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.

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!


The Power of Collective Approaches: An Engagement Strategy for the Long Haul

Karen Lips (right, turquoise jacket)

Karen Lips (right, blue jacket), teaches a graduate course in cross-disciplinary analysis. It will enable students to help inform policy questions about animal imports.

When we created our advanced training program last year, our vision was to help Leopold Leadership Fellows gain a skill or learn about a context they need to understand in order to integrate their science into practice. In January we held our first advanced training, “Hitting Your Policy Mark: Leveraging Networks and Collective Impact,” in Washington, D.C. as a joint pilot with COMPASS. Participants learned how to identify partnerships, pathways, and criteria for selecting opportunities to engage. They also gained skills for mobilizing interdisciplinary sets of experts, drawn from the Leopold Leadership network and elsewhere, to combine knowledge and provide an integrated synthesis of an environmental issue. Chad English, Director of Science Policy Outreach for COMPASS, was the facilitator.

One thing we hope to learn from advanced trainings is what makes it feasible for researchers to engage effectively, in limited time and for the long term, with policymakers, NGOs, businesses, and communities. Chad has written about a creative approach taken by Leopold Leadership Fellow Karen Lips, a participant in the January training. Karen studies the decline of amphibians and has examined risks to them from imported animals that may carry disease. By carefully defining her role in the conversation about this issue, Karen mobilized a community of scientists to analyze data needed to inform policy questions about animal imports. As Chad notes, her strategy ensures that policymakers benefit from the breadth and depth of her community’s collective knowledge.

Karen has also taken an innovative approach to engaging her graduate students. They play a pivotal role in conducting the analysis, which brings together data from science, policy, and economics. Her group is unique in crossing these disciplines to inform animal importation policy questions, and they receive training through an interdisciplinary course that Karen teaches at the University of Maryland. By working with graduate students in this way, Karen is able to provide timely analysis that speaks to policymakers’ needs.

Read Chad’s post for more about how Karen uses a collective approach to have an impact with this work. Is an approach like this part of your engagement strategy? Leave a comment about how it’s working for you.

Pam Sturner (@PamSturner) is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program (@LeopoldLP). Subscribe to “Leopold Leadership 3.0″ to read how Leopold Leadership Fellows are linking their knowledge to action.

Zoos vs. Ecosystems: Jon Foley on the Importance of Networks in Leadership

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: As the director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), I’m interested in developing effective environmental leaders. In Boreas we emphasize that leadership is more than a set of skills; it’s a way of working. Networks are a key part of working effectively as a leader.

I’ve been inspired in this regard by Jon Foley, the director of IonE, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, and a recent recipient of the Heinz Prize in the Environment. I interviewed him about leadership and promising paths he sees for developing the next generation of leaders. This is the first in a series of posts drawn from our conversation.

One question I asked Jon was how, as an academic, he works in networks to help solve environmental challenges. Here’s what he had to say:

Confidence and license to try things

JF: Within the academic community things like the Leopold Leadership Program provide networks that universities sometimes don’t provide themselves very well. I remember when I did the Leopold training over ten years ago, it was with a cohort of 19 other people. It instantly bonded into group that became a go-to network of confidantes, advisers, friends, and champions for things that we wanted to do. That gave you license to try a little bit harder to do something a little different…. It’s the unusual couple of people in each institution who want to try out this crazy stuff… it’s kind of your tribe, so to speak.

Reaching beyond the academy

JF: What the Leopold program exposed us to was to really build your network of other folks outside the academy. Get out of the Ivory Tower as much as you can. Leopold exposed us to people in the media who became not just one-time acquaintances but eventually colleagues themselves: reporters who may use you as a source because they know you and trust you and your work; editors who recognize your work; people who ask you to write op-eds. That takes years to develop. But those are important nodes.

Defining your role: what to take on, and when to find partners

JF: I can’t reach the same number of people as a good op-ed writer can. Or a good media person can… Or, in businesses and government, there are key gatekeepers, decision-makers who are highly influential, who you might be able to reach. They can carry your message better than you can into halls of influence and decision-making and power that you might not even be able to enter. You have to figure out where the strategy is and who can help you get the job done.

Networks as ecosystems

JF: My sister-in-law once came up with this analogy: biodiversity matters, but if we’re all in a zoo, if we have two academics in a cage, and a couple policymakers in another cage, and couple reporters in some other cage, that’s not a vibrant ecosystem. What we need is them all interacting together like a real ecosystem. Again, that’s the idea that if we get out of our comfort zone and start circulating among unusual characters, we might find that a lot of interesting interactions are possible in very rich ways that we never thought were possible. I’ve certainly benefitted from the networks of other kinds of people that I’ve built up over the last couple years. I’d like to think I’m benefitting them. At least it seems so, since they keep referring more people to us and our institute. It looks like it’s going both ways. But boy, is it really different than anything the normal academy prepared me to do.

Networks as catalysts for better science

JF: The stuff I’m working on today has nothing to do with what I was doing ten years ago, or even five years ago. A lot of it was guided by the questions people have been asking over the years. It’s been driven more outside of the academy, rather than inside.

KK: So, you’d say the mutual network is making your science…

JF: Better.

Engagement, Not Outreach

JF: I hate the word “outreach,” because it’s a very static notion of knowledge. It assumes we have the knowledge inside the Ivory Tower: all we have to do is put up an antennae and broadcast it to the world, and we’re “outreaching,” telling people who don’t know stuff what we know. That’s so naïve and wrong. It’s mutual engagement — saying, “Hey I can help you, but you’re helping me, and let’s form a powerful, synergistic relationship somehow.” That’s where this networked leadership and engagement model really can be effective. It will make you a better scientist. It will make you a better scholar, thinker, teacher, and leader within your university. To those who used to argue that doing this stuff is sacrificing your science is total and utter bullsh*t. Because if you do this well, it will make you think more critically about the work you’re doing, why it’s relevant, how to communicate it better. It will certainly make you a better teacher, at least. And it will hopefully make you a better scientist. In my case, I think it did a lot.


Check out my next post for a conversation with Jon about leadership development in graduate education and beyond.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.

Around the World in 80 Ways: 4 Tips for Leading Global Initiatives

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Picture a map of the world. One large enough to walk on. Go to your hometown and place a pin there. Now, identify the locations of where you have conducted research, and where you have collaborators, friends, and relations, and place different coloured pins at each of their locations. Take some string and link everyone together. What do you get?

My bet is that most of us will weave a pretty tangled web. If you were to walk from one end of the map to another, it would be hard not to trip. The Leopold program may be focused on North America, but our networks are global.

Leading change is hard at the best of times, but doing it across different cultures, communication styles, and time zones can be especially challenging. There are just so many opportunities to trip up. Words, for example, can mean different things to people from different parts of the world. The word “science” in North America is usually taken to refer to the natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics. In continental Europe, however, the word “science” is closer in meaning to its Latin root, scientia, or “knowledge,” and so is taken to mean any discipline that creates knowledge, whether it be the natural sciences, the social sciences the humanities, or even the arts.

This may seem a trivial example but it can have important implications. In 2010 I helped found an organization called the Global Young Academy, which has as its primary mission “to be the voice of young scientists around the world.” Obviously, the definition of science is crucial here, because it determines which disciplines will be represented as part of the GYA and on whose behalf the organization speaks. For the record, while there was much debate among the 60 or so individuals at the founding meeting, we settled on the more inclusive definition of science as “knowledge creation.”

Definitions aside, my time with the GYA has taught me a lot about working and leading effectively across different cultures. Here are a few of the things I have learned along the way*:

  1. How you say something matters as much as what you say – In North America we tend to be direct and blunt. We say what we mean, mostly, and we think this is a good thing because it reflects values such as authenticity and openness. However, being too direct can be interpreted by some cultures, in Africa and Asia especially, as being tactless and undiplomatic. Lacking directness, of course, can seem manipulative or fake. Effective cross-cultural communication starts by acknowledging these differences exist and then finds effective ways to move the conversation beyond them.
  2. Listen to what others are saying – It seems trivial but it is remarkably hard to do, especially if you are like me and tend to interject when you come across an idea that is particularly intriguing (I call it building on an idea, my wife calls it interrupting). The thing is, what you find so interesting may not be the message your partner is trying to communicate, so when you interject too much you run the risk of not actually hearing what that person is trying to say. So bite your tongue a bit and let them say it.
  3. Acknowledge that you’ve been listening – Thank your interlocutor for sharing their thoughts and paraphrase back to them what you heard them say to indicate that you’ve understood their message. Use phrases like “What I hear you saying is…” or “Is what you meant….”
  4. Identify and work towards common goals – There is nothing quite like a common goal (and a deadline) to focus everyone’s attention. Identify what you are trying to achieve early on, and spell out the steps needed to get there. You want everyone pulling in the same direction, not going in circles or working at cross-purposes.

Getting to the last point is the most challenging and the most rewarding. One approach we use at GYA meetings is to provide a semi-structured opportunity, involving small group discussions and lots of note-taking on white boards, to identify the challenges and obstacles faced by our members in achieving excellence and impact in their work. It takes a few minutes for people to warm up but, when they do, the scene turns into something like the “Airing of the Grievances” (remember the Festivus episode from Seinfeld)? However, there is deeper value here: it gets people talking, it gives them an opportunity to be heard, and, more practically, it often identifies a series of cross-cutting issues that we can work on over the next year. In another post I’ll discuss some of these issues and what we’ve been doing to address them.

Navigating the tangled web of intercultural differences that come with working in a global context can be hard and, at times, frustrating. But the pay-off can be great. The challenge is to turn the tangled web into a rich tapestry. These four simple tools can, in my experience, go a long way towards improving communication across cultures and building a global team.

*With the help of a training session in intercultural communication and conflict management provided by Dr. Hanna Milling. You can see examples of her excellent work at

Rees Kassen, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Professor and Research Chair in Experimental Evolution at the University of Ottawa and Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy.