When you’re looking into sustainability, the environment or animal rights, there’s always one charity that comes up a lot: the WWF (World Wildlife Fund in the US/Canada, World Wide Fund for Nature elsewhere). It is the world’s largest conservation organization and aims to reduce the human impact on nature and the environment. You might have even donated to them yourself at some point in the past. In this post, I’m going to give my personal take on the good and the bad of WWF as a charity, and if you should try and support them.
Started back in 1961, the WWF has slowly grown from having national organizations in Switzerland, the UK and the US to being a truly international organization covering a whole range of the environmental projects. They have invested over $1 billion in over 3,000 different projects. 55% of funding comes from individual donors, 19% from Government organizations and the rest from corporations. With their infamous panda logo, they have supported projects to protect fragile ecosystems, rainforests and animal species in all parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. They also use their considerable resources to try to influence policies in the US and European Union.
With rainforests being a critical part of nature (both locally and for the entire planet), the WWF has put a lot of resources into them. They have worked closely with the Brazilian Government to try to preserve large areas of the Amazon rainforest. Of course, there’s still quite a bit of work to do on that issue! 🙂 They did manage to negotiate to achieve Africa’s first regional treaty on sustainable forest management in Congo as well (the world’s second biggest rainforest).
Animal protection has also been a key area in their projects. As you might expect from their logo, they have been involved in the conservation of pandas. They worked with the Chinese Government to make a conservation plan which includes a protected area of over 3 million hectares (the size of Belgium). Thanks to these conservation efforts, the panda population has increased from approximately 1,000 to over 1,600. They have also campaigned for the protection of whales. They were involved in the banning of commercial whaling which has helped to improve whale populations. In practice, commercial whaling is still happening in some areas so they are continuing to push to stop this. One of their biggest projects of the 1970’s was tiger conservation, a project which was able to increase India’s tiger population by 30% in seven years.
Furthermore, they have launched some initiatives to try to convince politicians to take more action. Earth Hour is a yearly event where people, buildings and landmarks turn their lights off for an hour as a symbol to demand action on the climate. Several hundred million people did this in 2010 according to the WWF. They also conduct important research into various habitats in an effort to protect them. For example, in 2003 they researched the value of coral reefs and their benefits for fishing and coastal protection. This aims to bring more focus to them and deepens our understanding of the nature around us. They are heavily involved in the growth of “sustainable palm oil” to try to reduce the damage to nature of palm oil plantations.
Where does your money go?
When you make a donation to any charity, not all of the money goes directly to the cause you want to support. This is because they have other costs that they need to take into account. An example of this is administration costs. There is a lot of work done behind the scenes to support an organization of this size. They also spend some of your money for fundraisers, so that they can collect more donations. These are some of the important statistics for the WWF according to CharityNavigator:
Percentage of donations supporting their programs: 73.1%
Administration costs: 6.5%
Fundraising costs: 20.3%
When you compare them to other charities, it seems they have relatively high fundraising costs as well as slightly higher administration costs. As a result, only 73% of your donation goes towards the conservation projects. Ideally this would be 85%+. However, 73% is still acceptable when you look at other charities so it isn’t necessarily a reason not to donate to the WWF. Hopefully they will address this going forward.
There is something else that needs to be taken into account though: transparency. If a charity is collecting large amounts of donations, we need to be confident that they’re putting that money to good use. This is why charities publish statements about their revenues and costs (including CEO salary). Good charities also have their financial records audited by an independent organization to ensure that your money isn’t being wasted. In the case of WWF, they appear to be very transparent in where your money goes. They are regularly audited.
The WWF have also been involved in a number of controversies. One of the biggest controversies is based around an anti-poaching campaign in several African countries. In an effort to stop the poaching of endangered animals such as tigers, they hired local Government guards to protect various areas. Whilst poaching in these areas did noticeably decrease, it came at a cost. These guards were heavily armed, given the ability to give punishments without a court and had no real accountability. Some of these guards were violent even towards people who turned out to be innocent. Whilst the WWF was cleared of being complicit in this by an independent report, it has been shown that local WWF offices could have known what was happening and obviously should have taken action to stop it.
There is also some debate about whether or not the WWF should support the killing of some animals. They are not against the hunting of some animals if that species is not endangered and if it will improve other endangered species. This contrasts with other charities such as PETA. In addition, in the past they were not against trophy hunting (and some of their managers have even done this themselves) but they seem to have changed their opinion now.
One of the other major controversies is how close to large corporations the WWF is. Whilst they have become more selective about who they accept donations from now, they have taken big donations from companies such as Shell in the past. These donations have funded studies to find where land could be cleared for industrial use and some have argued that it allows big corporations to greenwash their operations with backing from the WWF.
In this post I’ve tried to give some information about the positives and negatives of the WWF. They are a very large charity with a long history, so this article does not include everything. Furthermore, this is a post by an individual so I can only give my personal views on this topic. This may differ from how you see things. However, I’m going to conclude by giving my thoughts on the question in the title, “Is the WWF a good charity?”.
In my opinion, the WWF generally does some great work and has made a significant impact on nature conservation. A lot of their work is behind-the-scenes; negotiating with companies and Governments to reduce their environmental impact. Simply looking at their list of projects will not give you the full picture of their activities. Their overall impact is quite hard to quantify. You’ll see them present when habitats are at risk, and it’s great to have a large voice standing up for nature. Without the WWF, it’s unclear who would fill that gap. Reading through their controversies may give you second thoughts (and it also gave me second thoughts), but it’s hard to find any charity that hasn’t been involved in any kind of controversy. Alternatives such as PETA have had their own significant controversies. These absolutely should not happen and these charities need to take action to stop them, but I’m not sure if that means we have to abandon them completely.
Some have argued that donating to smaller charities who are more focused and have lower administration fees may be more effective. That is definitely a good point. WWF does spend a lot of money on administration and fundraising. However, if we had many equally funded small charities there wouldn’t be a single powerful voice with influence. It would be much easier for Governments and corporations to ignore the issue. Because of this, I think we should donate to large charities as well as smaller charities. This achieves the best of both worlds. It allows us to ensure charities like the WWF can continue to be the voice for nature conservation. It also supports charities who work specifically on the projects and causes that interest us the most.
If you want to support a charity that thinks that no animals at all should ever be killed, the WWF is not for you. If you want a charity with absolutely no links to the business world, they are also not for you. For everyone else, the WWF is a charity to consider. From what they describe, they work with companies because they feel that they have to work with people on the other side as well as their friends. Companies like Coca Cola or Shell are not likely to disappear overnight, so the WWF at least wants a seat at the table to help them make better decisions for nature. My personal view is that this is a logical strategy, as long as it does actually lead to conservation improvements.
It’s tough to give an answer to whether the WWF is a good charity which suits everyone. Hopefully this post has given you some insights that will help you make the decision for yourself.