We’ve come a long way from the time when NGO leaders and businesses stood at opposite ends of the spectrum, with little collaboration or compromise. Now, with the realization that issues are interrelated, that big problems such as climate change, fresh water depletion, natural resource destruction can be solved by partnerships and collaboration, we see NGO leaders sitting in the boardroom of big businesses.
However, this is not always the most efficient way to solve our problems.
As Frances Buckingham points out in his article Why Business Needs More Activism, there are important reasons why NGOs and businesses shouldn’t be sitting on the same side of the table. By serving as watchdogs, NGOs give business more credibility in the public eye and NGO activist campaigns, such as 350.org’s divestment campaign or Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign, spurs change that otherwise wouldn’t happen if the NGOs were working within the business.
The line between advocate and watchdog often first gets blurred when an NGO starts takings money from the very businesses they say they are keeping tabs on. Not a good practice.
I would go one step further and argue that not only do we need NGOs pushing businesses to act more responsibly, but we need more activist business leaders, pushing their own business to the limits of what can be accomplished in a responsible and sustainable manner. These business activists need to create a new system for a better way of doing business, one that provides a measurable benefit to society at large.
Most NGOs are not advocacy organizations – they provide services and resources to groups left out of the marketplace or at the bottom of the income ladder. As such, they are poorly suited to conduct advocacy. More often than not they depend on the support of the largest businesses in their network – either directly or through foundations that those businesses control. It is unrealistic to expect them to be watchdogs when to survive they have to be lapdogs. How we create a space for advocates with independence is very hard. Alinsky would argue that this is something that interest groups have to organize themselves around in order to take on the excesses of corporations that do not care about their interests. Labor unions, community organizations, political organizations are all on that list. But NGOs, by virture of their dependence on the hand that we ask them to bit – not very promising.