Last time around I got a few people upset when I wrote that activists saying they want to engage was little more than “sound washing.” Two weeks in beautiful Kauai, Hawaii doing extreme marathon hammocking with a Mai Tai (or two) didn’t make me change my mind, but it did make me ponder the typical response by companies.
I’ve worked with many companies on stakeholder engagement and help many of them understand activists and activist campaigning — and they are as guilty of getting it wrong as the activists themselves. No, I take that back. They get it wrong more often than activists. There are a few common myths that almost every single client gets wrong, and it’s fun calling them out before I even start working with a client. I won’t list them all — hey, I need to keep some secrets to earn a living — but let me share one that every company consistently gets wrong.
“Activists do it for the money.”
No, they don’t … Activists should not be confused with other nonprofits and foundations. They make next to nothing compared to not only the business and government sector but also compared to most of the nonprofits and foundations. Just peruse some of the sites advertising activist jobs, such as Idealist or OneWorld or the individual sites of activist organizations such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, etc.
A very senior Greenpeace International executive recently came under fire from within the organization for, amongst others, the “extravagant” monthly salary of around $8,000 per month. Yes, that is a lot of money when compared to the average income of a supporter or to the average income in any country but let’s be very clear here — it is nothing when compared to similar positions at a government, corporate, large nonprofit or foundation level. The position of this person was similar to a senior executive at most global companies or senior government level. Does that sound like a salary earned by the average corporate or government senior executive? Not even close.
Clients are often surprised when they hear this. The reason why people work for activist organizations are very, very simple: because they believe in the cause. Big surprise, but many people make a conscious decision to work for an organization because of their commitment to make a difference in this world. They are not driven by financial gain at all. It doesn’t mean they are right or that they are better, but it simply means they make personal employment decisions that are different from the typical corporate employee. Financial gain plays a very minor role in their decision making. There is a reason you never hear of rich activists.
But it goes even further than that: Activist organizations don’t campaign to make money either. None of the highly-rated activist groups, such as Oxfam, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, NRDC, Global Witness, etc., pick a campaign based on the ability to raise funding via the campaign. Campaigns are very simply picked because the issues are big, important and align with their focus — and have been highlighted by their partners and supporters. Yes, fundraising is an essential part of enabling these groups to campaign, but they don’t pick a campaign based on the ability to raise funding through that campaign. They simply pick the campaign based on the criteria (issue, scale, network, ability to influence, etc.) and then implement a fundraising strategy to support the campaign. Never the other way around.
It would make no sense for them to create campaigns purely for the sake of making money. They get no personal financial gain; there are no shareholders or owners who will benefit; and their own supporters will smell a rat from a thousand miles.
Companies bring the money factor into evaluating activist campaigns because that is how most of them are judged — increase in sales or revenue, financial benefit to the company, cost-cutting efficiencies, return on financial investment, etc. Yes, values play a role for some of them, and those same values will drive how they make money. But it still comes down to money for companies — ethically, responsibly and sustainably made for the good companies. Take money out of the equation, and you might get a sense of what drives activists. Different rules. It’s why activists work for … nonprofits. It’s not rocket science — it’s in the name.
(Of course some nonprofits do things to make money, but those aren’t activists. And that is for another day.)
So, the next time you think of shouting “show me the money” at an activist — don’t! There’s no money involved when it comes to activist campaigning. You will save yourself a lot of time and effort to get this right from the start instead of wasting it on the wrong insights and strategy. Heck, most of them won’t even take a free cup of coffee — Fair Trade or not.
Image credit: Flickr/fibonacciblue
A series of quick & dirty opinion pieces by Henk Campher. Senior Vice President, Business + Social Purpose and Managing Director of Sustainability at Edelman (www.edelman.com) out in the Wild West of San Francisco. Disrupter of purpose. Engineer of big ideas. Slayer of myths. Social media junkie – @angryafrican. He never wears ties. Ever. But always wears an accent with a strategy and opinion in his back pocket. Please note this series will not focus on individual companies and any reference is purely to provide color commentary. His new book, Creating a Sustainable Brand is available here.
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