When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.


  1. Bob Fleshner says


    You’ve hit the nail on the head with this story! Healthy skepticism is warranted with respect to all sectors. Well done.

  2. Ed Reid says


    As I believe you implied, there is a big difference between promoting interest in non-GMO foods by using labels such as “GMO-free” and attempting to discourage interest in GMO foods and punish their producers by demanding labeling such as “Contains GMOs”

    It appears to be more difficult than ever to move beyond “bumper sticker” discussion.

  3. Douglas Curran says

    Your comments remind me of a period spent in Mozambique with my (then new) wife, who was developing and monitoring AIDS programs.
    After being around the NGO community for a year and watching the inefficiencies and well-paid foreign administrative staff – all on tax-free incomes and equipped with new driver-equipped 4X4s, I commented to her that after being around the NGO industry for a year i was starting to feel righteous in working in the commercial film industry. As I pointed out to her, at least in the film industry we called the game for what it was.

    Follow the money, all become corrupted by it. None are immune.
    Cheers, Doug

  4. Milissa says

    Europe does not seem to have a problem with this issue. They just label the food. It is not so much that I do not trust GMO’s it is that the companies that make them seem shady for not wanting to label them. I should have the right to know what is in my food. The non-labeling of GMOs have caused my family to buy mostly organic food.

  5. says

    Thank you for your courage, excellent scholarship and reporting. You’ve shined much-needed light on not only the GMO controversy but on the overall damage being done to the public interest by businesses and NGOs that twist science to support non-scientific activist and business agendas.

    You’ve done an important service raising public awareness of these damaging behaviors. My hope is that you’ve also raised some modicum of self-awareness and even shame among those inclined to play fast and loose with scientific data. Well done!

  6. Dylan says

    Marc you said Greenpeace does great work but does it outweigh the pseudoscience they perpetuate. Their work against golden rice alone makes me think given money them is morally questionable. Sierra Club seems a lot better though.

  7. says

    Marc, Thanks for another great piece with many really important points. As a society, we need to find our way back to placing greater value on respecting the facts as the foundation for debate. We’ve become way too good at marketing and branded our organizational identities which often results in organizational entrenchment and digging into even as more information becomes available that should result in the evolution of more complex and nuanced positions.

  8. Sibley says

    As noted above by others, you’ve made some fantastic points that I hope keep getting more recognition. I do think, though, you’ve glossed over an important point about incentives when you broaden to general statements.

    While NGOs do have incentives that can pull them in particular directions beyond what is rational or evidence-based, the fact is that most talented people in NGOs could typically have a much higher income and/or more lifestyle perks if they worked in private enterprise. What balances that for them is their desire to do something they see as more positively impactful on society. That incentive, held more often and to a higher degree than in private enterprise, IS worth something and justifies at least some of the credibility gap held by people about the broad sectors in general.

    The spectrum of behavior on an ethical scale is just as wide in every sector, but I think you’d agree that there is a difference in degree of misbehavior, on average and especially in leadership, between the sectors. I therefore cringe a bit at some of the broad statements of equality you are drawing across the sectors.

    Thanks for your work.

  9. says

    I hesitate to question the motivations of most NGOs because as it has been pointed out by others, those who work for these organizations sincerely believe in what they are doing and have given up much to do it. That being said, always question information you receive whether it be from media, an NGO or the government. People are often either too busy or too lazy to do so but I always recommend playing the devils advocate just to see if the argument holds. And by all means follow the money. It is certainly an education to see who is funding climate change denial.

    Funding will always be used as a way to attack NGOs and the bigger they are, the more vulnerable they can be to these attacks. As long as they are transparent and upfront this will at least give them a modicum of protection from these attacks but at the end of the day it’s the membership who can instigate change. Get active in your favourite NGO. Don’t just send a cheque. And never be afraid to stand up and question them. They are an important part of the democratic debate. Keep them on their toes and they will (if grudgingly) thank you for it.

  10. Marla Schaefer says

    Marc, Did you delete my comments? I am working on a story about NGO and GMOs and you told me that, counter to what Dr Hansen said, you can get seed from Monsanto et al and publish results, even if negative. Can you send me your proof that this is false? Thanks Send to eatwell327@yahoo.com

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