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Posts Tagged ‘stakeholder engagement’

Can you remember the first time the two of you got together. The stolen looks, the uncomfortable moments of silence, the tripping over your sentences, the sweaty palms, the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not thoughts, the private meetings when no one was looking, the uncomfortable first meal together. Yes, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. Just as with any relationship in the early wooing and courting stage, stakeholder engagement is never easy at the start.

Most companies just don’t know how to talk to activists and campaigners. Hey, make no mistake, activist hardly knows how to talk to companies either. But they don’t need companies to like them as much as what companies need them to like them. Or at least leave them alone and not target them.

Don’t feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes not. I remember seeing an anarchist kicking a Nike sign at the battle of Seattle in ’99 – while wearing his Nike shoes and top…

But there are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage and start courting. This is not an exhaustive list. Just a few tips to get you through those first uncomfortable early stages of stakeholder dating.

Firstly, do your homework and find out a bit more about the NGO and what it regards as its ‘bottom line’ – it is unlikely to be financial! I was invited to speak to the global affairs team of a very large pharmaceutical while I was at Oxfam (I headed up the Access to Medicine Campaign for a while). I was shocked to hear that the majority of people at the company thought that Oxfam only worked on health issues. And this happened when Oxfam was in the middle of their Coffee Campaign! Dig around a bit first and find out what the NGO does and what is their mandate. Most of them are registered with a constitution that states what they should focus on and how they should work. This will help you understand whether there is any potential for a longer term constructive relationship – or just a one night stand. Also a good tip when you start dating – know who you are dating. Except if you like blind dates.

Secondly, respect the differences between NGOs by not lumping them all together in the same room for a consultation exercise – NGOs are proud and competitive too. You wouldn’t want them to call a whole bunch of companies together and still expect special treatment just aimed at you. You should respect their differences and treat each one differently. Rather meet each one separately in an environment that works best to put them at ease. Meet them where they feel most comfortable – maybe at their place. Especially if you want to build the foundation for a long-term relationship. And even this should work best for real dates – don’t bring all your prospective dates together in the same room. They might just start sizing each other and you will be left with no date at all.

Thirdly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are the only company that is the target of the NGOs campaigning efforts, or that the NGO hasn’t other programs and projects that may have nothing to do with business. Just as with the large pharmaceutical company I mentioned, most NGOs have numerous focus areas and different programs and projects to try and achieve their overall goals. And most large campaigning NGOs have various campaigns going at the same time. They might have one single broad focus, but it plays out in different campaigns and programs. For instance, Greenpeace might be about the environment, but they focus on climate change, oceans, forests, genetic engineering and nuclear issues. So your company might only be a small part of their focus and interest. Same with real life dating. A friendly smile does not mean they want to date. It might just be a friendly smile.

Fourthly, start by talking, learning about each other and building trust rather than starting by expecting ground-breaking strategic partnerships. There might be a few obstacles to overcome – perceptions of what ‘big business’ is all about and a feeling that you want to ‘clean’ yourself by associating with them. Take it easy and just talk. Let them get to know you. Don’t create expectations. Just listen and learn and see where this might take you. Again a good tip for real life dating as well. Don’t ask them to marry you or expect ‘the commitment’ on the first date – it might just scare them off.

Lastly, remember that cash does not necessarily have the same currency as it does when buying products or services from other companies. First and foremost NGOs want to affect change. But they don’t always see money as the way to achieve change. Yes, some of them have huge budgets and operate like multinationals. But they generally have strict guidelines on receiving money from companies. For instance, Oxfam will not accept money from companies that fall within an industry they target in their campaigning. They might not even accept money for travel – never mind for a program. They would rather see you ‘do the right thing’ than pay them to do something. Okay, this one is less relevant for real life dating. Money generally impress prospective dates!

Okay, one more tip. Don’t expect them to agree with you on everything. And don’t make this a prerequisite for your potential relationship. I love my wife to bits. But we only agree 80% of the time. But we don’t let the 20% of the time we disagree define our relationship. No. Focus the relationship on what you have in common and don’t get stuck on the differences. It’s part of being human – we are all different. And the same for companies and NGOs – we are all different. And I learned that I am wrong 20% of the time in any case. Just ask my wife.

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Palm Oil & Stakeholder Engagement: The Road To Nowhere?

Reuters reported that Unilever is considering buying Palm Oil from Greenpeace target Sinar Mas again. Not surprisingly, Greenpeace is asking Unilever to not go down this road as they just plain don’t trust Sinar Mas. A bit of background – Greenpeace accuses Sinar Mas (and their subsidiaries) of cutting down rainforests to plant more Palm Oil to keep up with the unstoppable appetite of large food companies (and others) – themselves trying to supply us consumers with those goods we perceive ‘we just cannot do without’. The fight between Greenpeace and Sinar Mas is interesting but three CSR and Sustainability issues stand out for me – apart from deforestation.

Firstly, why would Unilever even consider this? The Greenpeace targeting of Sinar Mas will not go away no matter what the independent auditors find. Independent audits have serious flaws (limited access, resources, links with local groups etc) that will make it easy for Greenpeace to shoot it down no matter what happens. Do Unilever really need Sinar Mas this badly that they are willing to take the brunt of a Greenpeace attack? Especially because Unilever said they might buy from Sinar Mas even if they don’t pass the audit – as long as Sinar Mas promises to clean up their act. Unilever is really playing a dangerous game with Greenpeace here. Greenpeace have highlighted the leadership role of Unilever in their campaign and all that goodwill will be flushed down the drain the minute they start buying from Sinar Mas again. I find it an odd decision and would love to know about the business pressures that made them decide this as that might help me understand the point of conflict between sustainability and business reality in this case. Whatever the case, I think the Unilever reputation will take a serious knock if they start buying from Sinar Mas again – no matter what the auditors have to say.

Secondly, and more in defense of Unilever, should responsible companies not put pressure on their suppliers to become more sustainable? Is Unilever not doing the right thing here? Instead of walking away completely, Unilever is using their influence over suppliers to force them to become more sustainable. That is what we ask companies to do – influence suppliers. The clothing, textile and footwear industry (and leaders such as Nike, Timberland and Levi’s) have used their influence to drive change in manufacturers. It’s not perfect but we can at least agree that it is so much better than the working conditions and human rights issues back in the 80s and 90s. Instead of attacking Unilever should Greenpeace (and other activists) not acknowledge that Unilever is trying to use their size for good?

Thirdly, why aren’t they talking to each other? Why isn’t Greenpeace more involved in the audit? Should Greenpeace not work with Unilever to define what that sustainability look like? It would be a breath of fresh air if Unilever and Greenpeace engaged before the Unilever decision to define what the audit should look like, where and what they should investigate and agree on a set of principles – including the independent role of Greenpeace. Instead of doing real stakeholder engagement on this Unilever and Sinar Mas had discussions and agreed on the principles and the auditors – leaving out key stakeholders in the process.

This just seems so unnecessary. Unilever is a good company doing some excellent work in sustainability – a good business with a good impact on development. And they’ve done some innovative work in stakeholder engagement with Oxfam and others. Greenpeace knows that and have said as much in the past. These two don’t need to fight. There are bigger fish to fry. It’s just such a missed opportunity.

(On a completely separate note. I wonder how the Unilever drive for Allanblackia is coming along. They had some high hopes for this tree as they claimed it was more environmentally friendly than Palm Oil and could be of even better use in soaps and spreads. Unilever has done some interesting work trying to make Allanblackia more economically viable. I just hope it doesn’t turn into another Palm Oil nightmare for this world. Early reports indicated that Allanblackia might be one key answer in getting us off our Palm Oil addiction but we’re still waiting.)

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Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement – ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

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(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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