Greenpeace, Amnesty & Co.: Who actually monitors the good guys?

Civil society organizations (NGOs) have a significant influence on political decision-making processes. High time to talk about their governance structures.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, a Greenpeace expert criticized the German government for not “stuffing even more money down the throat of the arms industry. In view of the impending hunger crisis, it must increase the development budget, demanded “Bread for the World” a little later. A number of other NGOs have also spoken out in recent weeks with political appeals.

Their voices carry weight because they represent thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. But are they really behind the demands, at least the majority? That is completely unclear, because NGOs – unlike political parties – are not subject to strict rules on transparency and member participation.

As a result, there is a danger that the leadership will disconnect itself from the grassroots – and that CEOs will make demands on behalf of their members that are not even capable of gaining a majority internally.

Simrock and Tenhagen on the Greenpeace Supervisory Board

It would therefore be important to have competent and diverse supervisory bodies that closely monitor whether decoupling effects occur. Do executives swing themselves up to maximum positions? Are internal critics ignored or even silenced?

But NGO governance hardly seems to play a role in many places. On the Greenpeace website, for example, you have to search for a while to discover at least the names of the seven members of the supervisory board in a PDF document (their boss is a Mr. Stefan Simrock, and the most prominent member is probably the financial expert Hermann-Josef Tenhagen). Information on qualifications? Missing.

With other NGOs it looks similarly. Bread for the World, for example, also lists the 22 members of its supervisory board in a PDF document, at least with their professions. Amnesty International, where ex-telecom manager Christopher Schläffer sits on the International Board, caught our eye positively – at least in terms of transparency.

So that no misunderstandings arise: We think civil society voices are more important than ever in times like these. But the current structures pose risks to credibility. NGOs should take this seriously, especially in light of the growing criticism of Greenpeace and Amnesty International(an AI official had questioned Israel’s right to exist).

Governance reforms and strong boards are in their own interest – and in the interest of their important causes.