Big Questions about Change and Power For the National Wildlife Federation (and Their Supporters)

Are You Using Your Power Wisely?

[Guest post by Stacey Cornelius]

There’s an old saying in marketing circles: you can’t control your message.

And there’s a new reality: in the world of social media, stories appear, go viral, and disappear in a matter of days.

That’s good news if your message ignited a firestorm and you ended up with a large dent in your reputation. It’s also good if you were trying to divert attention away from some less-than-ethical business dealings.

It’s not so great for the people trying to create real and lasting change.

With controversy comes opportunity
The smoke from the short-lived partnership between the National Wildlife Federation and Scotts Miracle-Gro Company is already beginning to clear.

The irony is the quick end to the controversy over the “Be Out There” sponsorship is also a lost opportunity.

Both the NWF and its membership have the rare chance to ask some critical questions. About priorities, about the future, and who will shape it:

  • What does real leadership look like?
  • What would you do if you were offered the chance to influence the future of a company with 50 million customers?
  • What offer could you not refuse? Where do you draw the line? How do you change the line?
  • What happens when a group of like-minded people gathers, expresses outrage, then disperses?
  • What does it mean to be part of a community in times of conflict?
  • How do members really see organizations like the NWF?
  • What responsibilities does it have to its membership?
  • What responsibilities does the membership have? Is it a two-way street?
  • What happens to the status quo when the quality of engagement is measured in seconds?
  • Where does legacy fit into that picture?

Social media gives individuals the ability to draw international attention to an issue in a matter of hours. Gather enough voices, you also have the power to influence communities, businesses, and even government policy at a national level.

One question remains: what will you do with that power?

[Stacey Cornelius is an avid gardener who lives near the woods in Nova Scotia, Canada. When she’s not digging in the dirt, she writes about marketing for creative humans.]

© 2012, Guest Author. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    You know, I just wasn’t that appalled by the sponsorship. I’m an organic gardener – I use my fingers, compost, and rabbit manure. Good to go. I’m not a fan of chemical products or anything that can cause run off or environmental degradation. However, I’ve always thought it was easier to make changes from within then from without. I’m not really sure how to phrase what I’m saying except this – I think sometimes people on both sides are just big bullies.
    Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) recently posted..Part II: 15 things I’m Doing This Next Season in My Raised Bed

    • says

      Jen, my experience tells me that in order to effect substantial change force needs to be applied in two places: from within and from without. Neither, alone, is sufficient.

      In the case of Scotts Miracle-Gro, it sounds as if both forces are already at work but the NWF partnership presented two problems.

      One is that the NWF leadership severely overestimated and/or over claimed how much force they could apply within Scotts. I think the ego of the CEO got the best of him, while others rightfully claimed “BS”.

      The second problem is that the NWF was NOT the right party to be partnering with Scotts. People trust (rightly or wrongly) the NWF to provided unbiased information about protecting wildlife. It is REALLY hard to do that when the company which is most aligned AGAINST protecting wildlife just handed you a check for a quarter of a million dollars. If Scotts wants expertise in cleaning up its product line, they could partner with the Rodale Institute or any number of firms with genuine expertise in sustainable lawn & garden care.

      The Scotts/NWF deal was a bad idea and (with a few exceptions on Facebook) I think the NWF wasn’t so much bullied as educated about the nature of its constituency and about the dangers of walking into a relationship blindly.

      I agree with Stacey, this should be a valuable opportunity for folks on all sides of this debacle to learn important lessons : including writers for and readers of this site. The NWF CEO was right in at least one of his arguments, which is that we are going to have to find ways to make the world better that do NOT depend entirely on governmental action.
      Vincent Vizachero recently posted..NWF and Scotts: We’ve seen this story before

  2. says

    This is a very inciteful article about the firestorm that took place this week about NWF.

    I was one of the frequent posters that was outraged. The betrayal that was so evident in this “partnership” was obvious to many members and became a rallying cry to those who are alarmed about the power of Monsanto, GMO crops, Scott’s and other chemical purveyors and the horrendous impact on the natural world and the human world.

    A message to commenter “Jen” above would be, while it is tempting to just keep puttering away in your garden and dismiss this as a fight between bullies is naive at best. To think you aren’t affected is also naive. You just label us all “bullies”. Very naive! We are all impacted. And the actions of an organization that purports to care about wildlife, while making bargains with the meg-huge corporations who sell poisons does have an impact on all of us. To understand the magnitude of the NWF betrayal, consider the millions of people who believed in it enough to send $15 in the understanding they cared for backyard habitat. And then consider the incredible $4.5 Million GUILTY PLEA for selling 73 MILLION UNITS of tainted bird seed and the twisted outcome. The NWF deal was a horrendous devil’s bargain.

    This National Wildlife Deal was a PR disaster and they came to see it. But now they’ve decided the best way to get over this, is to pull back from the partnership word without actually changing anything. And the members are going back to business as usual, with cute critter pix and Thank Yous to NWF. People have a short memory and need to move on. But many of us will not forget the betrayal, ever.
    Janet Way recently posted..Citizen Action Works! NWF Caves!!

    • says

      I’d guess that it is precisely the kind of name calling that Janet employed (dismissing Jen as “naive” and “puttering”) that I’d guess Jen finds unflattering. I sure do, and find it counterproductive besides.

      The real enemy is not the NWF or even Scotts Miracle-Gro, and it certainly isn’t people like Jen. The enemy, so to speak, is the unchallenged notion that we need to dominate our landscapes so thoroughly that there is no longer any room for wildlife.

      We should be fighting the idea that lawns must cover acres on end, and they they should consist of monocultured turf grass devoid of clover and dandelions. If we conquer that idea, any problems we have with the NWF and Scotts will – by and large – resolve themselves.

      • says

        Excuse me Vince. Name calling? The enemy is not Scotts’???? Please, neither am I. I’m not your enemy either. I’m not a bullie, I’m just not going to fall for the crap being put out by NWF. I liked your first comment a lot. And I agree with your second paragraph.

        But, the enormity of the problem and the enormity of Monsanto/Scott’s lawn care and GMO monstrosity needs more than tinkering. It needs a frontal attack such as the brave farmers going to court today. Like the courageous groups in Ohio that got Scott’s to plead guilty.

        IMHO we must band together. Those who blew the whistle on NWF and are still seeing through their “weasely” retraction (that wasn’t really a retraction – see Sue Sweeney’s comment above), need to keep up the pressure. More light needs to be shed on this before it’s too late and we are all owned, “lock, stock and barrel” by Monsanto.

        Please. I’ve just seen too many well meaning efforts get squashed by the corporate monoliths. Don’t attack me, attack Monsanto and their apologists. We can do more than just putter.
        Janet Way recently posted..Stormwater Visionary Tom Holz Has an Opinion on Proposed Regulations

        • says

          Janet, we all understand your passion around this subject and we support that. There are so many people entering this conversation who are new to the whole topic, and we need to support them in their efforts to learn more. Whether Jen “putters” or “tinkers” or whatever she does isn’t really relevant to the larger discussion and I hope that we can welcome these people who are exploring this conversation and help them to learn more.

          My real concerns are:
          How do we move on from here?
          How can we make Scotts be accountable for their products?
          How can we stop the sale of toxic chemicals that pollute our environment and kill wildlife?
          How do we continue to work with NWF to find a better way to live up to their own mission statement?
          What can each of us do in our own communities that will make a real difference for wildlife right now?

          My sincere hope is that we can set aside personal attacks and work to make the world a better place for us and for the wildlife we all love.
          Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Creating Change to Make the World a Better Place: NWF Backs Down

    • says

      I thought the idea of making people aware was to see if NWF could or would change their minds. Well, they did. They did exactly what everyone was hoping for. Time to move on to a different topic. Why fight so hard for a reversal if you aren’t going to forgive and forget when they see your side? It is just beating a dead horse, plain and simple. My power? I do outreach to educate others on the value of native plants. I volunteer when schools start up gardens by bringing a shovel, garden gloves and some muscle.

      As far as questioning the workings of an organization? If you don’t like how they are run, either don’t donate to them, or find out how to get on their board so you can influence changes.

      This subject has run it’s course and is becoming rather tiresome.
      Loret T. Setters recently posted..Wildlife Charity Contributions -–Act Local

    • says

      Hi Janet!

      I didn’t say all people on both sides are big bullies – I said SOME people on both sides are big bullies. I think it is interesting that you chose to believe I was calling you a bully – particularly when your first defense was to begin name-calling.

      I am glad that NWF is not partnering with Scott’s. I did not say that I supported the sponsorship. However, I don’t believe in getting outrageously emotional to the point that I saw. I don’t believe that some of the things people were writing, thinking, and posting was at all helpful to the cause.

      I don’t just putter or tinker, by the way. I am incredibly active in my community as an organic gardener and have a large impact on what people do around here. I don’t believe in sensationalist or overly-emotional bombardments, however. I believe in talking with conviction with research to back me up. I believe in being honest, caring, and supportive with the people with whom I speak.

      It’s probably why I’m so successful.
      Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) recently posted..What lies at the center of a great chef?

        • says

          You know, I was wrong. I re-read what I wrote. I said sometimes people are just big bullies. I meant sometimes _some_ people, not sometimes _all_ people. I can understand why you’d be offended.

          I’m still going to respond to the question, though, that Stacey asked about do you do with all that power. My answer is to be reasonable, kind, caring, honest, to have integrity, and stand by your convictions. Standing by your convictions, though, does not mean attacking people and it does not mean becoming so emotional that the message becomes lost in the dross. It’s the biggest way to turn people off from supporting the message.

          That was what my original answer was replying to and I probably should have taken the time to spell it out instead of trotting off something trite.

          I work with people who have different beliefs from me and I work with people who have the same beliefs as me. I don’t shun those who are different, because I believe that by working with them, I can affect change. On a corporate level it’s entirely different, but again, some of the intense hatred and spewing that I saw on this issue was a complete turn-off. I don’t give my money to many companies who don’t support my beliefs, but I similarly don’t believe in flying off the handle.
          Jen Rothmeyer (EmSun) recently posted..Comment on My heart was sad because his was devastated. by Jean

  3. Mike Korner says

    Stacey: Nice job on this. Your questions are thought provoking for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), its supporters, and all of us inhabitants of planet Earth. They are also vital questions for all companies doing business in today’s world.

    A few random thoughts:

    – I think the NWF was naïve. Hopefully the NWF will use the experience to revisit its mission. What does it really stand for in 2012? Has its mission changed?

    – Hopefully all organizations will stop and look at this experience and examine their beliefs and approaches.

    – The days of ignorance, corruption, and incompetence going unnoticed are rapidly dwindling. Organizations that state one mission then do something else won’t survive for long.

    – Organizations that take our money have the responsibility to do what they promised. If they don’t, we have the responsibility to stand and be heard.

    – In any conflict, “be polite” is the best place to start. If that doesn’t work, hard choices need to be made. I think the big issue is that oftentimes things seem to start out ugly for no apparent reason. We have to be able to agree without slapping each other around. We also have to be able to state our minds, candidly yet cordially, without feelings getting hurt.

    – I think one other question for people is what they expect a company like Scotts to do. They aren’t going to shut down tomorrow — the demand is too high. Is there anything a company like Scotts can do to make real progress in the eyes of the stewards of earth?

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Well said Mike. Your question: Is there anything a company like Scotts can do to make real progress in the eyes of the stewards of earth? In my view, Scotts could file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy (total shutdown and liquidation).

      • Mike Korner says

        Thanks Sue.

        As for Chapter 7, does it have to be all or nothing? I’m an optimistic-realist. Optimist-me would love to see your scenario unfold but realist-me knows it isn’t going to happen. Optimist-me still wants to see meaningful progress. What do you think?

    • says

      In reference to your last question about Scotts; I think that Vincent answered it in part in his comment, above: “The real enemy is not the NWF or even Scotts Miracle-Gro. . . The enemy, so to speak, is the unchallenged notion that we need to dominate our landscapes so thoroughly that there is no longer any room for wildlife.”
      What we need to do is just what we have been doing all along: educate people about the importance of wildlife, of healthy gardens and of the problems with pesticides, unnecessarily large lawns, non-native plants, etc.
      Scotts wouldn’t be able to sell its pesticides and lawn equipment if people were not interested in buying them.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Pine Barrens, plants and their pollinators

      • Mike Korner says

        Beatriz, I agree with you (and Vincent) but I’m afraid that waiting for people to have an epiphany is going to take too long.

        All of the environmental groups need to somehow pool resources and buy a super bowl ad or a blimp to get and keep people’s attention.

        Or maybe someone has a rich uncle who will take on the big chemical companies the way people have taken on McDonald’s about food quality.

        Or maybe the groups could combine and leverage social media. There are lots of people on Facebook, and I know that some of them aren’t just playing Farmville or that fish game.

        I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do know that failure is not an option — or we will all have 3 heads, 13 fingers, and glow in the dark.

        And the one thing I do know is that after humans become extinct from ingesting chemicals, the earth will be covered with dandelions :)

    • says

      Thank you, Mike.

      It’s easy to let emotion carry the day, but in the end how we do things is about who we are and what we believe in. A company would call that a brand. It’s easier to remember when you have marketing advisors to manage things, much harder when you already have a full plate.

  4. Sue Sweeney says

    Getting back on track: Many of us rose up together for a few days and made a difference. Remember as free people, it’s a free choice to stand up or not. Everyone has a life and many, many things going on in their lives. Some are comfortable with one kind of action or speaking; some are not; some prefer a different way of being. Everyone has different priorities. However, it does in fact IMHO take all kinds (except Scotts, Monsanto, and the invasives-are-good guy, of course!).

    Further, before anyone gets too cocky, all we did was stop something and it is always far easier to stop something than to create something. Further, in the larger scope of things, all we did was beat up on a little guy – the NWF isn’t exactly the size of Monsanto or the IMF- and it was a little guy who actually cares what we think. Anybody even get a postcard from Scotts?

    And yeah, there is always plenty of blame to go around when the action is to stop something, but engaging in that conversation won’t move forward the things that we care about – it just makes people waste good energy on being defensive.

    The question, I think, is what new positive steps are we taking together or individually? Want to work with the NWF or other organizations to strengthen their mission statements and policies so we can protect our environmental advocates and watchdogs against potential corruption? Give more support to groups that seem to more closer reflect our individual beliefs? Or go out there on your own and Occupy some ground where you can make a difference to a turtle or a bird?

    I am interested: is everyone going back to what they were doing (which was generally pretty good) or is anyone making changes in their own lives or their working groups based on this experience?

    If this experience has given you a new positive slant on things, I’d like to hear about it so it can inspire me.

    PS I certainly met some awesome people with whom I intent to stay in touch and that continuing conversation alone is enriching.

  5. says

    It is useful after a heated discussion that has led to an outcome to try to assess what has happened and see what more needs to be done. I am sure NWF is thinking about the consequences of its actions whether you agreed or not…how can they do business better, smarter and more in line with their mission are a few I hope they are asking…but we all need to focus our energies in civil conversations to see what our next steps will be as individuals. Everyone will act as their principles will dictate and judging those actions does not help. Instead asking questions and proposing well thought out solutions will lead us to the next steps.

    Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. FDR
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..True Blue Loyal Blooms

  6. says

    Stacey, these are all very important questions, and thank you for sharing them. At this point I have almost despaired of seeing meaningful change come from the larger companies and organizations. For me right now I’m most interested in seeing each of us ask ourselves what significant changes each of us can make in our own gardens and homes, and our local communities.

    Vincent and Mike are correct in that the larger issue here is our fascination with vast spaces of dandelion and clover free lawns. If every one of us would reduce our lawn by just 10%, a huge shift would happen right there. Then if we reduced it another 10% every year after that and planted more native plants to attract and support wildlife, we would really be getting somewhere.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Reader Appreciation: Genevieve Schmidt

    • says

      Carole, when we moved to our current home in 2003, half the 1.5 acre lot around the house was cleared. It had been a rental property, and there was no garden. Not even a petunia in a pot.

      I arrived with 12 dozen plants. Most of what I dig into is backfill – very rocky, gravelly backfill. And I haven’t stopped planting. We’re moving toward permaculture. We added a pair of apple trees and pear trees last summer and expanded the vegetable garden.

      I also express my displeasure at various levels of government when they do something stupid (and try to educate them about what they could be doing instead), because my efforts are important, but only one part of a much bigger picture.

      Ursula, just make a seed cannon and aim it next door. ;-)
      Stacey Cornelius recently posted..Social media, in pictures – the explosion of Pinterest

  7. says

    Hi All,
    I think this has been a positive exchange in the long run. And actually tinkering and puttering are not such bad things, as long as you eventually get focussed on effective strategies. I think listening to Sally and Linda who’ve been following and supporting the Small Farmers, challenging Monsanto in court directly is very exciting. And the court case, we touted in Ohio was an incredible win.

    I’d say we should continue supporting wildlife (probably in other groups besides NWF) in what ever effective ways we can with positive gardening techniques as Carole does, AND support those who want to challenge Scott’s/Monsanto directly, with the help of some talented lawyers.

    In the Puget Sound Region, we witnessed a ten year battle against a gravel mining company, Glacier NW, that wanted to continue its trashing the Puget Sound Shoreline at Maury Island, a salmon habitat. But, through relentless elected officials and a very tenacious law firm, the protectors eventually won a huge victory.

    So to sum up, politics and elections DO matter and having some great attorneys and legal actions is very powerful.

    Sometimes in those venues, the rhetoric can get intense. It’s where I’ve learned to fight. Sorry if I get too intense sometimes, but as folks have recently said, “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!”

    Have a nice evening.
    Janet Way recently posted..Stormwater Visionary Tom Holz Has an Opinion on Proposed Regulations

  8. Larry says

    I would like to know how members can remove all Board members who had a hand in the Scott’s deal then get rid of the Exec. Dir.? There’s no excuse whatsoever for that action I trusted them to make choices on my behalf. My yard is certified thru them and one of the criteria is a chemical free yard. The last thing I would have ever thought was them to make a deal as such. All people associated with that deal need to go. We need new leadership who better reflect the NWF mission and the desires of its members.

  9. says

    Thank you Larry. Here is the contact page for NWF CEO and Board. I’d say pursuing your idea is a VERY good idea. They’ve not truly been held accountable as yet for this fiasco.

    I just hope that the remaining members of NWF will pursue this and not be cowed by the calls for business as usual from many on the Facebook page. I realize this was extremely painful for many, many people. But dropping this and letting things go their merry way seems like the wrong thing to do given the gravity of the situation.
    Janet Way recently posted..Stormwater Visionary Tom Holz Has an Opinion on Proposed Regulations

  10. says

    I used to hate herbicides. Desiring a meadow in my front yard, I literally scraped the sod away with a front end loader rather than use Glyphosate.

    Needless to say, it was an expensive proposition!

    When I started taking on big projects through my company Native Return –– doing twenty or thirty acres at a time, I realized there is no effective way to reinstate native habitat without using herbicides. No one would pay to remove them by hand or use other time and labor intensive methods.

    Plus invasives like Canada Thistle and mugwort cannot be controlled except by chemical means in large scale infestations. So I hate to say it, but I learned a new respect for the use of herbicides ‘used judiciously” to reinstate native habitat, whether it is a large lawn to meadow conversion or simply contolling invasive brush like multiflora rose, oriental bittersweet, or mile-a-minute vine over many acres.

    My conversions are full of wildlife, senstive amphibians included, so hopefully the danger the chemicals impart is overshadowed by the return of native flora, microorganisms, etc. After the initial sweep, we manage the properties in subsequent years through annual spot spraying, pinpointing the offenders.

    It is too bad our northeastern US is so overrun with invasives. It will only be getting worse with the fracking causing major habitat fragmentation. Realistically, I think the best we can do is convince people to reduce their lawns. I support Catherine Zimmerman’s Meadow Project – – and hope she reaches her goal to bring awareness to the public.

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