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TrendWatch 2012: From Confrontation to Collaboration

Andrea Newell headshotWords by Andrea Newell
Leadership & Transparency

In honor of the release of Trendwatch 2012, we'll be rolling out posts about sustainability and economic recovery. You can find them here all week, or read the whole set here. Please also join us for a free webinar on February 29th where we'll be discussing the role of sustainability in economic recovery. 

Non-government organizations (NGOs) have been forging relationships with businesses for years, and more so in the past decade, but NGOs and businesses need to work together even more in the future. Because economic recovery isn’t just about the financial picture. It’s about rebuilding consumer confidence, trust and faith that businesses won’t lead us down the garden path to financial (and environmental) ruin again. Or, that we won’t let them. As we try to repair our economy, build consumer trust and confidence and address looming future climate concerns, it will take the combined perspectives and efforts of the business and NGO sectors to move us forward.

Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, left a lucrative Wall Street career to lead the international environmental nonprofit. Tercek has long been a vocal advocate for the pairing of businesses and NGOs, citing the enormous strides that his organization has made with unlikely partners such as Dow, BP and the state government of Iowa. He is unfailingly optimistic about not only the benefits of these partnerships, but that business leaders are not only seeking out NGOs, but will do so in bigger numbers in the future.

“We are realizing how high the stakes are now. They were high in the past, but we didn’t understand it as well. We have a world where more people [in developing markets] are being lifted out of poverty, which is wonderful, but as middle class citizens they will become consumers and that added consumption coupled with increasing population translates into an enormous demand for food, energy, water, and land. That demand will put great stress on ecosystems, which will also certainly be affected by the climate change we know will occur. The stakes are very high now to address these things the best we can.”
Companies are realizing that their businesses are dependent on the environment and are looking for ways to mitigate that impact in order to ensure their business will survive. The Nature Conservancy’s partnership with Dow Chemical is centered around the company’s dependence and impact on water ecosystems.

Partnership with an NGO also indicates to stakeholders that the business is serious about social and environmental concerns. The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer report showed that trust in U.S. businesses dropped, but that globally NGOs were still the highest regarded institution.

From philanthropy to strategic collaboration

What does it mean for a business and an NGO to form a partnership? Tercek outlines his definition of the three main ways that businesses satisfy their social responsibilities: the first is cause marketing, where businesses and nonprofits partner to bring awareness and donations to a certain cause, and the second is simple financial donations. Both are important efforts for both NGOs and businesses.

But Tercek believes that a true partnership is when an NGO and business come together in an equitable relationship where each is on equal footing, the importance of the effort is communicated and prioritized from the c-suite down, each organization comes to the table understanding that they can learn something from the other, and together they set set out to tackle a big challenge.

“It’s important to figure how one plus one can equal more than two,” Tercek said. “For a good NGO and a good business to come together - really exciting things can come out of that relationship.”

Previously NGOs were considered watchdogs in many respects, calling businesses out on unethical behavior and lobbying for change from their lofty, socially-conscious perches above the fray. Now the policing is coming about through more transparency, and NGOs like The Carbon Disclosure Project have shown that entering into a collaborative relationships with businesses and putting their heads together for solutions is a much more sustainable approach.

At times, relationships have sprung out of contention, like when Greenpeace waged an intense PR war against Kimberly Clark until they agreed to source the wood fiber for their products from environmentally responsible sources. Then they became partners, but most successful partnerships don’t emerge from finger-pointing and disparagement.

Learning to learn from each other

The most successful partnerships are forged from a deliberate and thoughtful union. It’s important to be selective about which organization to partner with. Each organization needs to realize that it can learn something from the other. Forging a long-term relationship allows both organizations get to know each other and build trust. Tercek believes that this fosters calculated risk-taking, because the team will forgive a few stumbles in the pursuit of success/achievement. It enables the team to try difficult things, where the bigger the effort, the bigger the payoff.

“The best way to get to know each other is by rolling up your sleeves and working together,” Tercek said.

Abigail Rodgers, VP of Sustainability Strategy and Communication at Coca Cola, agrees. It turned out that at one point, Coca Cola partnered with The Nature Conservancy on their water stewardship efforts, as well as continuing a long-term relationship with the World Wildlife Fund to support their Arctic Home cause marketing initiative.

Rodgers told Andrea Learned of Sustainable Business Forum,

"While watershed issues had been the initial building block for the WWF partnership, it was working together on Arctic Home that gave the interrelationships therein their first big test. In the course of the many months that Coca Cola leaders, WWF, the To the Arctic 3D filmmakers, and the various governmental entities all worked together, they broke through the organizational culture clash.  The parties were able to find their common ground and they learned to communicate very well in order to maintain the shared long-term vision and have the greatest impact."
Aiming high to tackle future challenges

As institutions learn to work together, rebuild trust and put the pieces of our economy back together, we are still staring down the barrel of the climate change impact that will affect both business, humanity and environment. Tercek calls his solution to this problem, “development by design.”

Our society has to make enormous investments in infrastructure ahead to mitigate these problems and continue to rebuild and thrive. Tercek believes that if NGOs and businesses continue to collaborate, develop innovative solutions together, they can work with local governments to design solutions that have input from all sectors. Planning is crucial. If infrastructure is implemented without attention to all facets of the problem, it could be disastrous, where a little planning could make all the difference.

“Business. If any of this resonates, reach out and get to know some NGOs. NGOs are full of smart, hard-working highly capable people, just like businesses. We just have a different mission.”

[Image credit: jenlen, Flickr]

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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