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Posts Tagged ‘stakeholders’

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog today but this piece in my favorite newspaper, The Guardian (yes, I am the typical lefty reader), made me roll my eyes. The piece is very well intended and generally pretty good advice for charities – Charity funding: How to approach business for help.

I agree that charities or NGOs should be more strategic in their approach to businesses for help. But when I read about the need for NGOs to have more “business realism” in their approach I couldn’t but help think of the need for business to have some “activist realism” in their thinking. It’s easy to ask the other side to be more like you but how about you being a little bit more like the other side too? Like any relationship, it’s about give and take – not just take.

Too often business think that charities should support them more and be more of their “voice”. Sorry, that’s not how it works. It’s a partnership. If you want NGOs to be more of a voice  then you need to be more of a voice as well. No more hiding behind industry associations to do your dirty work or hide you from criticism on key challenges. If you want Greenpeace to slap you on the back instead of on the head then you need to speak up against other businesses who don’t act responsibly. You can’t expect a progressive NGO to support you if you also back regressive policies via another NGO or a business association or lobby group. Or if you keep quiet while other businesses lobby and push for, and argue against, positions held dearly by NGOs – climate change, clean energy, waste, pollution, labour conditions, conflict etc. NGOs expect you to share their world view and not only on one specific issue. This is the “activist realism” they live and work in. This is their “business”.

And how about business in general showing more social conscious? It’s fine to ask NGOs to be more business like but for some reason too many businesses argue that their focus is on the “business bottom line” only and that their only responsibility is towards shareholders. Bah to other stakeholders and society in general. Sounds like double standards to me.

Business needs “activist realism” to realise that their responsibility lies not only with shareholder but to this world they live and operate in. If you see your value as purely making more money for shareholders then you should expect flack from those who are not shareholders. They receive no benefit in their relationship with you except for some products they might or might not really need – so why should they care about your “realism”? Your “realism” might be in direct conflict with their real world. You pollute and they breathe it in. You accelerate climate change and they fry or freeze. You waste and they drown in the plastic bags. You pay peanuts to farmers and they get products that are second rated. You get the picture.

Some “activist realism” will hopefully make companies realize that they have a role to play as citizens of this world. That they have a responsibility towards others through their actions and words. That this responsibility is directly tied to their own long-term sustainability. You kill this world and you kill your business. Easy economics. “Activism realism” will make you sit up and say “no more”. Say it and do it because it is good for your business. Be an “activist” because your company needs to stand up for its own future – one that is tied to the well-being of society. Don’t huddle with those businesses and associations who do not share your world view. Do not care about shareholders who do not care about your business. Shareholder who only care about the next quarter and maximum profits come hell or high water do not care about your business. Only about how your business can line their pockets. They’ll drop you like a hot potato if a better offer comes up.

They are like a bad relationship. They promise you the world but they’ll drop you if someone with more money shows them some shiny object and promise them a better date. Would you take that from a date? Sucker if you will…

Show some “activist realism” by caring about your company’s future. Show some “activist realism” by speaking out against those who threaten your business in hard and soft ways. Show some “activism realist” by being serious about serious investors. Show some “activism realist” when you engage with your stakeholders. Show some “activist realism” when you give us a reason to believe in your worth to society.

Until then – you really don’t have much of a leg to stand on by asking NGOs to show more “business realism”. As my mom used to say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

That’s my “activist realism”. A world where business care about business as part of society and contributing to society. That’s the “business realism” I want to live in.

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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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We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.

Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of  better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.

The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.

Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…

The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.

The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.

It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.

The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)

These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.

Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.

The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?

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Exxon not paying US federal taxes and kids smashing their new iPad. That made for a sad day of reading. But thank you Intel for saving my day with some real leadership in stakeholder engagement.

Exxon Pays NO US tax

It took me a while to try and figure out a snappy headline for this one but I think this one works best – plain and simple… Exxon paid no US federal tax in 2009. I must admit that I am a bit shocked by this. Is it even possible for a very profitable US company to get away with not paying any federal tax in the US? Well, the original source is from Forbes so I take it as true. I’m not going to go into details on their anti-climate change position and funding of dubious organizations and positions. Neither will I discuss how this non-tax paying bit makes their pro-carbon tax look a bit like playing politics. And I’m not going to mention how this might be a slap in the face of the US when taking into consideration the subsidies they received. Or that they really should not complain about the tax rate in the US anymore. Or maybe they are doing that on behalf of the lobbyist they hire…

However, I am interested in how this reflects on their broader responsibility as a supposedly proud American company. Look at this line from the Forbes report:

Exxon tries to limit the tax pain with the help of 20 wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that (legally) shelter the cash flow from operations in the likes of Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. No wonder that of $15 billion in income taxes last year, Exxon paid none of it to Uncle Sam, and has tens of billions in earnings permanently reinvested overseas.

So Exxon (or any other company for that matter) reduces their federal taxes by hunting for the best shelters hidden on nice little island. Can these companies ever be judged as responsible companies if they go out of their way to not to pay taxes in their country of origin or where their headquarters might be? It seems as if those who have the means to get away with not paying taxes tend to get away with it and those small businesses who drive so much economic activities are more inclined to own up and pay up.

It’s when I read headlines like these that I get a bit despondent and ask whether there is any line out there we can agree on or is it just a free for all? Fight, argue, lobby – it’s all fine. But let’s agree that if you are going to fight, argue and lobby then you should at least pay your taxes and not run from your responsibilities. Does your home country and your responsibility towards your fellow countrymen mean so little to you that you will do everything to run and hide the money?

It’s just a bit too much, isn’t it?

The Empty Generation?

Continuing on this sad reflection on society – let’s talk about American teenagers today…

It seems as if everyone under the age of 21 waited in line to get hold of the latest cool Apple product – the iPad. (Full disclosure, I want one…) It’s the new must-have Apple product. The iPad brings us so close to having our device big enough to use and small enough to carry around easily. A few Apple tweaks and we should be there in a few years or months. Anyway…

A bunch of teenagers just managed to capture everything that is wrong with consumption today. They bought an iPad and then smashed it to pieces. Why? “It was just something to do.”

Again I am dumbfounded. They bought something that costs more than most people in this world make in a year and then just smashed it to pieces? So that they could put it on YouTube and have a few laughs? No consideration to the impact of making the product.

We live in a society that consumes just for the sake of consuming. And we get so bored of consuming that we purchase just to destroy. Out of boredom.

Companies can create products that can help society. But kids (or grownups) with too much money will prove that even the best products can be wasted by people who are a waste to society.

Intel (Sustainability) Inside

I couldn’t end with two stories on groups who just don’t get it – so here is a feel good story to make up for it.

Intel agreed to a shareholder resolution requesting the creation of a Board Committee on Sustainability. Harrington Investment submitted the same proposal last year but it got shot down. They tried again this year and Intel agreed with the proposal. The easy part will be to applaud both Intel for establishing the Board Committee and Harrington Investment for sticking to it and get the job done. That’s the obvious bit of good news. But there is more.

What I see as the real leadership is Intel showing that listening to stakeholders is something they actually believe in. Last year they didn’t agree but they sat down and considered it again. Instead of having the typical knee-jerk reaction that most companies have to activist shareholders, Intel listened and considered. And they supported the proposal because it was the right thing to do for them and for the shareholders and stakeholders. Big thumbs up to Intel for bringing a real maturity to shareholder proposals.

Sustainability inside.

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