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How to find the right NGO partner without shooting yourself in the foot (commentary)

  • Aida Greenbury, the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group and currently a board member and advisor to several organizations including Mongabay, explores the complexities of corporate – NGO engagement.
  • Greenbury says there is a wide spectrum of NGOs and companies, each with differing levels of commitment, ethics, and willingness to meaningfully engage. Finding the right partners is critical for collaborations to be effective at driving change.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Great article on Mongabay Aida. The NGOs that work closely with companies on this topic will never call them out on this,” wrote a US scientist / former big NGO leader last week.

He gave me inspiration. I do want to write about NGOs, particularly regarding company and NGO engagement. Engaging the right NGO partner, for some companies, can be a tricky journey.

Logging concession in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

NGOs tend to dehumanize company leaders they campaign against. Sitting on a hot seat in a controversial company would earn you a list of titles given by some NGOs. I would probably have one of the longest lists. Let me see, I have received death threats including emails threatening my family, I was once referred to as someone whose words are worth less than the paper they are written on, I was once called the public enemy number one, and my favorite, I was referred to as ‘Voldemort’.

I was washing my hands in a restroom in a convention centre in New York when I recognized the woman beside me. She worked for a big conservation NGO.

“Hi, how are you?’ I said politely to her.

She looked at me through the mirror and to my surprise, shouted at me: “Go away!” Her face was as red as the soles of my Louboutin stilettos. A couple of years later, after we half smoked the peace pipe, I had another meeting with her and other environmentalists, when they leisurely asked me to hire a security team to protect a forest conservation area from community encroachment. I declined, using force to stop local communities to access forests is not the way to go.

I heard these statements so many times throughout my career: ‘I don’t care about the people, I want to save the tigers!’ or ‘These communities need to leave, they are destroying the forest’.

Aida Greenbury

Many NGOs are very single-focused, with so much distrust towards people; but let’s face it, when you run a company, it’s hard to ensure the sustainability of your operation without working with an NGO partner. That’s why I worked tirelessly to engage NGOs during my sustainability journey. It is because you need the three pillars — economic, social, and environmental — if you are to create a long-term strategy to protect your operations and make it as close to sustainable as possible.

The achievement of sustainable practices is not a textbook task. In fact, I don’t think true sustainability has ever been, nor ever will be, accurately defined in any textbooks. There are no blueprints: It’s continuously uncharted territory. I once said that a good NGO partner would strengthen your faith to jump off a cliff and solidify your belief that you’ll grow wings on the way down. New sustainability-related science is discovered on a weekly basis. We need to continuously learn, analyze, and use precautionary approaches whenever needed. Despite corporations being disgruntled, the bar is continuously being raised, especially during today’s climate emergency. Therefore, focusing singularly on economic perspectives is not going to work: We need the perspectives of environmentalists and social experts to find ways to move forward. Companies need to engage NGOs, no matter how pesky they are at times.

Engaging the right NGO is like marrying someone; you need to find the one. First, you need to get to know them. Second, the relationship should be based on good chemistry, transparency, and trust. It should never be commercial. In the beginning of the relationship, perhaps you need to test them to see if they would cheat on you or not; but most importantly, they should not see you as a monster. Being referred to as ‘Voldemort’ by one of the big NGOs is definitely a big problem. Humanizing all parties involved is the foundation of good collaboration with NGOs.

Engaging NGOs, local experts, and communities is key to establish a strong long-term sustainability strategy, even online during pandemic. Photo credit: Aida Greenbury

Which NGOs should be engaged? This really depends on what kind of support you need. The World Bank differentiates between operational and advocacy NGOs, where an operational NGO focuses on the design and implementation of development-related projects, whereas an advocacy NGO defends, campaigns for, or promotes a specific cause. These differences are getting blurry lately though. There are NGOs who can be categorized as both advocacy and operational. But the article I’m writing now is more about big international NGOs, or the BINGOs some people say. My rule of thumb is that the NGOs that should be engaged, need to be reputable, science-based, and able to create the largest impacts.

I also like to engage the most vicious ones, the ones with balls. If the NGOs ask you to send some community members to jail because they encroach an elephant conservation forest, or if they ask you to transfer a ridiculous amount of money to a suspicious account number, these are major red flags. Once an NGO receives funding or projects from their commercial organization partner, it’s almost guaranteed that the NGO’s view is skewed towards being less critical. If this is the case, then what’s the point of engaging that NGO, other than to try delaying progress or protecting business as usual?

Honesty is important. If your company ‘accidentally’ destroys some forests you committed to conserve, tell your NGO partner and the public that you messed up. Don’t even try to hide something that satellites can easily find out. That’s just idiocy.

Gorilla in Gabon. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Managing the whole relationship can be tricky too. As I wrote above, not all NGO members are saints. Good NGOs would understand that conservation work will not succeed without addressing the social issues of the local communities. As for companies, a good leader recognizes that sustainability costs are an investment for their operations to survive, that a strong long-term sustainability strategy needs to be implemented transparently with the input from different stakeholders including NGOs.

Good NGOs will call out companies who engage in dodgy activities, no matter how much project money flows into the NGOs’ bank accounts. Dump the ones who don’t, because they are no better than greenwashing parasites.

Just like any relationship, a company-NGO partnership can be broken too. When the relationship ends, it’s time for both parties to look at themselves in the mirror: what have you been dishonest about? Sooner or later, people will find out. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Aida Greenbury (@AidaGreenbury) dedicates her career life to sustainability. Based in Sydney Australia, she is a board member and advisor for several organizations, including Mongabay. Aida is the former Managing Director of Sustainability at APP Group.