The sting on Conservation International (CI) by ‘Don’t Panic’ (see video http://tiny.cc/y4ltf) raises big questions for big NGOs. In case you missed it, a corporate relations executive for CI was taped in London offering a partnership to reporters posing as representatives from a major arms company. Other than the usual price list of ‘engagement opportunities’ that they were offered came the more absurd suggestion that a partnership on endangered birds of prey (in the Middle East, conveniently) might tap nicely into the arms company’s ‘aviation’ business. The video is worth a look.
It would be quite wrong to say this is business as usual for CI. We don’t know all the facts, and clearly this particular CI representative is as stupid as she is unprincipled. CI is a big organisation and can be forgiven the odd staff error. But this episode is important because of the ongoing conversation going on, beneath the media radar, about the behaviour of some of the big NGOs and their relationship with companies.
Last week in a session I chaired at the Responsible Business Summit, one NGO executive stood up and introduced herself as a ‘senior account manager handling a number of large corporate accounts’. For a second I thought I had misheard the name of her organisation (which I won’t repeat here) and that she was from a public relations company. Sadly, I was wrong.
The growing dominance of fundraisers and corporate marketing staff in big NGOs is becoming a real concern. What they gain in funds they lose in policy expertise. For every hour spent helping companies with their PR they lose an hour achieving change at ground level. Partnerships between the giant NGOs and multinationals often achieve little in the long run – they are as much about co-branding as they are about lasting change. That’s why certification groups are so important – they do at the farm, forest or fishery level what others can’t and don’t.
I have seen this ‘conservation by price list’ in action many times, when I’ve taken clients round some of the bigger ‘business-friendly NGOs’. For this much you get that, add £25,000 and you can join this. It’s wrong. And it’s unsustainable.
I’m sure this dismal slip up will lead to some serious debate at the highest levels of CI and comparable organisations. But the more these groups behave like global PR firms, the more they will be tarnished with the same brush. There’s a reason PR firms are increasingly in the spotlight, over companies like APP, BP, Trafigura. It’s that they will work for anyone on anything, for the right price. The CI video suggests the particular executive involved might be better off leaving the NGO sector for one of the big marketing groups – the values set is just about right. Not only has she tarnished her own organisation, the has tarnished NGOs and even principled consultancy firms (yes, they do exist). In doing so, people who want the sustainability movement to disappear have been given some nice ammunition of their own to add to their narrative. Appropriate, given the conversation included a section about cluster bombs and weapons recycling. It beggars belief really.
In my firm we would never entertain a conversation with any client or prospect such as the one caught on tape. We’d never give such idiotic advice for a start. We are very clear about what will and won’t work, what is credible and what is pointless. My own criteria for what I will and won’t work on are here, in cased you missed them. http://tiny.cc/2g1mn It’s a sad day when a for profit consultancy applies a stronger values system than a global non profit NGO. I don’t agree with some of the inferences about CI’s other corporate partners, by the way. There are plenty of companies with imperfect histories who are not only moving in the right direction but absolutely pivotal to progress on the planetary emergency. The arms trade isn’t among them though, and CI should make sure this never happens again, as well as having a long hard think about its whole approach to corporate engagement.