Sustainable seafood NGOs must adapt. In Part 1 of this two-part series, we argue for refocusing our work more on conservation gains and less on servicing the seafood industry’s non-conservation priorities, particularly in markets where this movement has been ongoing for over a decade. Of course, we don’t want to leave our industry partners hanging. Part 2 builds the case for shifting some current NGO work that is currently funded by philanthropic dollars to a commercial basis, opening the doors to a new frontier of “win-win-win.”

Philanthropic funds have enabled seafood NGOs to make tremendous progress over the past 20 years. Together, we’ve built tools, relationships, transparency, more sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, and overall systemic change in the seafood industry. Much of what we’ve built has value to the industry. SFP has maintained that the benefits of this movement to industry will be seen in the long term, through the lens of assured, predictable supply, and a reputation for being an environmentally responsible and healthy protein. At some point soon, our donors will stop giving NGOs money (rightfully so) for things that the industry should and will pay for.

Let’s look at SFP’s Metrics as an example. Metrics was built in 2007 – on a shoestring budget – to help retailers collect the source fishery information they needed from suppliers to better understand the environmental sustainability risks associated with their seafood supply chains. No one was doing this at the time, and no retailers had systems in place to capture source-level data. But today, much has changed!

Reviewing the data that came in through those early Metrics systems allowed SFP to identify fisheries in commercial supply chains that were high-risk and then mobilize our partners’ supply chains to implement improvement projects. That work helped to shape the sustainable seafood movement and drive improvement in key seafood sectors.

Today, our long-standing partners have reduced their risk and mobilized improvements, so Metrics is utilized in a much different way. Partners use it to track against their individual sustainability commitments, and requests come in to us to add product codes, category descriptions, certification number fields – all things that are outside of SFP’s conservation mission and outside the Target 75 initiative.

So, what’s the solution? NGOs should further develop fee-for-service offerings or spin off business units for services that are no longer core to their nonprofit missions, and that industry should be, or already is, paying for. For SFP, this means shifting our Metrics software development, supplier data entry support, FishSource evaluations for select fisheries and aquaculture, and custom reporting for partners to a separate sustainable business unit. In the past, we’ve had to decline requests to customize Metrics software to better fit partners’ needs, but now our partners and other businesses can get exactly what they want (provided they pay for it!) from a business with that expertise. This first “win” in the new frontier goes to seafood industry businesses. The second “win” goes to donors to the movement. They are happy because NGOs will no longer request funds to cover the work that is being done through commercial ventures. The third “win” goes to NGOs, who will be able to refocus more on their core missions of conservation gains (see Part 1 of this blog series). And if the business units linked to NGOs are profitable, we will also have a new unrestricted revenue stream to cover areas of our work that donors are unable to fund. Best of all, this new work still supports the seafood industry on its path toward global sustainability, by tackling the toughest remaining challenges. Everybody wins!

If you haven’t already done so, SFP encourages all seafood NGOs to explore which of their services are suitable for transitioning to business units. We do not think a consensus-based or collaboration model is appropriate for making this transition. Instead, it should be treated like true business ventures, with competition, joint ventures, spin-offs, mergers and acquisitions, etc. Hats off to our NGO colleagues that have started successful commercial ventures doing much of what they used to do under a nonprofit.

SFP has been evolving its fee-for-service offerings over the last few years. We’re happy to share the trials and tribulations we’ve encountered over that time. We also know that some of you have been doing business development and providing services, and we would value hearing about your experiences. Reach out to your favorite SFPer to continue the discussion.