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Archive for March 19th, 2010

(Note: One quick clarification. The NGOs I refer to in this blog are not those who partner with companies but rather those activist NGOs. The Greenpeace, Oxfam, Global Witness type. Those NGOs who bug the living hell out of companies…)

So many businesses see activist NGOs as the enemy. Always biting at their heels and pointing out everything they do wrong. Sometimes these frustrations are legit as most companies do not go out to do harm. But they slip up or didn’t know about something bad on the ground and wham! – the activists are in the streets and getting everyone all worked up. The frustration boils over when these NGOs point out something that is wrong and then don’t applaud the company when they do the right thing. Or even worse, from a company perspective, when a company does something right and positive all on its own the activists still don’t support them or even give them much – not even a nod of approval. Why don’t these guys want to be friends? Why don’t they play nice? Or, in the extreme, why do these damn activists point out what is wrong without really providing a workable solution?

Answer: They are not meant to be your friend.

As simple as that. Don’t expect them to be your friend. If you do then you are asking the wrong question and misunderstanding their role in society completely. Their role is not to buddy up to business or tell you when you are doing a great job. They are here to be a societal watchdog that checks whether you are still sticking to your contract with society.

More on this contract with society in my next blog but for now…

The business contract with society is made up of the unwritten laws that governs behaviour and defines the role of business in society. It provides business with the space in which they can operate. it is not covered by government laws and regulations only. Governments tend to be reactive by correcting behaviour. Sometimes they try to be proactive but they mainly let the market regulate itself and force change when the damage is already done. The activist NGO’s are more proactive. They see damage done or potential damage done and drive towards more fundamental change in behaviour and laws. Yes, it is also reactive but they are looking at the future a bit more than governments tend to do by picking up on what is wrong at an early stage or potential danger based on science, research or previous experiences.

Before you become too critical of them. Think a bit about what these activists have done to “enforce” the societal contract and expectations and what they have done to stop and/or prevent damage to society and the main asset of society – the environment. Thank them for raising whale hunting. Thank them for highlighting exploitation in third world countries. Thank them for raising issue of imbalances and injustice in global trade system. Thank them for raising labor issues in China and elsewhere. Thank them for getting to those disaster areas quicker than you. Thank them for digging out the truth about wars and modern day genocide. Thank them for going after polluters who don’t care. Thank them for bringing to an end the curse of blood diamonds. Thank them for pointing out the inequalities when it comes to wages for men and women. Thank them for raising the issue of obesity. Of cancer. Thank them… For so many things. Thank them for covering your back while you are trying to live a life. A normal life.

These activist NGOs play a crucial role in ensuring companies (and others) focus on what is best for society as a whole. Unfortunately,  most people do not have the resources to check up on companies themselves and governments are lobbied to death, focused on the next election and/or fixing past problem – meaning they don’t have much time left looking ahead or even more broadly at what is good for society or not. They live in an election cycle and not geared towards looking at the long-term. Furthermore, government regulate and the majority of people don’t like government telling them what to do or not to do. Activists play a crucial role in sifting through the major challenges to highlight those crucial to society – and those who might need a closer look by people and governments.

No one is perfect. Companies make mistakes. They don’t know all the negative impacts they have. Did companies know of the potential threat of their emissions 20 years ago? No, we didn’t have the science behind it. Did companies know the exploitation of workers in factories in emerging markets 30 years ago? No they didn’t. I hope. Do we truly know the impact of GM crops? Did they know… etc. etc. We’ll know the impact we have in the future. However, companies do not measure their own impact or even always suffer from this impact. People suffer and activists and scientists measure, identify and advocate. Self regulation might work but self-analysis of impact won’t work because companies won’t always know what to measure. Their financial bottom line is not the same as the broader societal bottom line. But activists have a simple aim – preserving the planet in one way or another. No hidden agenda of making money or selling another product. No vested interest to make a quick buck. That is why they are pretty good at finding issues because they only represent those who suffer from impact and who can’t tell their own story – be it people or the environment.

(Note to cynics: Many have told me activists do it for themselves and for money. Sorry, but that is just not true. Show me the activists who made the list of billionaires. They do it for a cause and generally get paid next to nothing. Some of those NGOs who do work with or for business get paid loads but activists do not. Lastly, most of them do not take money from companies, such as Greenpeace, or have strict rules forbidding them from taking money from companies they campaign against, such as Oxfam. They are not perfect but most of them are not driven by either personal or organizations finances. Money for them is only relevant to how it enables them to affect change.)

Anyway… Activists do their research and have to be more prepared to reflect on the future and highlight the threats of today and how it will impact the future. They will make mistakes but they also have to be brave enough to look forward and take a stand before the problems become too much for society to handle. Identify, campaign and prevent. Simple.

They are not here to be the friend of companies. They are here to be the watchdogs. Understand what they want through change and how you impact this – that is the basis of your engagement. Companies can learn much from activists on what is wrong and how to improve their business. Hell, they even gave you a new market through the bottom of the pyramid thinking. But don’t expect them to love you and applaud you. They are not a client or a business partner. See them for who they are and celebrate the different view they offer. Maybe then you’ll know how to engage with them as well.

Until then… See you in the streets where I will applaud their protesting and thank them for watching my back while I try a different tactic in changing corporate behaviour and/or improve business impact – the activist inside.

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