“Holding our feet to the fire”: How eNGOs use information and relationships to advance marine conservation

Today, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), large and small, are found in decision making settings globally. Why are they active in these contexts? Do they fulfill particular roles? Do they affect how information is shaped and used by decision makers? Do they succeed in influencing policy development? Although NGOs have existed for many years, to date, studies have not yet fully accounted for their prominence around the world and these questions remain largely unaddressed. This study by Rachael Cadman, a graduate student in the EIUI team, set out to fill a gap in understanding of NGOs. Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed the emergence of NGOs focused on environmental subjects (eNGOs) and other non-state actors into the sphere of governance (Biermann & Pattberg, 2012). ENGOs have played an increasingly central role in decision-making on the international stage (Blasiak et al., 2017), and mounting evidence suggests that the eNGOs also have a strong influence over national-level political decision-making (Betsill, 2006).

Within Canada, eNGOs have recently been given an opening to shape the nature and success of marine conservation in the country. This development came after the 2015 federal election, when the new government recommitted to the marine conservation targets set at the Convention of Biological Diversity. Following that announcement, the government enlisted the support of eNGOs, representing a noticeable cultural shift in environmental governance from the stance of the previous government. In particular, the process for the design of marine protected areas became more iterative, and eNGOs found they had more opportunity to provide input in the process.

This instance where government and eNGO interests are aligned, provided an important opportunity to determine the role(s) that eNGOs are playing – what service do they provide to the Canadian public, and what enablers and barriers might arise in pursuit of their objectives? Thus, this research aimed to gain an understanding of the role of eNGOs within the Canadian system of environmental governance, and particularly to determine the tactics and information the organizations use to influence marine conservation.

A case study was designed and conducted to increase understanding of the role of eNGOs in decision-making regarding the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) in Canadian waters. This research examined the movement of information through informal and formal channels in the eNGO decision-making processes (Soomai, 2017). The study focused on the actions of the marine departments of two eNGOs: World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF), and the Ecology Action Centre (EAC). These two eNGOs have very different organizational cultures, and are interested in different aspects of marine conservation, though both have chosen to collaborate over the new interest in the creation of MPAs. Choosing these two organizations allowed for a broader spectrum of eNGO activities: one chosen eNGO operates at a regional scale (EAC), while the other has a broader, national focus (WWF Canada). The study concentrated on these eNGOs’ actions to affect the design and implementation of three active MPA projects all of which were intended to be completed by the end of December 2017: the Laurentian Channel, the Haddock Box, and the Scott Islands. The study also sought to understand the role(s) of information in various formal and informal collaborations, and partnerships that eNGOs leverage to achieve their mandate.



The questions guiding this study required using mixed methods that involved access to the operation of the eNGOs in various contexts and through multiple channels. Data was collected through interviews with employees of WWF and EAC, content analysis of the organizations’ public documents, review of e-mail correspondence by the eNGO staff related to MPAs, and direct observation of numerous meetings and strategy sessions.

The study found that eNGOs are engaged in many different tactics to achieve their objectives. Four broad categories of actions were evident in the data:

Hard advocacy: Advocacy that is public-facing, usually to dissent from a government decision, but may also include positive reinforcement of a decision;

Soft Advocacy: Advocacy that is not available to the public, direct engagement with decision-makers, providing recommendations or scientific data, relationship-building;

Information Gathering: Compiling scientific data, doing case studies, public polling information, intelligence; and

Administrative Activities: Includes project management duties, pursuing funding opportunities, debating whether to engage on certain issues.

The data also showed that the eNGOs did not engage solely with government within official processes, but they worked with many different participants in a variety of contexts and for different outcomes. Those interactions could be adversarial or collaborative, and happened both within official processes and in informal settings. In broad terms, the eNGOs interacted with the following groups:

Other eNGOs: All interactions between the participant organization and other eNGOs;

Other stakeholders: All interactions between the participant organization and other stakeholder groups, such as academics, industry representatives, and Indigenous communities; and

Government: All interactions between the participant organization and government, both at the bureaucratic and political level.

Previous research has focused on the structure of organizations to categorize NGOs into different types. Often, researchers have concluded that organizations can fit into dichotomous categories: conflict and consensus, grassroots and corporate, advocacy work or service provision (Fyall & McGuire, 2014). Rather than classify eNGOs by type, this study examined their individual actions to gather a more complete picture of the type(s) of activities in which eNGOs engage, and their motivations for doing so. The result was that neither of the eNGOs could easily be classified into an either/or category, as previous research suggested. Instead, both engaged in a range of different activities, both in public and private, with many different stakeholders, and they had different motivations and objectives. This finding suggests that while traditional scholarship on non-profit organizations has been focused on developing specialized organizational “types,” eNGO strategies are, in fact, more diverse, and dependent on context. This result aligns with more recent work that suggests that non-profit organizations engage with a multitude of different actors and use many different tactics to achieve results (Prentice & Brudney, 2017).

In fact, it is possible that by categorizing eNGOs, researchers may be underestimating both the information requirements of the organizations and their greatest strength. ENGOs that are flexible can interact with many actors, and process and distribute many different types of information through many different channels. If this variety of specialties and requirements is not properly recognized, managers may fail to provide eNGOs with the information they need, which would affect their ability to play a particular role in the process. The categorization may also underestimate the potential influence that organizations can have in decision processes. A responsive institution with a variety of expertise and a deep understanding of decision making can choose tactics strategically, based on the context. Thus, their flexibility to work outside of strict dichotomous categories is a great strength for eNGOs.

ENGOs are unusual among stakeholders and governance institutions because of their unique qualities. They are variously perceived as advocacy institutions, research groups, neutral mediators, or allies, depending on the perspective of the observer. They provide services to government offices, to stakeholders, to local communities, and to the environment. The relationships and reputation that eNGOs build out of their activities put them in the position of being increasingly depended upon by other organizations.

In so far as eNGOs play a supporting or capacity-building role for other institutions, their actions can be classified as boundary and bridging work. Boundary organizations sit on the boundary between science and policy and mediate between the two sides. These organizations can translate and transfer information between communities because they are fluent in multiple languages and cultures, and can help to foster relationships as a result. The eNGOs create space – both physically and politically – for communities to come together and participate in the co-production of knowledge. Bridging organizations operate in a more complex system with multiple actors and diverse knowledge systems. Bridging organizations can facilitate communication and management decisions among peers in a community, or they can create opportunities for knowledge sharing and relationship-building between managers and communities.

The majority of eNGO actions happened inside the political decision-making process, out of public view. The internal negotiation, relationship building and information provision allowed them to build trust and a good reputation with stakeholders and decision-makers, which helped the eNGOs to pursue their agendas. In pursuing a larger or more difficult political agenda, the eNGOs could also exercise the public support and political will of Canadian citizens to pressure decision-makers to make changes. Thus when needed, the eNGOs could call on their supporters to participate in public campaigns that would hold government’s “feet to the fire” to make an environmental decision.

It is this ability to move flexibly between private and public politics, while spanning boundaries between the many actors that makes an eNGO a unique player in the MPA process. Neither government nor other stakeholders are capable of playing these roles, and yet the actions are integral to an evidence-based and inclusive process. ENGOs are able to fill this gap existing in the current structure of governance, and in so doing increase the credibility, legitimacy, and relevance of information related to marine conservation. ENGOs are, therefore, playing an extremely important role in facilitating the translation and uptake of scientific and social information into the decision-making process.


Because of the magnitude of its current mandate, the government has invited eNGOs deeper inside the decision-making process to provide added capacity and support. While eNGOs have always, to some extent, played these various roles, they are currently more entrenched, and have more power to influence the outcome than at any time in recent institutional memory. Government departments, however, are maintaining the temporality of this relationship by keeping it relatively informal. They maintain control over the lines of communication, and all meetings are either informal one-on-one sessions, or are through their invitation.

ENGOs have evolved to face the current challenge, and they should maintain their new position within the process by advocating for their internal roles to be formalized wherever possible, through regularly scheduled informational meetings and development of stakeholder advisory groups. If it is not possible for these relationships to be formalized, eNGOs should consider formalizing their own alliances and partnerships, both with other eNGOs and with other stakeholders. Developing more formalized arrangements, both within and outside of the decision-making process, will help to maintain the influence and capacity that eNGOs have developed, and keep spaces for more informal relationships and conversations to continue.

The analysis of the data clearly revealed the importance of flexibility for these eNGOs. Their agility gave them the ability to influence the decision process. They could fill in gaps and provide the capacity where government would not have been able to operate without their support. The eNGOs were continually able to bridge the boundaries between different organizations, institutions, or communities that otherwise would have struggled to communicate effectively. They could do this work because they were trusted by the different groups. Because of their abilities as boundary spanners, eNGOs can support and influence the decision-making process, not only to advance their own objectives, but potentially to ensure that otherwise marginalized voices are included and understood. This outcome is the greatest service that they can provide to government and to the Canadian public. ENGOs should continue to engage in those activities that government is unable to do without support.

The case study also shows that collaboration between eNGOs was very important because it allowed them to share information among themselves, to learn best practices from each other, and to demonstrate a united position on certain issues within the decision process. The study uncovered some key enablers and barriers of successful collaborative endeavours. One particularly important factor that influenced the ability of these groups to work collaboratively was the presence of competition. Collaboration was often impaired by a need to claim public victories over the process, when organizations were unwilling to share credit for achieving an objective. To help minimize competition, eNGOs should develop a strong understanding of their own unique expertise, and openly communicate their niche to the broader group. That way, a collaborative group of eNGOs can allow an organization to lead on issues where it specializes, and support each other when they do not.

Hopefully, conservation can protect both our societies and natural resources long into the future. We know that conservation of any natural resource requires a large volume of accurate and timely data to create the best possible design and regulations for an area. It is also true that conservation requires a transparent and iterative decision process in which stakeholders feel that their concerns have been addressed to ensure compliance and encourage active participation in conservation. The fact that eNGOs are designed with the capacity to pursue many kinds of activities gives them a unique opportunity in this science-policy interface work. As boundary spanning organizations, they can explicitly recognize the gaps in the decision-making process, and work to fill those gaps in order to improve the design and designation process. Their continued active participation will serve to enhance Canadian conservation work and create a better decision process for all Canadians. They may be able to keep governments focused on conservation agendas, i.e., help to hold governments’ “feet to the fire.”



Betsill, M. M. (2006). Cities and the multilevel governance of global climate change. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 12(2), 141-159.

Biermann, F., & Pattberg, P. H. (Eds.). (2012). Global environmental governance reconsidered. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Blasiak, R., Durussel, C., Pittman, J., Senit, C., Petersson, M., & Yagi, N. (2017). The role of NGOs in negotiating the use of biodiversity in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. Marine Policy, 8, 1-8.

Fyall, R., & McGuire, M. (2014). Advocating for policy change in nonprofit coalitions. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 44(6), 1274-1291. doi: 10.1177/0899764014558931

Prentice C. R. & Brudney, J. L. (2017). Nonprofit lobbying strategy: Challenging or championing the conventional wisdom? Voluntas, 28(3), 935-957.

Soomai, S. S. (2017). Understanding the science-policy interface: Case studies on the role of information in fisheries management. Environmental Science & Policy, 72, 65–75.


Author: Rachael Cadman


Acknowledgements: The assistance of the two eNGOs – WWF-Canada and the Ecology Action Centre – and many individuals who contributed to this study are acknowledged and appreciated.


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