Why Environmental Networks Work

    In Sri Lanka, solar panels were being installed in 2002 as part of a World Bank project to light rural homes. Photo by: Dominic Sansoni

    Strength, they say, lies in numbers. Environmental networks demonstrate why joining forces can have tremendous gains for organizations, regardless of its size - individually and together.

    Take for instance the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is the world's oldest and largest global environmental network boasting a democratic membership union involving more than 1,000 government and non-governmental organizations as members. Another 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries are also aligned with IUCN.

    Development organizations always scramble for funding to fuel their work. Though not a funding organization, IUCN can still lend some help in fundraising.

    Jeffrey McNeely, IUCN chief scientist, explained: "For many of our members, being associated with IUCN makes it easier for them to raise money. It gives them legitimacy, both locally and nationally."

    Nevertheless, IUCN provides opportunities to members by taking them on board funded projects.

    "We try to provide funding to our members to work with us on projects in their home countries," McNeely said.

    IUCN also offers capacity-building and networking opportunities such as training, workshops and the World Conservation Congress held every four years.

    "They are able to use IUCN as a network of building relationships that will enable them to carry out their own mission in a more effective way," McNeely noted.

    Then there is the Climate Action Network, a global alliance of over 450 NGOs. CAN members seek to limit the impacts of climate change through coordination of information exchange and NGO strategy on international, regional and national climate issues.

    CAN Director David Turnbull believed networks are as equally vital to organizations' work as to the bigger community or advocacy to which they belong.

    "If we're able as an NGO community to speak with one voice on an issue, that carries a huge amount of weight," he said. "The expertise, passion and influence behind that single voice are incredibly powerful and impactful."

    He continued: "On the flip side, if you have a cacophony of voices speaking from the NGO, the points that are incredibly important, valid and need to be heard may get lost in the noise."

    Similarly, Turnbull pointed out the information-sharing and networking benefits of being affiliated with CAN.

    "The amount of information that can flow between organizations is really impressive and really important to allow different organizations around the world to be more effective in their own work," he said.

    Moreover, a network allows an organization to broaden its advocacy by opening doors to new audiences, member organizations and its own public following.

    "The ability of an organization within a network to disperse their policy approaches, thinking and work to a broader audience can be really helpful as well," Turnbull expounded. "Their work may be seeing a broader audience than they would otherwise have because they have allies and advocates within this network that are going to take their report and use it in another country or another context."

    Large and small organizations alike can reap rewards by joining environmental networks, though these would be different for each.

    McNeely recognized that benefits may not necessarily be equal. Small NGOs, he said, may profit from a network through receiving support in raising funds and taking part in projects in their home countries.

    In contrast, he said larger organizations leverage their membership with IUCN by tapping the network's expertise to fund and launch joint programs.

    Turnbull agreed that big organizations with considerable resources use CAN primarily as a platform to share information.

    He felt that small-scale NGO operations could extract even more substantial benefits from joining networks.

    "The resources that are available from CAN as a network to serve as an outlet to help smaller organizations reach a broader audience or more advocates is even greater," Turnbull said.

    NGOs can also profit from coordinated communication and lobbying efforts carried out by the likes of CAN, he added.

    The ongoing negotiations to come up with a post-Kyoto climate change framework in Copenhagen comes to mind, and Turnbull was quick to elaborate on how CAN advances both its goals and its members' at these meetings.

    "We work together in the lead-up to those negotiations through joint policy positions, lobbying, advocacy and communication strategies and others, so that we can really influence the negotiations," he remarked.

    Julia Marton-Lefèvre pointed out multiple benefits from joining IUCN, which she leads. This might as well reflect gains that could be obtained by forming an alliance with similarly credible networks.

    "Our members act collectively to provide leadership, governance and set the organization's strategic agenda," she said. "They benefit, in turn, from IUCN's scientific credibility, its unsurpassed knowledge base, its convening power, its networking opportunities, and the access it provides to high-level political, economic and social decision making."

    About the author

    • Josefa Cagoco

      Sef Cagoco served as one of Devex's international development correspondent from mid-2008 to mid-2009. Her writing focused on social entrepreneurship and multilateral agencies such as the U.N. and Asian Development Bank. She previously worked as senior reporter for the national daily BusinessWorld and a production journalist for the Financial Times.