NGOs and Corporations: Collaboration and Conflict

At the International CSR Conference in Berlin on September 23, this topic is getting the attention of a major plenary session. A few months ago, there was a major cross-sector panel on the same issue, featuring key environmental NGOs and, amongst other corporate representatives, a major energy company. This panel, coincidentally, also took place in Berlin, and a key question there was, just as well as at the conference here now: Can you collaborate and criticize at the same time?

Corporate representatives often assume that NGOs should be thrilled about the opportunity to partner with them. I must admit that, coming from the corporate side, I also held that attitude for a long time. I am still passionate about cross-sector partnerships and their opportunities.

NGOs, however, are often concerned with a mix-up of their roles. As civil society representatives, aren’t they supposed to be independent, critical of and, if necessary, protest corporate activities? They are concerned whether they are giving up power, will be influenced or interfered with too much, compromise their own stakeholder base – becoming “corporatist” and “losing their power and their teeth”, as Michael Yaziji of IMD’s Forum for Corporate Sustainability Management calls it during the plenary session at the conference.

Cross-sector collaboration is certainly an interaction of ideologies, value sets, visions, missions and expectations that can become quite complex and controversial – and I am noticing that for corporations, it is certainly necessary to be sensitive of this and pay good attention to NGOs’ concerns. An important questions to be asked is: Taking complexity and concerns into consideration, what can be done to build a relationship of mutuality/reciprocity and trust? In that context, a question to be asked as well is: What does each side have to give up (e.g. interests, positions, attitudes) to collaborate well?

Peter Eigen, founder of Transparency International, said wisely yesterday: “You need to always keep the dialogue open, while keeping the right distance.” What the ‘right’ distance is probably needs to be negotiated case by case, and re-negotiated periodically and situationally?

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