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November 14, 2018

The NGO landowner

In recent months, much policy and press attention has been paid to how landowners engage with the communities that live on their land. The common assumption is that these are all private landowners – absentee or otherwise – who now are required to have much more regard for how they communicate with the communities affected by their decisions. But there are other types of landowner such as the environmental NGOs, many of whom have mission statements or memberships with interests that could easily rub communities up the wrong way. Interesting piece of research just published.


Scottish Government

Executive summary (Full report)


Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) own 2.6% of land in Scotland and they play a crucial role in setting an example of progressive and sustainable land management. In their work, NGOs interact with local communities living on and nearby their estates. The purpose of this project was to examine the relations between NGOs and community groups in the light of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. 


This project aims to advance the understanding of the existing challenges and the potential for cooperation between Environmental NGOs and relevant community groups in the recent policy context. Drawing on the research findings, the report outlines the main challenges and puts forward recommendations on how partnerships between the different stakeholders can be supported.  

Key findings

Challenges for partnerships between Non-Governmental Organisations and community groups 

·         Some NGOs struggle to reconcile their mission and commitments made to their wider membership with the local needs of the communities living in and around their estates. The perceived conflict of interests can negatively affect prospective collaborations. 

·         The difference in reconciling NGOs’ mission and community needs are reflected in communication and engagement between NGOs and community groups. How consultations with the communities are planned and conducted is one symptom of this wider issue. NGOs interviewed engage in consultations with local communities but there is little evidence to suggest that communities are actively involved in planning and preparation of longterm strategy.

·         Overall, NGOs’ interviewed argue that from their perspective, change of ownership can negatively affect land management. The interviewees highlighted that Land Reform prioritises ownership over the type and style of management and that communities that come into land ownership often struggle to access resources for improving land management.  

 Opportunities, alternative approaches and potential ways forward 

·         Evidence from the case studies showed that effective communication, between stakeholders and with the local community, was key to overcoming differing priorities and finding common purpose from which mutually beneficial compromises were established and effective collaboration grew.

·         This research found that collaborative ownership can offer opportunities for both the NGO sector and the local community. For communities, working in partnership with NGOs opens a chance to own land in areas of high private land concentration, creates job, and provides training opportunities. For NGOs, it offers access to assets at a set price, an on-going PR value, and opportunities for bottom-up learning.

·         Moreover, the existing examples of co-creative partnerships and engagements that take people’s needs and concerns as a starting point, offer alternative approaches to community consultation. With adequate planning, communication, and compromise, conservation objectives can be interdependent rather than opposing to community needs. This, of course, does not mean there are always aligned, and continuous dialogue remains an important part of partnerships. Research shows that there is a momentum to formalise and systematise community engagement from both within and beyond charitable organisations.

·         There are untapped benefits of conservation work in urban areas. These share fundamental similarities with rural projects but are distinct and should be designed accordingly. Urban projects particularly benefit when staff, NGOs and community group members, are embedded in the community, which helps them be more aware of the concerns and challenges for a project so they can design relevant and engaging projects for that specific area.


·         A networked approach, whereby local assets and local knowledge is augmented by external assets and resources, is likely to be the most effective way to bridge the gap in resources and expertise when land is transferred to community groups. 

·         Creating place-based plans and developing community projects, that are created by and for the local community, are more likely to encourage sustained community buy in and engagement with the project, helping to ensure long-term viability.

·         NGOs should engage in ‘bottom up’ communication as opposed to ‘top down’. Efforts should be made  to engage the community as opposed to informing them of plans. This is particularly relevant in the context of designing public consultations.

·         NGO senior staff should make efforts to be accessible to community groups living on their estates. This will help break down barriers and change perceptions, find common ground and shared purpose, and address engrained working patterns and practices that may hinder collaboration.

·         Scottish Land Commission is currently finalising a Code of Practice1. Therefore, there is a momentum to formalise and systematise community engagement from both within and beyond. Once the engagement guideline is published, it will be important to put mechanisms in place to hold organisations accountable to the new requirements.