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Looking to the future of civil society and conservation


Monday, 28th October 2019 at 8:32 am
Maggie Coggan
Climate change, mass extinction of species, and the destruction of natural environments are some of the most pressing issues at hand. As the CEO of WWF Australia, Dermot O’Gorman is at the forefront of finding solutions. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 


Monday, 28th October 2019
at 8:32 am
Maggie Coggan


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Looking to the future of civil society and conservation
Monday, 28th October 2019 at 8:32 am

Climate change, mass extinction of species, and the destruction of natural environments are some of the most pressing issues at hand. As the CEO of WWF Australia, Dermot O’Gorman is at the forefront of finding solutions. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Growing up on the south coast of New South Wales, O’Gorman’s interest and passion for nature and conservation started at an early age. 

Throughout his 30-year conservation career, he’s learned that positive environmental change comes by looking at the wider social and economic factors driving biodiversity loss. 

Working across five WWF branches globally, he has partnered with a range of stakeholders to look at the big picture of conservation and the solutions to protect the natural world for future generations to come. 

As a passionate advocate for the work civil society organisations do across the world, he is also intent on developing a sector that thrives and survives well into the future to deal with many of the pressing issues society is facing. 

In this week’s Changemaker, O’Gorman talks about what has shaped him as a leader, why he’s hopeful for the future and keeping up with a fast-changing world. 

What drew you to working in the conservation space?

It was really my love of nature and science as a child. My parents and their values around the importance of nature was also a massive influence. This was back in the 70s when the environmental movement was very new, but they definitely passed it onto me.

You have worked in many of the WWF branches around the world. How has that helped to inform your leadership of WWF Australia?

Firstly, I have been very fortunate to work in five countries with WWF and lead three of those offices in the Pacific, China, and Australia. I’m struck by how similar the issues are on conservation no matter where you are in the world. The fundamentals are all the same. Obviously, the context is different depending on the country, but people are people and science is science. So the types of solutions that need to be put in place are very similar but clearly it needs to be adapted to the local circumstances. 

The other piece was obviously that managing diverse teams in different countries really gave me some great management experience of managing in different circumstances, in different cultures and managing across borders, which is also more difficult. That type of exposure has shaped both my management style and how I think we need to deliver conservation.

The charity sector is facing a lot of challenges right now, how are you managing that as a sector leader?

I’m very passionate about the role that civil society plays in not only delivering environmental and social outcomes but also ensuring that civil society helps improve society and democracy if it is applicable. That said, in my work that I’ve done internationally and here in Australia, I really see the role of civil society organisations being hugely disrupted, similarly to the private sector. 

One of the major disruptions for the NFP sector is the blurring of lines between profit and not for profit. I am very positive about the impact that things like social ventures and social entities will have to deliver social and environmental outcomes. It’s a positive trend but it does disrupt the status quo of how not-for-profit and profit entities will operate, and so we need to, as engineers, work out how we can play in that space.

What does your day look like?

It’s very varied. One day I could be working on sustainable agriculture, the next day I’m working on the transition of the economy as renewable energy becomes a dominant economic provider of energy, community development in Pacific Island countries, and wallaby conservation in Australia. 

It’s the breadth of things on a daily basis which keeps the job interesting. My role is also really very outward-looking in terms of engaging with government and corporates around sustainable development issues and managing those relationships.

I’m also very focused on the future of WWF as an organisation. I am a big fan of talking to experts and leaders in their fields to understand where their business is going to help triangulate ideas about where WWF needs to go in the future. That’s been an important part of the innovation process that I’ve been leading in the organisation for the last few years.

Are you hopeful about the future?

I am hopeful about conservation, sustainable development, and broader ethical issues in terms of where society’s going. Particularly in the last three to five years, Australians’ consciousness around the importance of conservation, the environment, the importance of ethical choices in the way that they buy things and their understanding of climate change, has been on the increase. 

I see young people really playing a leading role in this. But I’m also struck actually by our elders in Australia who are really stepping out because they are concerned about the future of their children and grandchildren. In this last month, you had Greta Thunberg come out and really do an amazing job of driving that climate change narrative, at the same time you have David Attenborough coming out and being much more of a campaigner. So when you’ve got young people and elders agitating and campaigning for change, that’s something on the move.

I am worried however that we’re not changing fast enough. This goes for the social sector too. For WWF and all NGOs, the days of thinking that our organisations will be fine the way they are [are over]. We’re living in a very disruptive time and unless NGOs and businesses more generally really think through where they are going, they will be left behind and replaced as new ideas and new organisations are created.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the opportunity to work with passionate people, from supporters to the staff to our partners that we work with. To help them realise that they can be agents of positive change and be able to give agency to those people and for them to make a difference in the world, which I think is one of the things that I get a lot of satisfaction out of because that’s what really drives drive change. 

Being part of the international network, being able to work with colleagues around the world on really big complex issues, like how you feed seven-and-a-half billion people in a sustainable way, is exciting. And those problems are only going to be tackled at scale. But equally, you have to break that down and work on that issue at a global level, at a national level, and local level. 

What do you like to do in your downtime?

Other than spending time with family, I try and do as much ocean swimming as I can. It’s great to get in the ocean, do some exercise and forget about things and relax.


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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One Comment

  • Avatar Donalea Patman OAM says:

    “I am a big fan of talking to experts and leaders in their fields to understand where their business is going to help triangulate ideas about where WWF needs to go in the future.”
    So why isn’t the idea of “sustainable utilisation” been challenged given the ever increasing impact legal trade has on wildlife? Understanding where business is going and how trade impacts the current extinction crisis, an organisation as large as WWF must ask these questions and demand evidence that this is working. More than US$200 million has been invested in “sustainable utilisation” and yet the mechanism to monitor and facilitate trade is still paper-based and hasn’t been updated since the 70’s. Trade works on a quarter by quarter basis, and yet conservation gets together once every 3 years to address the US$320 billion in wildlife. Whilst there’s an enormous focus on illegal trade, that can’t be addressed until the existing trade system is modernised. WWF…why aren’t you asking CITES, IUCN, etc to demonstrate that the current model is working? Until large NGOs like WWF do, we continue to trade wildlife into extinction.

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