10 Apr 2022


By Dermot O’Gorman, WWF-Australia CEO

The very concept of a not-for-profit or NGO is being rapidly redefined. The line between NGOs and business is blurring; the way social enterprises do fundraising is fast evolving; and technology advancements are creating opportunities for system-scale impact across all Sustainable Development Goals.

The future of NGOs is ours to redefine! Like everyone else, we need to innovate, or risk being left behind.

In 2016, when the WWF-Australia team and I set out to be an innovation organisation, things looked very different. Over the past five years, we’ve seen enormous disruption. Our goal was to harness the power of innovation and cross-sector collaboration to meet the challenges of a changing world.

During that time, we’ve been able to envision, test, and validate what the NGO of the future could look like. We’ve brought together human development, environmentalism, social justice, philanthropy, private equity, and technology to make an impact at scale. We’ve done this with the ultimate goal to Regenerate Australia and our planet. We’ve made progress, but we also realise the enormity of the opportunity before us. To seize this opportunity, we must continue to innovate and evolve.

In 2020, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to reimagine the future of NGOs at Stanford University. Two years later, I’m excited to be spending the next three months working as a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab.

During my stay in Palo Alto, I’ll be working with American NGOs, academics, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and foundations to explore the intersection of digital technology, civil society, and big philanthropy; how it’s fundamentally changing the non-profit sector; and how people, governments, and NGOs can collaborate on new ways to achieve a sustainable future.

Silicon Valley is all about innovation, and the insights I will gain on where different industries are going will help shape my thinking about how these could impact the future of NGOs. I strongly believe that the future concept of NFP/ NGOs is for the sector to redefine — and we need to do this before it gets defined for us.

Leading the future of NGOs

At WWF, our Board and all the team see major changes as opportunities to reinvent ourselves, considering the possibility of scaling impact through emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things.

With 7,000 employees and millions of supporters around the world, we have a responsibility to the planet to make an even bigger impact.

The Fulbright Scholarship will allow me to do something that is rare in front line leadership roles — take time to step back from 20 years in a CEO role and dive deep into thinking about the future.

How do we prepare WWF for the world in 2030 and beyond? At WWF, we’ve already taken a proactive approach to building the innovation and digital skill sets of our staff to ensure they’re prepared for how NGOs will operate in the future. For example, our Global A-Team for innovation capabilities, WWF’s Panda Labs, and our innovative global practices enable all staff to build the skills they’ll need for the future.

Working alongside the brightest minds at Stanford, I’ll be able to gain a richer understanding of where different industries are going over the next three to five years, and what the world might look like by then. It is a very uncertain world, and we need a positive vision for our planet. If we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I have proposed that it needs to be the First Regenerative Revolution.

I hope these insights will allow me to not only contribute to WWF’s global strategic direction, but also those of other traditional NGOs and the many new purpose entities that have evolved in recent years.

Building relationships for cross-sector collaboration

As I set off to Stanford this month, the other question I want to find out more about in the US is how to strengthen cross-sector collaboration between civil society, governments, businesses, social enterprises, academics, capital markets, venture capitalists, and technology entrepreneurs.

All sectors are now seeing that they have a responsibility to address the global challenges we’re facing. More than 30 years of protecting wildlife, working with communities, and reducing humanity’s impact on the environment has taught me that no organisation or sector can do this alone. It's only through collaboration that we can find ways to accelerate our journey to a sustainable future.

I’m truly thankful for this opportunity provided by the WWF Board, the Fulbright Program, and Stanford University — and I look forward to sharing my learnings with you regularly on social media during my stay.

To our more than 2 million supporters of WWF-Australia, I’ll be back home to Gadigal Country in July, and I look forward to working with you — together with the innovative WWF-Australia Panda team — to put new ideas into action.