Pulling Back the Curtain on NGOs
Let me draw back the curtain on a seldom-seen world. This is the world of the altruist, namely those working in the non-governmental sector. These are the NGO do-gooders, the seeming face of the environmental campaign. If you live in any big city around the world, you’ll probably know them best as those people in blue shirts you try to avoid while walking down the sidewalk. Sure, you’d love to help them save the children or restore the forests, but you’ve got to get to work! They wander around Fifth Avenue or Oxford Circus with their clipboards, asking if you have just one minute of your time to help save the Earth. Like the best Olympic bobsledder, you duck and weave to keep out of earshot. Surely, the person behind you will donate, right? Yeah… you’re probably right because, as history has shown, there’s a sucker born every minute.
What? These people are hustling every day to make the world a better place. How could you say they’re doing anything but good? Yeah, I’m sure these kids got up and put on their very brightest smiles to change the world. Their purposes were pure. Unfortunately, non-governmental organizations are businesses like any other. And like any business, the higher you go up the food chain the less altruistic things become. No matter what business someone is running, there is always KPI #1: keep the business alive.
For the world’s large NGOs, things are the same. The mission of the organization might be different from your typical Fortune 500, but the purpose is similar. To stay in business, NGOs have developed to become just as cutthroat as their private-sector siblings. In fact, out of all the people, businesses, and organizations doing their part to make the world a better place, NGOs are probably the worst of the bunch. Those of us in the sustainability space have known for years just how much they are wolves dressed in sheep’s’ clothing.
To show you how, let’s go back to that example of the campaigners on the streets. When I first moved to New York City in the winter of 2004 for grad school, I had all intentions of changing the world and making my mark on the City. Like just about every young person who moves there, though, I was wholly and entirely unprepared. I had my acceptance letter to the City University of New York (CUNY) Grad Center and an e-mail from someone on Craigslist saying they had a room ready for me in Queens. School started in about a week, so in the meantime, I roamed the City looking for a part-time job. Coming from sunny Southern California, it was quite a shock to the system wandering up and down the streets, in and out of high rises, in the middle of one of New York’s coldest winters. I wasn’t fashionable enough to work retail, but too arrogant to wait tables. Trawling through Craigslist (hey, it was 2004!) on a particularly bone-chilling afternoon, I came across an ad that immediately struck me as pure job-search gold. It went something like this:
Want to make the world a better place?
Do you care deeply about the environment?
Work with New York’s largest environmental group!
CLIMATE EMERGENCY! ACTIVISTS NEEDED!
Climate change is the most urgent issue of our time. With climate deniers firmly in control of national policies, it will be up to the states to hold corporate polluters accountable. New York must lead the way.
XXX (although I’d love to name and shame, the last thing I want is a lawsuit on my hands. Therefore, dear reader, you’ll have to look up the names of these organizations yourself) is looking for motivated students seeking full-time, part-time, and permanent positions.
Our training program is the best around. You’ll learn from experts who have dozens of years of experience. We’ll give you all the skills you need to succeed!
We provide medical, dental, vision, paid vacation, sick days, holidays, and leave. Advancement and travel opportunities are available, too.
Build your resume, make friends, earn up to $700 per week, and help build a movement to stop climate change and win a renewable energy future.
Wow! This was exactly the type of job I was looking for. I could really put my skills and passions to good use. Plus… look at all the benefits. Screw working at Nordstrom, I was going to start making a real difference for the future (and my wallet).
I should have started suspecting something when a recruiter called me within 20 minutes of submitting my CV. The recruiter seemed almost too happy to have me come on board. I thought to myself this was just enthusiasm. It turned out to be something more sinister. Before she hung up, I was reminded to bring a coat and report to work the next day.
The following afternoon, I ended up in some small suite at the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Madison Square Garden. There, I met up with a ragtag group of mostly younger college students. Our dear leader, the person in charge, couldn’t have been more than 22 years old. As I came to quickly learn, seniority mattered. This guy just seemed to have outlasted all the others before him.
A quick tour of the 300 square foot office and a couple of signatures later, we were ready to begin our shift. Without a lick of training, the next thing I knew I was on the New Jersey Transit train headed for the upmarket communities of Orange and Montclair. You might recognize these picturesque towns as they featured prominently in the Emmy-award winning documentary series, The Real Housewives of New Jersey. That’s right. We were headed straight for the belly of the money-laden beast.
Three days into my New York experience, though, I didn’t know any of this. I was just excited to be seeing something different, with new friends, earning what I thought would be a steady paycheck.
The 45-minute train side served as the scene of my induction. Hardly the best training program around, I thought to myself. But this was New York City, center of the proverbial universe. These people must know what they’re doing. This must just be how things are done in the big city.
On that short trip, I was given a script from which to read and a clipboard for signatures. My buddy told me how a typical shift worked and reassured me most learning would be done on the job. They regaled me with tales of their first day and how it all seemed a bit weird to them too. Nothing to worry about! This was going to be an amazing, impactful way to put my mark on the world. We were really at the forefront of change and rah, rah, rah.
Awwrange!!! (There was still a novelty to the brash New Jersey accent). Stepping off the train onto the platform, wind and sleet immediately slapped me in the face. It was a rude awakening, but I assumed we’d be back in an office campaigning soon enough. I was so wrong. We exited the station and walked about a half-mile to a row of exquisite stone mansions. The streets were covered in snow. Trees were bare. Wind was whistling. To my surprise, this was our office for the day. It was here my buddy (now a term not so endearing) told me about the organization’s commission structure. I’d earn a portion of every check I collected that afternoon. That’s right. We weren’t collecting signatures from concerned citizens. No, we had to convince them to hand over their (I assume) legitimate, hard-earned money for a cause they couldn’t be more removed from.
To make things just that much more stressful, I had a target. After a full 45 minutes of training and an October surprise, I was now going to be penalized if I couldn’t do a good job.
And yet, I had convinced myself this was all part of doing my bit for the planet. If Buddhist monks could set themselves on fire for what they believed in, what was a little frostbite?
Almost every door I knocked on did open and, to their credit, most people welcomed me in. Can you imagine? Bringing a total stranger in off the streets in this day and age? Maybe I was lucky enough to find a street full of Jersey’s best Christians. For this, I was thankful.
Shaking and nervous, I tried my best to ad-lib off the script I had been given. My passion for the environment certainly showed through. As with anything, the more passionate you are about something the more people tend to believe in you and your cause. Low and behold, people actually listened, signed my petition, and opened their wallets. Again, I was a total stranger. Checks for hundreds of dollars, bills in twenties and fifties, and plenty of hot chocolate started to flow my way. This organization seemed to know The Secret before it was a thing.
Meeting back up with my buddy later on that afternoon, he asked how everything had gone. I was so excited to report back my success and he seemed to echo this in his performance for the day. Frozen and tired, we made our way back to the train station for the journey home. I remember being over the moon with everything, unable to nod off. Crossing Eighth Avenue back to the Hotel Pennsylvania suite, we must have been the last group to return for the evening. With a perturbed look on his face, since we were clearly cutting into his evening routine, our dear leader greedily took the envelopes of checks and cash from us. He shoo-ed us away, letting us know we did a great job for the world. One of the most memorable things about him was his strange habit of encouraging us to go out and celebrate with a warm shawarma. This was the first time I heard him utter that ridiculous statement, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Over the next several months, I continued to give my time and effort to the cause. Whether it was going door-to-door in upmarket areas of Jersey or Long Island or canvassing the streets of Soho and the Upper East Side, I felt like a warrior for the Earth. What I didn’t feel was a sense of remuneration for my service in her majesty’s army. While my first day on the job certainly was a windfall, most days weren’t so great. Sometimes, we’d struggle to get a single donation. It was then I truly understood the meaning of the term “up to” when talking about salary. I could certainly earn “up to” $1,000 a week. I could also certainly earn “less than” anywhere close to that much. If memory serves, I was bringing in just a couple hundred dollars per week consistently. According to Independent Sector, though, the estimated value of a volunteer is US$25.43 an hour.1 That means I should have been making close to $1,000 a week as the advertisement promised. Maybe that’s how they were fudging their numbers.
On days where we would miss our target, the dear leader would go into a tirade about how the Earth needed us more than ever and we had let her down. He didn’t seem to fancy shawarma on these days. I came to discover his outward care for the Earth had a more intrinsic motivation. His salary was directly correlated to how much each of us brought in. Ponder that for a second. For every check a concerned citizen wrote, thinking the money was going to save the trees or the polar bears, most of it was spent on overheads like salaries, train reimbursements, and middle eastern cuisine. That’s right. Your money was going to fund the organization itself, not to save the world as you thought.
And this is how most, if not all, NGOs work. They are money-hungry animals, ever on the search for their next feed. NGOs can only be successful if they have the funding to “make a difference.” It has probably been this way from the beginning of time. That prehistoric canvasser with a stone tablet, the ancient Egyptian trying to get signatures on their papyrus scroll, or the Mandarin eliciting cowrie donations for a new protective wall would have experienced the same issues with funding. There is so much to do, but not enough money to go around.