globehands

The UK and Europe is so far ahead of the US when it comes to Corporate Responsibility. If I only had a penny for everyone who said this. I hear this almost every single day. And not just from those in England who have a slightly superior attitude when it comes to corporate responsibility. I hear it from people here in the US just as often, if not more. The truth is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Is cricket better than baseball? Only if you are from England. Although you wouldn’t know that from recent results. And you would only like cricket more if you enjoy sitting in the sun and rain for five days and still not get a result. But I digress. They are both ball sports but they are vastly different. They might even share a common history, but that is where it stops.

In the US they believe in Corporate Citizenship and in the UK they believe in Corporate Responsibility. More or less the same, but different just the same. Corporate Citizenship is about what you do in your community. How you interact and how you support them. Corporate Responsibility is about how you run your business – it’s about operations and how you work. The impact is important to both, but in Corporate Citizenship you look at your community and their needs first and the way you work in your community might have something to do with the way you operate, but does not have to. In Corporate Citizenship you focus on your role in society through your operations and the impact you have, and then you improve on these. Through these operational changes you will have a more positive impact on society. Both benefits society, but they have slightly different points of departure.

The reason why the community focus is so central in the US is because there is less of a safety net in the US than in most of Europe. People do not expect government to solve their problems or protect them from every single little thing in life. No, people do that themselves and they tend to look after themselves and after each other. They expect to solve issues themselves. Americans like the idea of less interference by government and more control by themselves in taking responsibility of their own lives. It might have something to do with the open spaces, but Americans do not like people telling them what to do. They want to be masters of their own destiny. Less government and more power to the people.

In the UK and much of Europe there are much more of a reliance on government to interfere in daily life. People expect government to take more control of their daily lives and maintain the rules of how society engage and organize themselves. The rules of engagement. And they want government to identify the common areas of good that will help improve society. Government will tell you what is bad and help you to become better. All that is left for companies to do is ensure they do their best through operations and compliance to government regulations.

That brings me to a second point of difference – regulations and compliance. Corporate behavior is managed through regulations and compliance in the UK and Europe. Everything you do is regulated and not left to the company to try and innovate on their side. Any leadership position you develop is very quickly turned into a government requirement. (Your window of opportunity to show true leadership will stay open for a very short period in this environment). It helps that there is a strong central government in Europe. It makes it easy to push through new regulations. And it is even easier in Europe where the European Commission is hardly held responsible by ‘the people’ and have an almost free ride in bringing in new regulations. No wonder that Europe brought out regulations to define what a banana is – up to the curve needed to be defined as a banana. And I am not joking…

And it is also easy to bring in new regulations in the UK. It is a small island with a central government that runs the rule over everyone. Yes, Scotland and Wales have some autonomy, but the UK is still pretty much ruled from London. It is easy to understand the drive towards more regulations with so much power in the hands of a central government. It is in the nature of government to try and rule their own way. And each new government want to leave behind some kind of legacy. And what is easier than to bring in new regulations that can be sold as ‘for the good of everyone’.

It is different in the US. States control their own destiny much more than any regional authority in the UK. The federal government do not have the power to control everything. Even taxes are different from state to state. And some states like Massachusetts might regulate more towards the protection of people than those in say Texas, but it is up to each state to decide what is most relevant for their state. Federal government can provide guidelines and try and push through federal laws, but this is generally fought tooth and nail by states. The art of the federal government is to try and keep a balance between inching forward on the regulatory front and encouraging states to take control at a local level. But change happens at state level and not federal level.

This approach allows for companies to take more risk in trying out new practices and to develop a leadership position. They know they can bring in these practices without the danger of it being regulated to death. Yes, it is a fine balance. They still have to tell the truth in advertising and not make claims that can’t be backed, but they can be more risky in taking chances. Over in the UK it is slightly different. The aim of regulations is not to bring best practice into law, but to rather identify the lowest common denominator that could be passed as acceptable behavior by companies. I know, both have a place – best practice and lowest common denominator. In the US they lean more towards the former and in the UK more to the latter. It fits their societal and political needs.

Of course the US does have one thing that ensures that the lowest common denominator is ‘self regulated’. The I-will-sue-you culture. You make one mistake and the consumer will take you to the cleaners. Yes, it is out of control, but it creates an incentive for business to not do something that can harm the public. There are enough lawyers here to ensure that you will get sued. Businesses in the UK can hide behind compliance of law and it is much more difficult to sue someone if they haven’t broken the law instead of suing because they didn’t look after the public interest.

And some of the regulations make the way companies act very different. For instance, both the UK and US have regulations regarding how foundations are run. And these are very, very different. US corporate foundations are not allowed to do any work that can directly benefit the company. This was put in place to ensure that companies do not see this as a way to hide money, and to ensure they spend their foundation money on what is good for society as a whole. Very different in the UK. Much more freedom to be strategic in the way they spend their foundation money. They can spend the money on helping suppliers of the company and still write it off under foundation rules. The unbelievable work the Shell Foundation (UK) has done in development in poorer countries would not be allowed under US rules.

The US also likes rock stars and celebrities more than anything else. Man, their news are pathetic over here – give me the BBC please. Every second story is about some celeb and their latest escapade. And that plays out in the way company CEO’s act as well. The CEO and Chairman tend to play a major role in the public view of the company. Bill Gates is Microsoft. Howard Schultz is Starbucks. Steve Jobs is Apple. And each one have to make their mark in this world. Not because they want to, but because people expect them to do their thing from the front – lead the way in how and what they give and the way they run their company. They are the people others look up to and aspire to become. These leaders drive change across all businesses and are needed in a less regulated business environment. They are by default the people who drive real change through their own commitment to making business and society better. Thank God for them.

Less so in the UK. Companies are seen as more important that the individual. A few has made it to the front – Richard Branson as one. But they stand out because they are so different from the rest. The focus tend to be on the company and not the individual who runs it. Yes, they play a role, but the company is seen as less dependent on the CEO and/or Chairman than in the US. Another reason why the UK loves splitting this role while the US wants the same person in charge. Two big egos would be difficult to control in the US.

One area where the US is way ahead of the UK is in communicating their corporate citizenship. They tend to focus on the communications part more while the UK tend to focus more on the operational changes. Maybe it is because the UK society is more reserved than the US, but it means that Ben and Jerry’s is more respected in the US than Unilever. But in the UK it is the other way around. Of course this can be exploited and can confuse the consumer. A classic example is the current discussions in Washington about ‘green’ advertising and marketing. But the best tend to rise to the top and consumers do know to take things with a pinch of salt.

In short, the US is different because it fits in with the way their society organizes itself compared to the UK. Both approaches have real value. Both approaches will improve the world little by little. Both approaches will have failures and successes. But the one is not better than the other. Just different. Dealing with their own little peculiarities in their society and political systems. Both work. And both fails. I don’t need to remind you of the current economic failure in the US thanks to a regulate-yourself culture. But the US is not in any way behind the UK when it comes to the role of business in society. No. They are just different. A US approach won’t last a second in the UK. And the UK approach won’t survive a second in the US. The real challenge for them both is to adapt when they are outside their own borders, culture and comfort zone. For example, neither will last long in China or South Africa if they just try to continue working the way they do in their country of origin. New rules and new ways of operating is needed. They have to bring the best of their world and merge it with the societal and political expectation in these new countries. And that won’t be better either. Just better for that specific country.

Bu the discipline of business in society benefits from this dynamics – bringing different approaches to the table. And it is when these merge and mingle that we move further ahead in this world of ours. Of course there is one approach that works no matter where you are. The South African approach. But I won’t be giving away our secrets just yet. No, I am way to responsible to do something like that.

charity

You want to hug a dolphin? Or maybe plant a tree? What about buying a goat for a village in Ethiopia? Or a desk and chair for a school in Banda Aceh? No. Mm-mm, difficult one. Wait, I have just the thing for you – how about supporting the Foundation for the protection of Swedish underwear models?

And you think I am joking about that last one. It might be tongue in cheek, but this cause has over 400,000 signed up members globally. Okay, it is a Facebook cause – but one of the most supported causes. They even managed to raise some money for their nonprofit – after specifically asking for NO money. Yes, this is a nonprofit and their aim is the “promotion of international understanding”. No, I really am NOT joking.

The point I am trying to make is that we now have a cause for every taste and need. And then some. Once you find your cause – which organization within this cause do you want to support? And so on, and so on. The list just gets longer and longer.

This shouldn’t be a problem. People can now match their passions with the right organization. And there are enough charities out there to still have a slight different individual flavor that makes you so much more different from the plebs who support Oxfam (joking people…). Oh no, you support Project Africa – because it is so much more than a goal, it is a mission. A cause that goes with your evening dress and another that goes well as a car refresher hanging from the rear-view mirror.

And it makes life so much easier if you run a company. All you have to do is pick your cause and adopt the charity or nonprofit that is still available. You feel strongly about education for kids? Make your pick – we still have EduKiddiCare and KEDUCare available. (Man, how many times can someone focus on education before we run out of charities or ideas?)

But the growth in charities and causes can have a bad impact as well – apart from the bad jokes (sorry). Firstly, it waters down the important stuff and diverts attention. Instead of tackling the real big issues facing the world – Climate Change, Abuse, Poverty & Hunger, War, Disasters and Health (the Big 5 plus Climate Change) – we tackle every issue that comes to mind. Can we really justify saving the dolphin, battling bottled water, fighting immigration, protesting GM crops and anti/pro-abortion marches (the Little 5) while people are dying of hunger, disease, abuse, disasters or war? Of course all these other issues are important, but more important than people dying right now in this world we all share? I don’t know – your call.

Even more important than the long list of options and diverting attention – the diversion of funds. Two dynamics stand out. Firstly, aid only increases marginally each year – and even then it goes to certain causes that are important, but not really charity for the needy. For instance, where do you think 80% of US federal ‘aid’ go? A handful of countries that are not really on the most needy list – Israel, Pakistan and Egypt. And oh, it includes military aid… And it gets worse because the money is now spread across and even wider range of causes and organizations. Each year another nonprofits comes along that wants a piece of the pie – and reduces the share of the next one.

But the single biggest problem I have with the proliferation of charities? They divert money away from Africa and other places of need. Instead of the funding going directly to the charity in the country suffering, it goes via other charities and donor bodies first. And everyone takes their cut. The money for empowering women farmers in Zambia doesn’t go to Women for Change. Oh, they might get a small amount. But the money first goes to DFID or USAID or GTZ – or whatever government agency. And then it goes to Oxfam GB or US or Germany. And then it goes to Oxfam Southern Africa. And then it goes to Oxfam Zambia. And the leftovers go to Women for Change.

Businesses always try and streamline their value chain. We should do the same with funding. No more than 2 steps before it gets to the actual people that need it and should benefit from it. Cut out the middlemen. Hey, they make money for campaiging in any case by collecting from door to door and in the streets. It doesn’t mean the end of Oxfam or Care or Save The Children and mates. Just the beginning of the nonprofits who can really bring immediate change to the people who need it most. It will force every charity to focus on achieving real change and doing the bit they are best at. And more of the program money will go to the charities who are closest to the real issues on the ground – they are part of the people who suffer in their community. We just need to streamline the charity supply chain a bit.

Of course there is another reason for my little rant. Is it about caring about something or doing something? The caring bit is about you. But the doing bit is about those who need the help. It’s a slight but important difference. You can pick a charity or a cause the way you pick a dress or shoes – something to fit in with your needs and different tastes. But please don’t forget that this isn’t about you. It’s about those who really need you to be part of them and part of the solution. I worry that the causes are so diverse that we start forgetting who and what this is all about. It’s not a clothing outfit to fit with your personality. It’s about people. And what they need.

Mm-mm, maybe I just found the cause that fits my charity. The AA BARF charity needs your support. Really… The Angry African Beer And Rugby Fund never really got the funding or supporters it deserved in any case. And the money will go directly to the cause it supports. I promise…

Corporate Social Responsibility is about what business can do – not about what business must do. It is about opportunities and business benefits – not about obligations or new rules. And the sooner companies develop integrated approaches to identify and react to opportunities the better. And the quicker they put business returns and stakeholders, and specifically the consumer, at the forefront of CSR the better for both them and the CSR business model.

Tangible business benefits are ultimately realized through operational efficiencies (CSR strategy) and effective communications (CSR communications), through PR, advertising, brand, online and other ways to bring the benefits to the consumer and other stakeholders. What is needed is an integrated CSR strategy and communications approach, that is aligned with brand identity and positioning, to effectively engage target stakeholders, especially consumers, and build brand trust, loyalty and affiliation. By working across a company’s different functional areas, understanding and working within the commercial realities of a company, and making stakeholders key, CSR can strengthen and improve the businesses of companies.

CSR strategy development, which is informed by business objectives, market realities and stakeholder input, provides company direction for risk minimization, operational improvements and future growth. This strategy should be informed by and aligned with brand identity and positioning that helps position the company to stand as a responsible and leading corporate citizen – thereby building brand trust, loyalty and affiliation.

CSR communication strategies positively engage stakeholders, specifically consumers, and create on-going dialogue and interaction with the company. This engagement is in turn used to continuously inform strategy, refine brand identity and positioning, and propel continuous improvements creating a cycle of CSR leadership and business benefits.

This integrated approach provides companies with tangible benefits targeted at their own and their stakeholders’ commercial, social and environmental needs as well as the methodology to continuously improve their business, ensure CSR leadership and business benefits, and strengthen brand trust and value – now and in the future.

So, what’s my beef with PR? They play a central role in all this, right? Yes they do. A key role. But my problem is that almost all of them see this as vanilla PR. Yes, they’ll talk about how important it is and say all the right things – remember, they are in PR. But then they will focus on all the philanthropy work of the company – not the operational impacts. They’ll write CSR reports full of beautifully crafted stories of how the company has helped some poor family in Ethiopia, and hardly ever talk about what is material to the company. They’ll pitch the good stuff to the media, but not engage with stakeholders on the bad stuff. They’ll devise participatory employee volunteering schemes, but not talk about the lack of union representatives of the 5% of the workforce that got cut in the last round of ‘streamlining’. And they won’t mention that some workers in the supply chain might be just as bad off as that family in Ethiopia. They’ll talk and talk about the good stuff, because they don’t actually know how the company operates. It doesn’t help that they always talk to corporate communications/public affairs or corporate affairs (take your pick) and hardly ever to product development, HR, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain management or H&S.

One of the experiences that I despised the most while at the International Business Leaders Forum was the PR agencies constantly running to us to help them in their communications of their clients CSR practices. And this ‘advice’ can range from helping them write a CSR report to just telling them what CSR actually means, or just ‘engaging’ stakeholders. But when it came to the client or public, they acted as if they knew everything. Man, they can tell you in so many ways how they can bring the CSR of your company to life – whether you actually have CSR practices or not is irrelevant.

The problem is that PR agencies are geared towards communications. Yes, it might be aligned with the brand or corporate values if you are lucky, but PR agencies know zilch of operations. They will spin you stories on how important operations are, but they know very little of the actual dynamics of business outside communications. PR agencies are good at the communications bit, and consultants are good at the operational bits. But they talk different languages and have very different views on what brings value to the company. PR agencies see the value of CSR as how they can ‘PR’ it. Talk about it, blow it up bigger than what it is and pull off a few gimmicks. But CSR will remain outside of the company and remain without value if you have a PR approach to it. Yes, PR agencies all of a sudden have CSR departments and talk the talk. But have a close look at the people they employ at the CSR unit – PR or political campaigning backgrounds. Not those who have an understanding of operational improvements or even global developmental backgrounds. CSR will remain meaningless if we allow it be driven by PR. It must be driven by both communications and operations. And we need people to understand both. If not, well then we will continue to not bring business benefits AND development gains.

Just look at what consumers believe – they believe everything is spin. And they are not far off when it comes to the role of PR in all of this. And the examples like Wal-Mart and their online strategy is not good stakeholder engagement. But it happens when you drive your CSR through PR communications. PR has a role to play, but they need to get their house in order before they kill off CSR completely.

But don’t worry. PR is not the only guilty one from an agency side. Those consultants. They know nothing of communications. Or actual business benefits. They’ll do your CO2 emissions whether you make cars or plant trees. And design new eco-friendly offices whether you are a financial institution or farmer. No, they’ll sell you anything as long as it can relate to something in your operations. Don’t get me started on them…

Add to Technorati Favorites
Digg!

I have to confess that I went through a phase of addiction. To Scrabulous on Facebook. I played it with my friends in Australia, and with my wife sitting across me in the lounge. I now have it under control. I only have about 2 games going at the same time and only play at night. Now it seems as if this will be taken away. By Mattel and Hasbro – the owners of Scrabble. And, surprise, surprise, the fight is being led by the corporate lawyers.

I am not surprised that the lawyers are heading this up. They’ll take any case if they can smell that they might win. I guess it comes from losing so often. And corporate lawyers are especially pathetic. Couldn’t make it in the courtroom or on their own. So decided to be the ‘fact-checker’ that cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Boy, do I have a special dislike for them.

They have been at the heart of almost every failure that I have worked on. Mind you, not failure because of our work or advice. But failure because they didn’t agree with our way or our advice. Let me give you a classic example.

I worked with a large company that was the target of a major trademark campaign by activists and an African government. Our advice? Just agree to sign the agreement they want you to sign. Yes, you might have a legal case, but most of these cases have nothing to do with whether you are legally right or wrong. Being legally right does not equal morally right. Legal justice does not mean doing what is just. The campaigners will just argue that the system is in favor of ‘Big Business’ and that the little guys always get the short end of the stick. It’s a ‘no win’ for the company.

And, most importantly, you can’t win a popularity contest with a respectable campaigning non-profit or an African country. Everyone got this, except the lawyers. They argued that it could set a precedent. That it might (yes might) hurt the company – they were wrong. So the company continued to fight the legal case. And we continued to argue that they need to just sign the bloody agreement – their well earned reputation was getting hammered. We eventually told them that they WILL sign an agreement. Not because we say so, but that was just the way it works out in the end in these campaigns – hey, I headed up a few campaigns while at Oxfam.

It dragged out for more than a year. The company got hammered. Their reputation was shot. The end result? They agreed to sign the agreement…

I continue to fight the corporate lawyers at every turn. We argue – just be transparent and tell people everything. The lawyers? No, can’t do that – too risky. (I bet you that the tobacco industry got the same advice from their lawyers from day one). We argue – sign an agreement with the local community that you will respect their rights. The lawyers? No, can’t do that – too risky. We argue – be open at the board level about pay. The lawyers? No, can’t do that – too risky. At every turn we bump into them. This roadblock stopping all progress. And the end result? The lawyers are wrong, the company’s reputation is damaged, and we look like asses for being right.

Why could the lawyers not be told to shut the hell up and let the ‘money makers’ in the company run things. I have had two CEO’s tell the lawyers to stop telling him what he can’t do and rather help him make things possible. Instead of stopping things from happening, make sure that every legal angle is covered to make things happen. Be part of progress, don’t stop it. And in both cases the company benefited from the result. Better relations, more respected brands, and innovative changes.

What should Hasbro and Mattel have done? Tell the lawyers to shut the hell up. And ask the marketing people to speak to the developers about getting their name attached to Scrabulous. Imagine – 500,000 free hits every single day. Free advertising on one of the most popular social networks available. Instead? 500,000 potential campaigners against Hasbro and Mattel. Instead of free advertising and potential clients? Free dislike and loss of clients. I for one won’t be replacing my Scrabble game soon. And won’t buy the game for my friends as I was planning on doing. And I blame the corporate lawyers for that.

Can someone just shoot the corporate lawyers so we can start making some money and enjoy a better life.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Digg!

I won’t comment on whether I believe in unions or not. That’s for another time and another debate. And I think my time in the unions might affect my opinion. But I do have a concern about the impact that attitudes towards unions can have on a business – especially a global business.

I don’t know how often I hear US companies say that they don’t need or like trade unions. That it is their business and they will make the decisions. Or that they like to develop a personal relationship that is more like a family. That people working for the company are not workers, but rather partners or associates. ‘Unions are not for us thanks. We look after our workers and believe in the personal relationship between us and our partners’ – standard responses by businesses in the US. And these are good businesses. Not sweatshops or the companies you would put on your black list. No, these are companies I, and most people, admire and like most of the time. Companies we don’t mind supporting or work for. Companies we hold up as leaders in the field of development, environment, stakeholder engagement and everything else you want to throw in the hat. Companies that inspire us. And I just don’t get it.

Yes, unions in the US might not be the friendliest of the bunch – and they have their own reasons. But the world is different the minute you step outside these borders. You might have strong feelings about unions and their role in the US. But they are viewed differently outside these borders.

You run the risk of killing your business if you believe that Europe is a key market and you still believe that trade unions have no role to play in your business. Go to Germany and France and people love their unions. People are proud of being a member and unions have huge influence on communities and politicians. Hey, they even participate on the board in many companies.

In most Scandinavian countries unions are part of official political alliances on national and local levels. They help decide what money goes to what programs and they support union movements all over the globe. The local political leader will most likely be a union leader as well. In these countries unions are seen as key to development and foreign policy. Remember, we are talking about social democracies here.

And political alliances between governments and unions are also common in places like South Africa. Here the largest trade union federation COSATU is also an official ally of the ruling ANC government. In fact, they played a key role in electing Zuma as the new ANC leader over current President Mbeki. They didn’t like Mbeki’s economic policies and selected someone they felt they could control a bit more. And union members are part of the official Ministerial WTO team of negotiators. They are embedded in the government. And South Africa has unionization rates way above 80% just to make things a bit more difficult in case you decide you don’t like them.

Also, why would you want to tell your suppliers that their workers should have freedom of association in places like India, China and Mexico when you don’t want that back home? Yes, unions are mostly limited or controlled (and sometimes hunted) in some of those places, but the principle of freedom of association should be consistent for both you and your suppliers. Your suppliers won’t feel that committed if you don’t walk the talk.

And to make things even more difficult they use a a different language when you leave these borders. It’s not brother and sister anymore – it is comrade. Again – no comment from me whether this is right or wrong – you just have to live with it. And learn to celebrate 1 May as Workers’ Day – a global celebration of workers and their rights, just not in the US.

So, if you decide that you don’t want unions in some of your overseas offices you might just as well close your shop and walk away from the global market. You have to think and act like a global player if you want to play oas a global player. Love them or hate them, but you can’t operate efficiently in these countries without them. Remember that, and you might become trusted and build a loyal workforce – become the ‘comrade boss from the big office’.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Digg!

I was reading an old blog giving 4 reasons why most consumers don’t care about corporate ethics. It was an interesting read, and I will respond in more detail on the other issues at a later stage. But one issue stood out again – consumers just aren’t willing to pay the price. This typical excuse simply argues that people won’t do something as opposed to delving deeper into why people buy products.

If price is the only issue then Nike would not sell one shoe nor would Starbucks sell one cup of coffee. Okay, so quality has something to do with it, so (some) consumers will consider price and quality when buying a product.

So why do (and did) people in the US still buy American cars? A few years back, American cars were generally more expensive and of lower quality. But people bought them, because they were American-made. Okay so price, quality AND origin can all be part of consumer decision making criteria.

So why do some people buy from from Home Depot instead of Lowe’s? They are equal in price, quality and origin. Well, maybe because the types and quality of services they provide cater to specific consumers. So consumer decisionmaking is about price, quality, origin and service.

And so on, and so on, and so on. There are always many reasons why people buy certain products and not others. We must realize that consumers are not a single robot or unit, but that everyone has their own criteria which they use to when making a decision to buy something. For some, quality ranks highest (that is why people are still paying $200+ for DVD players). For others, environmental impact or health attributes are most important.

Brand value is complex. and by going beyond price and quality to include environmental or social issues in the brand propositioning, helps companies further differentiate their products from competitors. By going forward with corporate responsibility messages, those issues become part of a range of brand elements.

Also, ethically-sourced products don’t necessarily have to cost more–although this is a common misconception. Some products might be more expensive, but corporate responsibility (CR) can also reduce costs and create opportunities. CR is about doing business better – all round. If you are working with your suppliers to make them more efficient, you gain. Paying staff a decent wage can make them more efficient, you gain. By looking after the environment can ensure you still have a product to sell tomorrow, you gain. As each consumer is different, so is each company. We need to acknowledge this and build the ‘corporate responsibility solution’ around what makes business sense for each individual company and product or brand.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Digg!

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 mal 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.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Digg!