The oil spill seems to have more than just an environmental and political impact. It’s starting to impact how partnerships are formed between companies and NGOs. Some environmental NGOs are being tarnished - thanks to their relationship with BP. The Washington Post wrote an article about how the Nature Conservancy (and Conservation International and EDF) is facing a potential backlash because of their ties to BP. It has sparked a lively debate amongst Nature Conservancy members as the Nature Conservancy defended it’s position in a piece called “Why We Engage With the Energy Industry: It’s For Nature“. I’m less interested whether environmental NGOs should partner with energy companies as that is for each one to decide according to their principles and what they are trying to achieve in their own unique way. What I am interested in are the lessons we can take from the controversy – for NGOs and companies.
Of course NGOs will have to be more discriminating when it comes to their partnerships. Or maybe a bit more transparent and proactive with their members on how they partner and who they partner with. The complaints from the Nature Conservancy members are legitimate but it is mostly because they just did not know about the Nature Conservancy and BP relationship. They based their support for the Nature Conservancy on what they thought the Nature Conservancy should do when it comes to partnering and not what the Nature Conservancy actually does. We live in an increasingly transparent world where no information is hidden anymore. That’s not to say that the Nature Conservancy (or any of the other NGOs) hid what they did. It was just not seen as a priority communication to members. Their argument will be that the information has always been there for anyone looking – or asking.
However, the information overload in the world we live in also means that people can’t research all the facts – there are just too much information. What we’ve seen more and more is that people rely on their friends, blogs and other social media to get their information. They trust these sources – why would my friend lie? The problem is that none of these new sources of trusted information tend to have all the facts. Your friend tells you that the Nature Conservancy is cool because they have always supported them or they’ve read something that they liked etc. But the detail tend to be missing. The sources people trust do not always have all the details – just soundbites. It works most of the time as most things tend not to be such a huge issue. Until a major oil spill hits you…
NGOs need to be more transparent on who they partner with, how they partner and why they partners. More importantly, they need to get to those places where people find their information – friends, blogs and social networks. It’s not enough to have a Facebook page or a nice blog telling people what you think and why they should support you. You should use these tools to engage not only new and potential members but also your existing members. Engage them and inform them of those areas you (and them) would see as potential risk areas – your corporate partnerships… Be open and transparent about who you are, what you do and who you work with. We ask companies to be transparent and proactive about these issues – and so should those who defend the rights of civil society and the environment. Go out and engage in a transparent and open way. The more people know the more likely you will have members who know what they are getting into and the more loyal they will be. It’s like any relationship - you want to know everything before making a commitment. Don’t be like so many who marry based on a gut feeling instead of digging deeper to see if you will really stick together in “sickness and in health.”
People also make assumptions based on names. The Nature Conservancy. It’s about conserving nature, right? And the elevator speech tells me that. Most people don’t read further than that because the name and soundbites gave them what they think they were looking for. However, the devil is in the details – the fine print. Encourage supporters to be diligent in doing their research before the time. Give them a “Term & Conditions” document to “agree to” before they can become a member. Spell out what you do and who you do it with. The same way we want companies to tell us who they partner with. Don’t assume people will know what you do – they don’t.
Don’t try to be everything for everyone. There are so many causes nowadays – I’ve written about this here. Competition amongst NGOs are growing as each one tries to carve out a bigger part of the “market share”. The number of NGOs are exploding because each individual is trying to match their “unique” view with a charity to match. It becomes increasingly difficult for large NGOs to attract new members. One way they try to address this is by becoming everything. You care about turtles? We’ve got just the right program for you. Oh, you like trees a bit more? Step right this way for your own huggable tree.
You can’t be everything. Pick what you want to address and be the best at that. Less of a Jock of all trades – more a master of one. This way you know what you are and, more importantly, your members know exactly what you are and it’s easier for them to see what you do and how you do it – and who you do it with. Starbucks sells coffee not cars. Microsoft doesn’t sell houses. Timberland doesn’t drill for oil. They know who they are and what they are good at. I don’t have to guess what they do when I go and buy my coffee, software or boots. Furthermore, knowing who they are and what they offer makes it so much easier for me to dig around to see how they do what they do – the CSR and sustainability bits. And, of course, who they partner with.
Lastly, some NGOs like Oxfam GB, WWF and Greenpeace have very strict rules that govern their behaviour and partnerships. I’ve worked for Oxfam GB and they don’t rule out partnerships with companies but have very strict guidelines. For example, they will not accept any funding from companies remotely linked to any issue or campaign they work on. It hasn’t always been a popular position but it made it easy and very clear on how you manage relationships and expectation – and engagement with supporters and companies. Oxfam GB can work with a company to help them on the ground as long as it helps them achieve their primary goals – addressing poverty – but no money can be exchanged. NGOs should be clear on this – when do or don’t you accept corporate cash or goods. I’m not saying that those being targeted because of the oil spill and their partnership with BP don’t, but it is clear from the concerns by members that the members did not know the rules. During my days at Oxfam we used to make that a key part of all communications – large public meetings with supporters or closed meetings with companies. Everyone knew the rules and had to live by those rules. Make it, know it and talk about it.
Last point on how the oil spill could be redefining partnership… This time on the corporate side.
Companies should also become more discriminating about their partnerships. The partner of your partner now becomes your partner. True progressive companies, or at least those who claim CSR and sustainability leadership, will have to become more careful who they pick as their NGO partner. Do you really want to partner with an organization that might be perceived as “sleeping with the enemy” because of other relationships they have? Their reputation is your reputation. It works beautifully when they can help tell your story but it can come back to haunt you if they become tainted. Pick your NGO partner carefully – using the same rules I mentioned above for NGOs.
But progressive partnerships go further than your partnerships with NGOs. Who are you partnering with on the corporate side? It is becoming increasingly unacceptable to have a “lager” mentality where you can keep quiet about what other businesses are doing. Not every business out there is your friend just because they are a business. Think about it this way…
Say you are dependent on milk from a very specific area for that unique cheese you have to offer. And then they find oil there. This could mean the end of your business or at least your competitive edge. Do you keep quiet or do you tackle the business that threatens your business?
Let’s try another example…
Let’s say that as a company you stand for the environment. Your brand is something that stands out in its advocacy for the environment. You might even be in the line of making clothes or boots for outdoor use. You champion this and you build your brand on your environmental credentials and progressive advocacy. What do you do when a mining company mines off the top of a mountain? Do you keep quiet because it is another business or do you speak out because it threatens your business or at least devalues your brand.
The same goes for Climate Change. Why keep quiet if you truly believe that it can have a material impact on your business? Should you not defend your business interests and long-term survival? Should you not tackle those who threaten your business or who advocates against your interest? Why even closely associate yourself with businesses whose practices threatens your business? Just because they are a business? We don’t even do that as humans…
Your partnerships and allies will be a key way to communicate what you stand for. Traditional business associations are becoming more irrelevant by the day – new broader stakeholder partnerships based on shared values are increasing. Why? Because people see who you are through the relationships that you have. Associate with businesses that are against what they believe in will make them question you. And threaten your business. The question for you – what does this mean for your business and how can you stay ahead of the pack? Redefine your partnerships with NGOs and other businesses. Find the right match and build on that.
Partnerships are being redefined and you will either fall behind or you can be part of defining the new way of partnering. You decide.