Headquarters of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Gland, near Geneva, Switzerland

By Ted Trzyna 
[April 2004, revised 2011]

Citation: Ted Trzyna. 2011. "About environmental organizations & programs." InterEnvironment Institute, Claremont, California.

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The best way of understanding the great variety of organizations and programs that work on environmental problems is to look at them from several perspectives.  These include legal form, geographic focus, function or subject, and era of founding.  These and other perspectives are outlined below.       



Almost all governments of the world's over 200 independent countries and dependent territories have ministries or departments charged with protecting the environment.  In many cases, there are two such departments: one dealing with the "environment," the other with "natural resources."  Division of responsibility between such departments varies by country.  Sometimes "environmental" departments have overarching responsibilities.  More often, they deal mainly with pollution control, while "natural resource" departments deal with such matters as managing forests, fisheries, wildlife, and protected areas.  Some countries have a more complex array of departments, agencies, autonomous commissions, and institutes involved with environmental protection.  To complicate matters further, in countries with federal systems of government such as Australia, Canada, and the United States -- and even the tiny Pacific island country of Palau -- the state or provincial authorities often have substantial responsibilities for environmental protection.       

Intergovernmental organizations

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) are international organizations whose members are governments of countries (and, for some purposes, governmental agencies).  IGOs include the United Nations and its various units, and a range of organizations outside the UN system. Some IGOs are focused entirely on environmental matters, for example, the United Nations Environment Programme. However, environmental functions often are embedded in IGOs with more general purposes, for example, the Office for Sustainable Development and Environment of the Organization of American States. IGOs often have overlapping jurisdictions without any clear division of labor among them.           
Hybrid organizations 

Hybrid organizations are organizations whose members include both governmental and nongovernmental entities. At the international level, the most prominent of these is IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the umbrella organization of the world conservation movement, whose members include state members (i.e., governments of countries), governmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. At the national level, hybrid organizations include so-called public-private partnerships, some of which include businesses as well as governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations. 

Nongovernmental organizations 

There are many kinds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  They include citizens' associations; professional societies; foundations; some universities and research centers; and networks of experts or institutions. 

Some NGOs are membership organizations whose boards are elected by their members; others are run by self-perpetuating boards.  Many respected NGOs are governed by self-perpetuating boards.  Some such NGOs, however, use the word "membership" in requesting donations; depending on how this is stated, it can be misleading, since such "membership" is  really a nonvoting sponsorship or subscription.  

NGOs exist at local, national, and international levels.  (We define international NGOs as NGOs having a substantial membership from more than one country or governed by an international board that does not have a majority of board members from any one country.)  International NGOs are sometimes federations of national organizations.  Examples are Friends of the Earth International and the International Federation of Environmental Health. 

Environmental NGOs range across a wide spectrum in terms of their politics and the extent to which they work to influence government.  Some groups lobby for legislation and work to elect public officials.  (In some countries, environmental NGOs are often affiliated with political parties.)  Other groups may specialize in such fields as research, training, public education, information dissemination, acquisition and management of protected areas, or convening of stakeholders in environmental conflicts. 

At one extreme of the political spectrum are a small number of underground groups that use violence to achieve their goals, a strategy that is strongly condemned by mainstream  environmental organizations of all political persuasions.  At the other extreme are groups that work against governmental intervention, often under the guise of promoting free-market "solutions."  Market-based tools have a legitimate role in environmental protection.  However, many such groups are driven by anti-government ideology or are simply apologists for special interests that would gain from removing government regulation.

Grant-making foundations have an increasingly important role in setting agendas as well as providing funds. Printed and online directories of foundations, some of them focused on environmental grant-making foundations, may be found through search engines.

In countries where political expression is limited, NGOs tend to concentrate on technical advisory roles to government.


Some organizations structured as businesses define their purpose as working in the public interest.  These include, for example, certain environmental publishers, filmmakers, consulting firms, wildlife reserves, and ecotourism companies.      


Important and sometimes very innovative work in this field is done by individuals working independently as researchers, consultants, or freelance writers, often in loose affiliation with NGOs or university institutes.  


The geographic focus of environmental organizations ranges from local to global. 

Only a few organizations are truly global in their reach, notably several units of the United Nations; IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and, in terms of studies and information, several research centers including the World Resources Institute. 

Most intergovernmental organizations outside the United Nations System focus on regions or types of countries.  The regions can be large (e.g., Asia and the Pacific) or small (e.g., Mexico and the United States, or the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).  Examples of IGOs that focus on types of countries rather than regions are the Alliance of Small Island States, whose members are scattered around the world; and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has governments of advanced industrialized countries as its members.   

In terms of international NGOs, only a few broad-gauged groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth International have branches or offices in dozens of countries in all major regions of the world.  Many international NGOs focus on one region, or they focus on a topic that naturally limits their geographic scope, for example, coral reefs.  However, some specialized international NGOs have branches or members in numerous countries throughout the world.  An example is Botanic Gardens Conservation International.    

A number of national NGOs have activities in or relating to many countries.  Examples are the Wildlife Conservation Society of the United States and Fauna and Flora International of the United Kingdom.

Some smaller NGOs in industrialized countries focus on issues in one or a few developing countries.  Examples are Ancient Forest International, based in California, USA, which works to protect forests in Chile and Ecuador, as well as California; and the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski Horse, based in the Netherlands, which is reintroducing this species into the wild in its native Mongolia.           


Some organizations have very broad interests in the environment. At the international level, these include several units of the United Nations System, a number of regional intergovernmental organizations, and several international NGOs. At the national level, they include many of the environment ministries, information clearinghouses, and larger NGOs.

Many environmental organizations and programs focus on particular types of natural environments, forms of life, natural resources, problems, strategies, tools, or related social or economic dimensions. 


There are three generations of environmental organizations.  They work alongside each other much as houses built in different eras stand next to one another on a city street. 

Conservation organizations were founded to protect wildlife and natural areas.  Many of them were started in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. 

The environmental movement that began around 1970 looked at the human environment as a system and saw a knot of interrelated problems.  It was realized that air pollution, for example, could not be addressed without looking at patterns of urban growth and energy and transportation alternatives.

The sustainability movement started around 1980.  It recognizes that environmental problems cannot be solved without addressing the interrelationships between the environment and development, population, and economics.  It revolves around the powerful idea of living within the limits of the earth's resources in "sustainability," that is, a state that can be maintained indefinitely.  Organizations that identify with the movement often describe their purposes and activities by using the term "sustainable development," defined as improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.  (For more about the concept, see Sustainability.)   

Not all conservation organizations have kept their traditional focus; some have become part of the broader environmental movement.  And an increasing number of organizations that started either as conservation or conventional environmental groups now define themselves as part of the new movement for sustainability.

In the 1990s, a fourth wave emerged that links sustainability to social justice and reforms in governance. "Governance" refers not only to government, but to the whole set of institutions that steer society. There is growing awareness that the ultimate barriers to making real progress on environmental problems, as well as related challenges of population growth and poverty, have to do with unresponsive political institutions. Sustainability will not be achieved without more respect for human rights, more representative governments, more equitable economic systems, more effective ways of implementing public policies.

This fourth wave has influenced existing groups more than it has led to creating new ones. For example, IUCN now states its goal as "A just world that values and conserves nature." The Sierra Club, one of North America's pioneering conservation organizations (it was founded in 1892) works closely with human rights organizations on international environmental issues.     

See also Landmark events in protecting the global environment, 1945-present.  


The environmental community has natural allies in organizations working on human rights, poverty, population, public health, consumption, corruption, energy efficiency, and preservation of cultural heritage. 


A very small number of NGOs purport to work for environmental protection, but are either money-making schemes or front organizations for special interests.  It is fairly easy to detect them. 


The internal politics of the NGO environmental community is a mix of competition and cooperation. There is competition within cooperation, and cooperation within competition, and it it is often difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. A lot depends on the egos of the people involved. Competition is mainly for funds and public and political attention. Cooperation tends not to be systematic, but forged around short- or medium-term issues or projects. 

Among the major international actors, however, cooperation is the rule, rather than the exception. Encouraged by donors and facilitated by convening organizations such as IUCN, cooperation has become more systematic. This is generally a good thing, but it has a downside: There is an increasing tendency for the major players to work with each other and exclude smaller, autonomous groups that represent local interests, have expertise on a particular subject or issue, or come from a somewhat unconventional point of view.    

At the national level, the degree to which NGOs cooperate varies greatly from country to country and depends to a large degree on political culture and individual leadership. 

Although there are many differences among environmental organizations over priorities and means of achieving goals, there is broad common ground. What differences arise often derive from generational gaps (see "Generations of environmental organizations," above), but such gaps are narrowing. 

The sharpest and most divisive ideological conflict within the international environmental movement is over hunting of wild animals.  In some parts of the world, the pros and cons of nuclear energy are still actively debated within the environmental movement, although by now most mainline NGOs have taken a firm position against nuclear power.      


A serious problem in the environmental community is lack of coordination, or even of awareness, let alone cooperation or collaboration, among organizations working on similar problems. At the national level, it is surprisingly common, even in smaller countries, for groups not to know of each other's existence. At the international level, a growing number of specialized organizations means that more and more energy needs to be invested in simply keeping abreast of who's doing what in the same field of activity. 

Often that investment is given low priority. And the lateral communication required to see environmental issues in context -- as part of an interconnected bundle of problems, social, cultural, economic, ecological -- is given even less attention.  See  Integrative thought and action  in InterEnvironment Institute's "Ideas That Guide Us" series.

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About environmental organizations