How & Why to Make the Shift from Dialogue to Collaboration with NGOs

There was a time when it was good enough just to listen. When corporate execs got credit for sitting at the table with an NGO and benefited from a "different perspective." Their obligation was to "thoughtfully consider" the input in the development of their business plans, strategies and actions. But as the business environment and the sustainability agenda has evolved, so too has best practice in stakeholder engagement.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying there wasn't business value in listening -- there was. It was in fact a refreshing shift from the "convince" model of engaging with stakeholders. The previous model was born of the commonly held belief among many corporate executives that the analysis their staff had done on risks to their business was fact-based, robust and complete.

The problem, if there was one, was that the company just hadn't done a good enough job in communicating their good deeds, or the rationale for not doing more.

So, the thinking went, let's bring these stakeholders in, wow them with Powerpoint presentations on our business, our corporate social responsbility achievements, and the commitment of our employees to the communities they serve, and then not only will the NGO's get off our backs, but they will become our advocates. Oh, and while they are at the table, we should show some respect and listen to what they have to say.

Often what they had to say was actually a pretty useful perspective to hear, if for no other reason than to understand how different people thought about the world, its challenges and its solutions. So "gaining perspectives and insights" became an objective of structured stakeholder engagement.

In fact, for much of the work that SustainAbility does with our clients on stakeholder engagement, this remains an important objective which we state explicitly in the Terms of Reference.

But merely listening and "thoughtfully considering" leaves a lot of value on the table. One of my clients a few years back, when they were just embarking on a structured stakeholder engagement strategy, was so intent at being good listeners (on my recommendation) that at our first break in the morning during one of their first stakeholder roundtables I had to tell them to speak up and be a more active part of the conversation.

Hence a shift to the next phase in the evolution: exchange. This in fact was a quick transition, putting companies back more in their comfort zone where they felt free to respond to and debate what they were hearing from their stakeholders.

This is where many companies are now stuck -- their stakeholder engagement consists of an exchange of views. Post-exchange, it is left up to the company to decide what to do, what policies to change (if at all), what issues to address, what actions to take.

Our biggest sustainability challenges (aka societal and business challenges) -- poverty, access to water, access to healthcare, climate change, biodiversity loss -- are long-term, and require enormous shifts in markets, policy and behavior to fix.

The capacity of an individual company to make any headway on those challenges requires difficult changes implemented over a long period of time. The changes must be made in a way that retains the confidence of their investors (and hence maintains or improves the stock price), or management will be shown the door. Progress is never as quick as activists believe it should be.

So this sets up something of a Groundhog Day dynamic, where stakeholders come to the dialogues every year and restate their case for action, and the company restates its commitment to "thoughtfully consider" what they heard, and everyone goes away not quite satisfied.