By Chris Lang
On 20 May 2022, WWF Germany announced that “Executive Director Eberhard Brandes will leave WWF Germany to pursure new fields of activity.”
Obviously, there is a back story to Brandes leaving WWF Germany. But you wouldn’t know anything about that from reading WWF Germany’s announcement.
Instead, Valentin von Massow, Chair of the Board of WWF Germany and current President of WWF International, tells us that:
“In the sixteen years under Eberhard Brandes’ leadership, WWF Germany has been able to significantly increase the impact and perception of its activities. This is also expressed in the enormous growth in donations and income. Eberhard Brandes has also personally pushed forward important milestones: These include major integrated nature conservation and development projects around the world, such as Unganisha in Kenya/Tanzania, the transformation of companies and society towards sustainability, e.g. in the long-standing cooperation with EDEKA, and, of course, the protection of biodiversity.”
WWF’s “Unganisha” project in Kenya and Tanzania covers a vast area: 134,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Austria and Switzerland together. It includes the land of the Maasai in Loliondo and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where tens of thousands of Indigenous Maasai have seen their livelihoods impacted, faced “>violence, evictions, human rights abuses, and are still threatened with eviction – in the name of conservation.
Kenyan carnivore ecologist and conservation writer Mordecai Ogada describes the areas of Tsavo, Amboseli, and Mkomazi as a “colony of the WWF ‘Unganisha’ programme”.
Ogada writes that,
[T]he biggest threat to the rights and sovereignty of African peoples in the 21st century is not military conflict, terrorism, disease, hunger, etc. It is conservation organizations and governments that seek to dominate us through conservation.
But Brandes’s exit from WWF Germany had nothing to do with conservation. Instead it sheds a light on Brandes’ management style at WWF Germany, and the way that WWF attempts to cover up any hint of scandal.
WWF Germany middle management: “We have lost confidence in our compliance process”
On 11 May 2022, Anne Fromm and Sebastian Erb, journalists at German newspaper the taz, reported that WWF staff members are “massively critical of the management of the organisation”.
In early May 2022, 26 department heads, almost the entire middle management, wrote to the Foundation Board, WWF Germany’s supervisory and control body. “We have lost confidence in our compliance process and our governing bodies,” they wrote.
The letter states that the executive board violated WWF’s compliance rules. The taz writes that Eberhart Brandes allegedly had an affair with WWF Germany’s Executive Director of Finance and Operations. Brandes and the Finance Director made budget decisions together. In March 2022, the Finance Director left WWF Germany, with a generous severance package, including an expensive training course, and a bonus.
WWF’s 2017 Code of Conduct states that WWF employees “should avoid any situations of conflict of interest.” It continues:
If we find ourselves in a potential or actual conflict of interest, we must immediately disclose it in writing to our Manager and Human Resources. The situation will be reviewed and actions taken to ensure the conflict cannot be, or perceived to be, abused.
That’s not what happened in this case.
It gets worse.
The taz reports that the Human Resources Manager at WWF Germany was informed that the executive director of WWF Germany, Eberhard Brandes, was having an affair with the organisation’s Finance Director.
In Autumn 2021, the HR manager reported the allegation to WWF via an internal whistleblowing platform. As the taz notes, WWF boasts about this service.
The HR Manager is still working at WWF Germany, but is unhappy at the way WWF has handled this case. She has started legal proceedings in the Berlin Labour Court against WWF Germany.
A hearing took place on 10 May 2022. A couple of chairs were put out for spectators, but the taz notes that,
They are not nearly enough. About 20 people, mostly women, have come to watch the trial. They crowd into the room, lean against the wall, sit on the floor. The judge says he doesn’t understand what is so interesting about this trial.
In court, the HR Manager’s lawyer comments on the whistleblowing platform that WWF uses. “The way this system is handled,” he says, “one can only recommend not to use it.”
The taz reports the lawyer as saying that Valentin von Massow, Chair of the Board of WWF Germany, threatened the HR Manager with dismissal after she reported the affair between Brandes and the Finance Director to him.
WWF’s Core Standard on Whistleblowing states that,
WWF strongly disapproves of any form of retaliation or other repercussions against anyone who reports concerns of unethical or illegal conduct in good faith. We aim to encourage openness and support Staff who raise genuine concerns, even if they turn out to be mistaken. Offices must make sure informers do not suffer any detrimental treatment as a result of raising a concern. Detrimental treatment includes dismissal, disciplinary action, threats or other unfavourable treatment connected with raising a concern.
The HR Manager is hoping to obtain information about the progress of the compliance procedure through legal proceedings. Under WWF rules, she should be entitled to this information.
When WWF International heard about the allegations, a law firm was commissioned to carry out an investigation. But the law firm’s report has not been released outside the Board of WWF Germany and the Foundation Board. A WWF spokesperson told the taz that WWF will not release the report out of “consideration for the personal rights of third parties”. The Berlin Labour Court has scheduled a hearing in November 2022.
The HR Manager’s lawyer argues that the severance package that the Finance Director received when she left WWF Germany may have come from money donated to WWF. “It is possible that a severance package was paid with donations to which there was no entitlement,” the lawyer states. WWF Germany says the severance package was legal.
Some questions for WWF Germany
In their letter, WWF staff complain that WWF’s management did not comply with the organisation’s rules on internal investigations. They demand a “fully transparent clarification” of the facts and that “consistent action be be taken against the violation”.
In a statement, WWF Germany told the taz that “WWF takes the compliance allegations very seriously and has handled them with great care, respecting the rights of all concerned.”
But if that were true, it raises several questions about WWF’s handling of this issue:
- Why did WWF Germany make no mention of the compliance issues in its statement about Brandes leaving the organisation?
- Why has the report produced by a law firm for WWF International still not been released publicly?
- Why did WWF Germany implement no recommendations after the internal investigation?
- Why was the HR Manager not kept anonymous, and why was she threatened with dismissal?
- Will WWF International carry out an independent review of Valentin von Mossow’s behaviour towards the HR Manager?
- And why did Brandes leave WWF Germany only after the taz reported on the issue?