rings true for expressing complex ideas in a clear, compelling way.

In June 2013 my cohort of Leopold Fellows were given our marching orders: spend a year practicing skills to move from knowledge to action. I watched my fellow fellows take steps to shape the future of agriculture, transportation, and fisheries. For better or worse, I’ve been learning to write essays.

I came to this decision after reading a series of pieces by George Orwell written in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Anyone grappling with public speech – tweets, Congressional testimony, whatever – will find Orwell’s words worth a look.

First, he sums up his, my (and perhaps your?) motivations for public expression:

“four great motives … exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time  … They are: Sheer egoism… aesthetic enthusiasm… historical impulse… political purpose.”

Why do I write? Aesthetic enthusiasm is probably last, but that’s not true for all scientist-writers. Aaron Hirsh, a Ph.D biologist turned author, just published Telling Our Way to the Sea about the biology and people of the Gulf of California. Its carefully crafted and beautiful prose is both literary science writing and scientific literature. But for me the content of the story is more important than exactly how it’s told. And I definitely have a political purpose. Beautiful prose would be nice, but it is not my goal – I want to inform, inspire, and ultimately convince people to change the way they run the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, tweets may stimulate discussion and expose us to interesting ideas in the blink of an eye. That said, the idea of coming up with a pithy 140 characters leaves me cold. I’ve tried. It’s not me.

But the essay – that dinosaur – has always had a place in my heart. David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo introduced me to ecology and conservation biology. My mother regaled us with excerpts in Stephen J. Gould’s monthly Natural History pieces long before I had ever heard of evolution.

For my purpose, I think essays are actually good venue. They are short enough to be readable, long enough to be interestingly complex. Avoiding environmental catastrophe requires recognition of complexity, and it requires people to be interested enough to pay attention. It also requires passion. The persistence of The New YorkerThe Atlantic Monthly, and similar publications tells me that there are people — perhaps many people — who are willing to grapple with complexity, if it is presented compellingly enough. Perhaps if I can master the essay, my passion for the cause will be infectious.

So lesson number one, from my year, from Orwell: choose the right medium for the message and messenger.

The bigger trick is mastering it. Here Orwell has advice that is remarkably up to date, and fully in line with our Leopold training:

“1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

More than 50 years before the message box, he warned:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Could I put it more shortly? … You can shirk it [your job] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you…and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

If this seems abstract, here’s one of his examples of good versus bad writing. Which one has conveyed the moral imperative for society to look after the unfortunate for the past 2000 years? Which sounds more like the last paper any of us just published?

From Ecclesiastes:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And Orwell’s rendition in “modern” language (1946):

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomenon compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

So lesson number two: the next time you want to convey something important to an audience that really matters to you, channel Orwell. His advice is sound across the intervening decades. Letting him have the last word:

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Stephen Porder, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology and a fellow in the Institute for the Study of Environment and Society at Brown University.

Applying My 5 Secrets of Captivating Stories


A story from my son’s Field Day helped me connect with high school students.

I may be an open-book extrovert, but I still find stories hard to tell. They bring me back to elementary school days when my nerves got the best of me: voice cracking, knees shaking, sweaty palms….

For the practice year following my Leopold training, I set a goal of getting comfortable with storytelling by practicing the storytelling skills I read about over this year. I decided to use stories regularly in my class lectures and include at least one in every presentation I made on and off campus.

My best opportunity for practice came with an invitation to give a talk at an honors society induction for a large preparatory school in my area. My charge was to motivate the students to continue along their positive academic path, go to college, and succeed in life. Clearly, they were already highly motivated. How could I inspire them further? I thought about advising them to study hard, reach out to faculty when they don’t understand, and get extra help when they need it. But this didn’t seem very inspirational.

I decided on a story about my son, Solomon, that illustrated the message that in life it’s ok to fail  – it’s just not ok not to learn from failure. I set the stage by citing statics on college graduation that are pretty bleak: only 40% of undergraduates complete their degrees in 4 years; and this only increases to 60% by 6 years. I emphasized that these statistics hold for honors students at the best colleges in the country. I then juxtaposed this negative message with one of hope. I gave them a hook: that I knew the secret to college success. I led up to the “reveal” of this secret by using the story about my son to illustrate how failure, even failure in a kindergarten race, could be an opportunity to learn and succeed another day.

I practiced the story enough times that on the day of the talk I spoke without my notes and was able to act out my son’s stubbornness, his clenched fists when he lost, and my reactions. I was able to make eye contact and see that most audience members were sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes wide open. I used three well-positioned pauses to emphasize my main points: the first right after my story (to let listeners absorb the lesson of the story), the second after a quote by Michael Jordan, and the third right before the big “reveal” of my secret. A week later I received a letter from the headmaster that I think speaks to the power of storytelling. According to him, the students were “effusive in their praise and especially appreciated the delivery of ideas that were sprinkled with generous doses of humor. They really listened.”

Have you tried adding stories to your presentations or writing? What has been the most difficult part of this process? The easiest? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

Endings and Beginnings for the 2013 Fellows

Photo: Jennifer Tank

Photo: Jennifer Tank, 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow

Yesterday marked the end of the “refresh” training for the 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellows. As part of their graduation ceremony, they wrote down things they’ll say “no” to in order to make time for the things that support their visions for change, and then burned the papers in the campfire.

While their fellowship year has ended, their work toward a vision for environmental change is just beginning. As the 2013 fellows know, effecting the kinds of change needed to achieve sustainability is a long-term endeavor. Sustaining this work requires ongoing commitment, learning, and persistence and the support of friends.

As they return home from the idyllic Wingspread Conference Center, we welcome the 2013 fellows into the Leopold network and wish them success in the next phase of their Leopold journey!


5 Secrets of Captivating Stories


credit: Salisbury University publications

Notice what happens the next time you tell a group that you want to tell them a story. People will perk up, get comfortable, and prepare to listen. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect, communicate, and convince. Annette Simmons (The Story Factor) sums it up: “Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or charismatic appeals—are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people—of their own free will—come to the conclusion they can trust you and the message you bring.”

Communicating facts can trap listeners into supporting one idea or another. If an explanation runs counter to their beliefs and understanding, they don’t hear the message. Facts don’t have the power to change people’s minds, but stories do. This is because in story, there is room for non-linearity, room for messages to seep in, and room for both sides to be true. As Stephen Denning says in The Springboard, people listen to stories with little effort. Once digested, a good story can replay itself and continue to have impact long after its telling.

Stories generally have a specific structure (a beginning, middle, and end), but storytelling involves elements of style that are more difficult to list and number. When developing a story, a good place to start is with prompts. Here are a few from Jeremey Donovan (“How to Deliver a TED Talk”): “If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? “What was a defining moment that changed the course of your life? “What early weakness led you to find your passion?” Simmons suggests looking for stories in everyday life: any event that creates emotion or is memorable can become a story.

Here are 5 key elements of captivating stories:

1. Keep the specifics out and the details in: The details of the story are important. They set the scene, invite the listener in, and allow for emotion to seep through. The specifics are not important. It doesn’t matter that 55% of the invertebrates in your story were impacted, but rather what they looked like, how they smelled, and what the day was like. Like maps, stories communicate complexities with simple, incomplete views of reality.

2. Make your story positive: Science, critical thinking, and scientists are often seen as negative. Action is never born of frustration, depression, or ignorance. Hope, joy, and fulfillment motivate. Keep it positive.

3. Make your stories come to life: Remember that body language matters. You want to re-experience your story as you tell it. You want your listener to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the elements of your narrative. Nancy Duarte (HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations) states that you want to create conflict by emphasizing the contrast between what is and what could be. Remember that even the most compelling stories lose their power if they’re not told well. Practice your delivery.

4. Embrace silence: Silence can amplify the sensory and emotional aspects of your story. Don’t be afraid to pause to make a point or use silence to enhance your words.

5. Connect with your audience: Tone is important because it overrides or reinforces every message your gestures, body, and words relay. Tone cannot be faked. You must respect your audience and believe that they have an essential role in your message. Only then can you connect with them through humor, emotion, and passion. Audience members will almost never contact you weeks later about a presentation to say that they loved point 2, but you will find that they want to tell you how and why your story resonated.

In his fabulous TED talk the filmmaker Andrew Stanton says, “There isn’t anyone that you can’t learn to love once you have heard their story.” This likeability element is essential to getting your audience on board with your message, especially if you want to motivate change. Likeability can also break through the negativity of critical thinking. Science, and the advancement of scientific knowledge, is inherently negative. Think about it… hypotheses are wrong until proved otherwise, new ideas are spurred by recognition that prior knowledge was incomplete. As Randy Olson (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) observes, critical thinking is admired within academia but can be “horrifying” elsewhere in a world that thrives on positivity and affirmation. Stories help bridge this rift between scientists and the rest of the world. Stories make us care.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I used these tips to overcome my fear of storytelling. What helps you tell captivating stories? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.