From conflict to partnership

Jonny McCaig of business responsibility and governance consultancy Article 13 discusses how to build and profit from relationships with NGOs

Environmental NGOs are typically defined as “agents of civil society”, with their primary purpose the promotion of environmental goals. They emerged in a very basic form during the late 19th century, but it is over the course of the 20th century that environmental NGOs increased in number and diversity as the environment was highlighted as a key policy area.

The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and “saw an unprecedented role being played by NGOs in shaping the international environmental agenda”, according to the UNEP Policy on NGOs and other Major Groups.

In 1987, when the Brundtland Commission first defined sustainable development, environmental NGOs came to the wider public attention, catalysed further by the Rio Summit for Sustainable Development in 1992. One of the summits major outcomes, Agenda 21, recognised the role of business in contributing towards sustainable development, and this sparked a debate about NGO and business engagement.
NGOs began to recognise their place in taking a market-centred approach to the environment in the early 1990s. McDonald’s landmark partnership with US NGO Environmental Defense, which focused on waste reduction in restaurants and the supply chain, set the precedent for business-NGO relations by challenging the assumption that NGOs had to engage with business through conflict.

Business-NGO engagements over the last ten years have been based on voluntary action, where NGOs and business engage over specific issues which are core to the company’s operations. One of the major outcomes of the World Summit for Sustainable Development was the voluntary partnership “type II” outcome, which recognised the limited ability of governments to tackling environmental issues alone.

Since Rio, a plethora of NGOs have taken to the
international stage. The role of these 21st century NGOs varies greatly. Some act in a research and information provision capacity, others as project-based organisations and others as pressure groups and lobbyists.

In summary, an alternative to conflict is mutating some NGOs, and driving a number of businesses towards a new form of engagement, based on partnership.

The business case for partnerships

Companies and NGOs are realising that partnerships offer the potential to deliver a new way of doing business. On the one hand, a number of businesses are recognising the benefits of responsible corporate citizenship. HSBC’s partnership with the WWF in reversing the decline in freshwater habitats in the UK, US and China is an example, and the words of HSBC group chairman John Bond echo this sentiment: “We all have a responsibility for the stewardship of this planet.” The partnership is framed in the context of HSBC’s concern for its own environmental management and principles in the finance sector. This type of partnership could be classed as “corporate philanthropy”.

The added benefit for business is enhanced reputation through the promotion of an environmentally friendly image among consumers and other stakeholders. However, it is this issue of reputation enhancement which poses the greatest risk for businesses that engage with NGOs – greenwash – where environmental partnerships represent a PR exercise to legitimise a company’s license to operate.

For those businesses trying to bring about real change, NGOs can provide valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas, such as access to networks and knowledge of issues.
There is no straightforward rationale for business-NGO partnerships, and there are many steadfast critics of such engagements, particularly relating to the issue of greenwash. So how exactly should companies and NGOs go about building and managing partnerships, relevant for both corporate philanthropists and those intending to affect deeper rooted change? These partnerships embody a wide range of industries, forms and geographical and political contexts.

As INTRAC (the International NGO Training and Research Centre) comments: “NGO-private sector relations are like a game of chess; while there are only a few pieces to move, there are almost infinite ways to play the game.”
A one-size-fits-all tool for partnership building and management does not exist. However, below are some practical ideas to help critically analyse opportunities, ensuring maximum benefit and minimum risk.

Forms of partnership

Choosing the form of partnership is essential. Partnering can be global, national or local in scope, and take place at varying levels within an organisation, from board level to operational level. They can include general tasks, such as information giving, or specific tasks with a strategic dimension such as projects. For example, an agreement between Hanson and RSPB resulted in a partnership to restore the largest reed swamp in the UK and subsequent conversion of the site into a nature reserve, following gravel extraction.

Selecting a partner

Evaluating the degree of ‘fit’ between organisations is essential. A partnership between the Co-operative Bank and Greenpeace which aimed to create the first non-PVC credit card demonstrates this matter. The Co-operative Bank openly admits that “both partners in the emerging relationship were struggling with differences in their organisational cultures and ways of doing things”, which they acknowledge “threatened the realisation of their common goal”.

Conflict of interest

It is somewhat ironic that a number of NGOs partner with organisations to deliver change in one area of business activity, yet the business continues to operate in its old ways in other parts of the business. The Co-operative Bank-Greenpeace case can be used again to represent this conflict of interest, as manufacturing rights of non-PVC manufacturers had been purchased by Monsanto, a high profile target for Greenpeace lobbyists over the GMO debate. Conflicts of interest such as these should be scoped before engagements take place as they may undermine the partnership.

Communicate with those in the know

Articulation of honest, realistic expectations between partners, especially in primary negotiations, is key. Trust does not just happen, it is developed over a period of time, and through successive engagements. For example, successive engagements enabled Starbucks to deliver social and
environmental guidelines for coffee farmers in its supply chain as a result of a dialogue with environmental NGOs about how to best approach environmental conservation.

Measuring the success of the partnership

The somewhat overlooked aspect of partnership management and development is measurement. Here, the measures and key success factors are monitored and evaluated, enabling partners to gain an understanding of whether the partnership is working. The case of the Forestry Stewardship Council demonstrates measurement in action and has been key in legitimising its certification programme.

The jury is out

ver the last 20-30 years, NGOs have reshaped business conduct. If NGOs are to continue making an impact, they need to seek innovative ways of engaging business through a solutions-based approach. There is a business case for partnerships, and the more progressive organisations are building networks with NGOs for this reason. The lynchpin of a successful partnership is communication, which influences how the relationship is governed from both sides.

Some would argue that partnerships between NGOs and business cannot affect deep-rooted changes in the governance of organisations and how they impact on the environment. The businesses and NGOs making these engagements however, are at the leading edge of addressing environmental concerns and their lessons and successes will serve as blueprints for future business-NGO engagements.

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