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More on corporate responsibility NGOs and how to work with them

I had many emails after this previous post, snappily titled: “Six NGO types relevant for corporate responsibility“.

So I thought I’d flesh it out a little with my thinking behind the initial comments.

I’d add a caveat here that this is a work in progress, not definitive guidance. That applies to any other post on this blog too, as you might expect.

I’d welcome comments on the below and how any of it might be improved or corrected.

Six types of NGOs, and how to work them, and what to watch out for:

1) Campaigners, such as Greenpeace, Global Witness, Clean Clothes Campaign.

How can you work with them?

You don’t really. You respond to their claims, which will almost always have some serious credibility and research behind them. You may not like their methods, but they are effective.

They may not always be 100% right. But even if they are only half right, that’s a warning you should take notice of.

The risk you run in NOT taking them seriously far outweighs the gains, and doing so will often save you money or reduce risk in the long run.

Engagement is always better than the alternative, even if the engagement does not change the status quo or lead to results where everyone is happy. Feelings really count in CSR/sustainable business.

What should you watch out for?

Letters or emails forewarning you of their concerns before a campaign launches can sometimes get lost in your system. No harm in a corporate red flag being raised for relevant groups when someone in your company hears from them.

You should also watch out for inaccuracy on their part: Corrections CAN and are made quickly if you respond properly and substantively at a senior level.

But drawn out arguments can only hurt you, even if you are partly in the right. Better to comprise, than have your CEO hit with 60,000 emails over a weekend.

2) Partnership NGOs, such as The Forest Trust, Rainforest Alliance, Earthwatch

How can you work with them?

These are the guys who sometimes get grief from both sides: Campaigners and corporates. So be nice: They are trying to help you out. You can work with them as implementers of programmes you collaborate with them to create. They can drive real, measurable progress and are often the unsung heroes of sustainability progress. For example, Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance has probably done more for sustainable corporate supply chains than anyone else. Likewise the Forest Trust does groundbreaking work, yet are little recognised so far.

What should you watch out for?

There are lots of these NGOs. Some are a lot better than others. My advice: Check for references from other companies, in detail. Some suffer from drift, as do many organisations, commercial or otherwise. Others you may not have heard of, are doing great work.

3) ‘Middle ground’ NGOs who look like campaigners, but do a lot of partnering too, and have issues/conflicts of interest as a result. These might include WWF, Conservation International and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

How can you work with them?

In lots of ways. Like the partnering NGOs, they can help you with solutions to major sustainability problems. WWF, for example, does a lot of work on water with leading companies such as SAB Miller and Coca-Cola.

What should you watch out for?

Some of these NGOs have come under attack for being too close to business in recent years, and lowering their standards with bi-lateral deals and working groups. Lower standards don’t help big companies.

The tension between campaigning on issues and partnering with companies sometimes seen as ‘part of the problem’ by others means you need to watch them closely, as some (by no means all) are rumoured to be changing strategy away from partnerships back to campaigning against governments and perhaps even corporations.

4) Multi-stakeholder groups. Examples might include the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, The Ethical Trading Initiative, The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, The Fair Labor Association, the Marine Stewardship Council or the Better Cotton Initiative.

How can you work with them?

Clearly signing up to the relevant groups or using their standards helps! Multi-stakeholder groups are the only game in town for traditional credibility, although they are coming under pressure to deliver scale with many large companies, as are some partnership NGOs above.

What should you watch out for?

Their ability to deliver scale, to ‘protect’ you from media/campaigner attack, and a slow governance system that can often be behind where some companies are today. The variation in these groups is huge. Some are too small to change industries right now, others so big they move at the pace of the slowest member, which can be very slowly indeed. Another tip to remember is that working with an MSI is NOT an excuse for doing nothing else in your business, if you will forgive the double negative. These groups are often at the cutting edge, but scale issues will mean you need a dual system to drive progress in the value chain where they don’t yet reach. Nestle and coffee certification / internal management standards is a good example of this.

Frustration at the pace of change is also a common problem, but slow, steady and inclusive can deliver you sustainable results, even if the reach is limited, MSI’s mostly represent the ultimate direction of travel in your industry when it comes to sustainability.

5) Business organisations that look like NGOs, but who are not multi-stakeholder. e.g. Business for Social Responsibility, Business in the Community, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

How can you work with them?

You can sign up for cost effective consultancy and other member benefits. They have convening power and can provide a safe environment to discuss issues, meet peers and make your CEO feel good. A warm arm around the shoulder, you might say.

Some, such as BSR, have a decent reputation on home turf. Others, such as Business in the Community, have many members who complain constantly about lack of focus, accountability mission drift, lack of competence/delivery and value for money. Some, such as WBCSD, convene cutting edge research and help CEOs and others build the case for change at a global level. AccountAbility is a particular organisation to keep an eye on: Formerly a UK multi-stakeholder research outfit, it’s now an agressive ‘non profit’ consultancy run out of New York for financial gain.

What should you watch out for?

Delusions of grandeur. This is a common problem. Ironically, organisations set up to encourage stakeholder engagement can easily forget that it matters, and can grow too large, lose sight of the original mission and ability to deliver on that. Initiative-itis with a lack of delivery is a serious danger, often realised in some, but by no means all of these groups.

6) Ideological front groups, such as The Consumers Alliance for Global Prosperity, who lobby AGAINST campaigning, partnership and even middle-ground NGOs.

How can you work with them?

You don’t! You must know who they are though. That’s not as easy as it sounds. See below for why. These groups matter because they are often well-funded, sometimes by companies, and their only purpose is anti-sustainability propaganda. They are much less prevalent in the EU, but appear to be growing in the US. Most worryingly, they are on the rise in Australia and in places across Asia.

What should you watch out for?

Many change their names on a regular basis and sometimes campaign on issues which bear no relation to their name.

For example, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the anonymous sounding Media Research Center, lobby against climate change science that 97% of qualified climate scientists agree on. One of the worst offenders in this area, according to campaigners, is the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition.

Another is World Growth International, an organisation that attacks opponents of corporate bete noire Asia Pulp & Paper. Another of particular unintentional comedic note is Ethicaloil.org.

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