What’s an NGO to do?

Around the world entrepreneurs are saying they can end poverty and save us from climate change, while turning a profit. Meanwhile politicians are often saying more radical things about wellbeing, quality of life, and a new direction for humanity than most mainstream NGOs. And recently the mass media and entertainment worlds aren’t ignoring the seriousness of key social and environmental challenges. In such circumstances what is an NGO to do? Over the last 20 years we have seen more advocacy from NGOs who recognised you couldn’t end child labour or tropical deforestation project by project, one factory or forest concession at a time, and so sought to influence government, intergovernmental and private sector policies. Perhaps the current responses, at least at the rhetorical level, indicate some success with advocacy by ‘global civil society’. Yet some suggest it means charities should step aside, because they aren’t competent to work at technical levels of implementation on issues like financing, auditing, and good governance. Many NGO people have agreed, perhaps, with their feet, by joining businesses, consulting firms and financial institutions.

It’s time for NGOs to work out their new niche. Some are nervously moving back towards a charity mentality of saying to people “give us some cash and we will feed those people or protect this animal”, or asset stripping their own brand through big bucks partnerships with companies that don’t address how the corporations internal practices worsen the problem the NGO is meant to be solving. This isn’t the way. Instead, its time to be more ambitious and more systemic. To see how the new interest from business and government can be leveraged for broader and deeper change. To try out new ways of solving problems and propose fundamentally different ways of organising things. Unfortunately lots of senior managers in NGOs don’t see that, or are scared of it. Some seem almost scared of their members, worrying that being more ambitious might upset them, lose them. Others just don’t have time for any creative ideas, as they are busy with time sapping form-filling to demonstrate to big donors how they’ve been good at following proper procedures. All this promotes a culture that doesn’t want to risk failure, and settles for projects that can help tick the boxes for funders. “The revolution will not be funded”, as Incite aptly put it in their book published in April. http://www.incite-national.org/

This was the basic thinking about the need for new NGO approaches which I brought to my work with WWF-UK, as a senior strategic advisor to their work on business, trade, finance and international development. At the start the crucial thing for me was to work out ways for WWF to leverage other sectors, which have a lot more power than even the world’s largest environmental NGO, to transform markets so they function in ways that create more just and sustainable outcomes. Going back to the old model of merely moaning about stuff wasn’t an option. Engaging other organisations to reduce barriers and create incentives for systemic change was my main aim. Yet seeking to engage organisations poses its own set of conundrums. It’s key for an NGO not to fall into the trap of being a cheap consultant to industry or government, or get access by selling out the brand to a ‘partner’. And it’s key to have a strategy rather than just get hooked on a particular method or tactic. We shouldn’t think that partnership with a company or a company attending our meeting is a sign of success. It ain’t. Change is. Too many NGOs think you chose just one club to play a round of golf. Nasty reports and column inches – thats the 7 iron. Stakeholder dialogue and happy reports – thats the putter. But the clubs aren’t the game. You have to respond to the terrain. And so what is that terrain? Its society, stupid. So, NGOs have to get more savvy with their understanding of what society is and how it changes. I have a simplified model in my head based on integrating some insights from extremely boring social and political texts about things with pompous names like structuration theory and neo institutional theory. I see society as about people interacting with things and each other in ways that can be helpfully describe in 4 categories: assumptions, beliefs or norms, rules and resources. It’s a bit farcical that often people in the social change profession don’t have a sense of the terrain or a strategy for changing it. It leads to people becoming addicts of a particular approach, thinking that working only on values, or only on new ideas, or only on regulatory reform, or only through dialogue and networks, or only through protest, is the way. Dumb…. which wouldn’t be any of my business except when they take up scarce resources in organisations that should be innovating change.

Is this all easier said than done? Yep. But one way to illustrate what I’m saying is to give examples of the projects I helped set up at WWF, before I returned to Lifeworth Consulting.

  1. Stopping stupid lobbying: I worked with SustainAbility and Blueprint to shape up a project that would look at whether investors are asking companies to be coherent and progressive with their public affairs and lobbying activities. The aim being to encourage this in the investment world and thus in the corporate world and hence reduce the short termist and ideological crap we hear from some companies and trade associations on needed regulatory innovations to promote more long term real value creation (not just a derivatives bubble). And promote good lobbying too, like some are doing on climate change. The report has come out this week “Coming In from the Cold” and a range of follow up activity is being planned with investors who get the idea we need to see companies supporting value creation across an economy, not externalising costs onto other companies in their same portfolio. See sustainability.com for more info and talk to Seb Beloe there. Great clarity and style.. just like the head honcho.
  2. Getting money where it’s needed: I created a partnership with UNEP Finance Initiative to explore how to reduce the risks of investing in SMEs in the global South, and make it easier to do so. If we come up with ways of using philanthropic and government schemes to then leverage billions of dollars of private funds into clean tech in Africa which also creates lots of jobs and cash into the local economy then Ill be happy. So Im pleased to still be working as a consultant on this project. We even generated 40K funding from the Geneva government and then got nominated for a prize… already (www.obsfin.ch). See www.unepfi.org for more info on our event on September 26th 07 and talk to Inderpreet Chawla there. A real spiritual warrior bridging the consciousness of his “rustic” Indian upbringing with global IT, finance and UN life. Love also to Jen Morgan, Andrew Gaines and Oliver Karius for helping bring this project to life.
  3. Getting corporate lobbying on the agenda in India: With the deputy director of UNRISD, Peter Utting, we devised a project researching how Indian firms are lobbying state and federal government and the implications for sustainable development. This will end up as a programme paper sent free to academics around the world, and hopefully some decent media coverage in India in order to put this issue on the agenda. Then, perhaps, once everyone has the info, we can help Indians to stop stupid lobbying in their own country, and promote more transparent and accountable lobbying. After all, what happens in a country with about 17% of the worlds population is more important than what happens in a country with about 1% (India vs UK). UNRISD are hosting a conference on these issues in November 07 in Geneva. See www.unrisd.org for more info. Your contact there is Peter Utting, a rare species in the UN system… which one? Perhaps an elephant… big brain, long memory, higher view, and always returning to the same ground of basic truths about power and democracy… so needed amongst a flock of sheep.
  4. Getting iconic brands and celebs to promote sustainability in emerging markets: The world needs sustainable consumption to become sexy in Asia, and fast. Otherwise we will all be stuffed by an inflationary resource crunch and climate chaos. What to do when NGOs really aren’t very sexy or known in much of Asia? Encourage iconic brands, celebrities and the mass media to do the job. So, one sector that is powerful in shaping aspirations, and using a lot of celebrities and advertising, is the luxury industry. Fortunately it’s also a sector known by decision making elites in very hierarchical societies. So, we have been looking at commercial reasons why the luxury industry might want to become champions of sustainability, and then how to engage celebrities with that. I’m pleased to be leading this project now with Lifeworth. We will launch our report on the future of luxury in November 07, along with an industry initiative bringing together those in the sector who want to lead change. More information will be coming soon at www.brandfutures.net. The chap championing this now at WWF is sustainable brands guru Anthony Kleanthous. Got even more style than Seb. Whatever do they teach them on that environmental course at Imperial? But if you think you can help with this project, please contact the much less stylish me.
  5. Enabling more transformative partnerships: Sometimes partnerships between business and NGOs are piecemeal and hinder not help broader change. Its time for a greater focus on partnering to achieve change not just within the partners but within wider society including market frameworks. So I created a project with the UN System Staff College who teach UN and NGOs and business people around the world about partnering, which is looking at the last ten years of learning on partnering and will provide strategic planning tools to help people plan more transformative partnerships. I’m glad to be putting in some pro bono work to co write the final report, which should be out by November 07. Hmm… that month is beginning to look a bit hectic. Your contact at www.unssc.org is Dr Partnership himself, David Murphy, a man who taught me how to write and helped launch my crazy portfolio career.
  6. Enabling more big picture planning by NGOs: All those projects are external, but there is also an internal need in WWF to help the staff be strategic in their planning… and to work towards deeper and broader change. I thought systems science would be useful for this so brought in systems illustrator Rupesh Shah to help people with this approach and come up with some tools. Ajay Barai at WWF-UK is your contact for that project. A man who puts the echo into eco tourism if the photos of his bar nights at his own resort in Tioman are anything to go by: http://www.bagusplace.com/en/html/rest_bar2.html. Was there in April…. wow…


jem in tioman april 07

For me all these projects are about promoting sustainable international development. But you won’t read anything about this kind of work in the development journals at the UN where I work as a Visiting Fellow. It’s as if the development profession prefer to think non westerners have only livelihoods not lifestyles, and that to promote a just and sustainable form of world development you’ve got to fly somewhere hot and poor like a modern day missionary… or perhaps tourist with ‘refined’ tastes.

I was only working with WWF part time and had to do lots of form filling and internal blah, as well as deal with the helicopter tragedy and then restructuring (see blog posting in September 06), so didn’t get to work more with them on public policy issues, responsible mass media, emerging markets, or business education reform. On the latter issue I’m pleased to be working with the Globally Responsible Leaders Initiative in my role as Associate Professor of Griffith Business School. The aim is to promote a transformation in business education offered by business schools. i.e. the institutions that too often turn out hardnosed hard hearted management robots. Lots of work to be done there then. See www.efmd.org

If you are interested in this issue of how NGOs can carve out a new niche in their advocacy and bring a new level of professionalism to their social change work, let me know. The project I’m doing with UNRISD is looking at how NGOs work through networks to influence policy. Im planning on integrating the findings from this, the UNSSC Partnerships work, and my internal strategy advisory work at WWF, into an NGO strategic planning 1 day workshop. I will offer this in Australia in March 08 and London and/or Geneva in May 08. Ill be presenting some of the initial ideas to the strategy group of Global Action Networks Net in Geneva in November 07. See www.gan-net.net and your contact there is the effervescent Steve Waddell. He’s the Pope of new international community organising. Or perhaps the Madonna.

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