The Inside View

6 insights for NGOs to transform corporate sustainability

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Nonprofit organizations, or NGOs, have great opportunity to accelerate corporate sustainability efforts. Yet I see many mistakes. In my former career at McDonald’s, I was involved in the good, bad and ugly of NGO involvement. I recount much of this in my newly released book, "The Battle To Do Good: Inside McDonald’s Sustainability Journey."

Companies get critiqued all the time on how they can do better and receive relentless feedback. Not so with NGOs. They too often get a free pass. Why would a company stir them up with criticism?

NGOs’ successful engagement with companies is absolutely necessary and fundamental if corporate sustainability is to make positive transformative societal change. So, I have reeled in everything I have observed and learned in the past 30 years to create five key insights to help NGOs better wield their innate power to influence, accompanied by a few excerpts from my new book.

1. Listen, then listen more

It’s common and understandable for NGOs to arrive at the corporate doorsteps with an overt agenda. However, if you want to move a company and its people, don’t push the agenda. Rather, listen to your corporate counterpart, find out what they want and need, and work from there. I call it "from the outside in."

Jim Cannon initially met supplier skepticism but went on to help McDonald’s forge a strong sustainable fish program. "It takes listening," Cannon said (then with Conservation International, now with Sustainable Fisheries Partnership). "I want to start where the company is at, and really listen to them, and what moves them. What their needs are. And I tailor my recommendations to what I hear."

2. Assume innocence

The corporate leader can see the "contempt radar" of an NGO — the arrogance, condescension and lack of respect — within minutes of a phone call or an in-person meeting. This happens too much, and it just stifles and stiffens the company mindset. Instead, assume innocence, presume the company is in it for the right reasons and magic may unfold. The opportunities begin to open and multiply, because you start positive and optimistic.

Rain Henderson was the interface from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (today she is with Elemental Advisors) with McDonald’s. Virtually every other nutrition group held scorn at McDonald’s, as if its motivations were just to sell more food and make people obese.

Rain was different. I remember her interacting with our very senior management in a very thoughtful, open, yet professionally challenging manner — starting from a point of view that McDonald’s can be part of the solution. Indeed, her efforts paid off, with McDonald’s overhauling its Happy Meal program more geared toward health.

3. Be an incredible expert

Companies really need your expertise, so trumpet your science and knowledge.

I admired the folks at Conservation International, such as John Buchanan and Bambi Semrock who, as they said, had their "head in the sky, but boots on the ground." For instance, John knows the Amazon inside out and was invaluable to McDonald’s decision to work on a soy moratorium because we trusted him when he had verified the truth of the Greenpeace "Eating Up the Amazon Report." The same with Bambi on coffee.

Jason Clay from WWF made a great impact on sustainable beef. He absolutely won over all the McDonald’s global beef leaders because he knew cattle better than they did. Then he convinced the biggest beef company in the world on the concept, too: JBS. Before meeting Jason, Cameron Bruett of beef supplier JBS said, "Who gave these guys (WWF) the badge to police our centuries-old industry, which has been feeding people around the world all this time? Why are they coming in and saying we’re destroying the planet?"

Upon meeting Jason, Cameron was a convert, saying, "We saw WWF and Jason as an entity that wanted to partner with the people who were in the industry to identify solutions."

4. Be willing to start small or big

I hear from some NGOs that they must get the CEO to sign on first and/or they demand a C-suite commitment. That’s nirvana, for sure, but it’s not going to make sustainability evolve to the mainstream. There are only a handful of Paul Polman-like leaders.

Most companies, especially the next tier of thousands of mid- and small-size companies that need to embrace sustainability, want to test, learn and expand as they achieve success — a very reasonable proposition.

All the NGOs that successfully worked with McDonald’s had a high dose of the second of the "3 Ps" I often talk about: Passion, PATIENCE! and Persistence. Most transformative change takes a few years, so you've got to hang in there.

5. Strut your independence

Balance it with support: Companies need and desire the unblemished credibility of the NGO. That’s your most important asset. So, don’t be bashful about it.

In my book, I detail "How to Choose a Partner" for those in the corporate world. I state: "Don’t choose a patsy. Choose a partner that will challenge your organization."

In addition, I advise: "Evaluate partnership choices on a scale of 1-10, with 1 meaning very corporate friendly and 10 meaning very radical. Work with NGOs in the 5-7 range who are: fiercely independent; collaborate and knowledgeable about business and market forces, and are practical, rather than dogmatic."

Many NGOs are shy to publicly compliment a company, as if it would tarnish their independence. Yet this aspect of working with a company is so vital. The company cannot credibly say they are doing good work on X, but the NGO can and should. And it shouldn’t be a zero sum game: for example, for every compliment there is a bash.

I think EDF does this balancing act well. Their standards are high; their support is there if deserved. My favorite interview for my book was with Fred Krupp, EDF’s president for 33 years, and I just love his philosophy that he talks about in this GreenBiz piece.

6. Apply smart pressure

Now I think some reading this may think my advice is all too nice and civil, and, as a rule, I do think positive and professional has the best chance of success in the corporate hallways. Certainly, pressure can be a good tool, especially if done with a smart solution in mind. For the most part, I feel the campaigning type of groups that are more edgy attacking big brands such as McDonald’s do it for cheap exposure and exploitation, not really to make something better.

An exception was a tough-minded group I came to admire, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. One of its key leaders, Greg Asbed, was as tough as nails, but I found him to be true-blue to the cause of improving farmworkers’ lives. He and his group were not in it just to rattle cages.

CIW was super-smart in recruiting meaningful allies, such as religious groups. As I recount in my book, I received a call from the bishop of my Catholic diocese, asking why McDonald’s wasn’t paying the mere penny a pound more to the tomato pickers. Our CEO received thoughtfully demanding letters from the heads of other religious denominations as well.

Ultimately, it was too hard to argue with God. McDonald’s eventually worked with its direct suppliers to pay the penny a pound. The actual tomato producers refused to pass it on until the impasse was finally overcome a couple years later. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

P.S.: You can find a short excerpt from "The Battle to Do Good" here, the start of the story of the most transformative change maker I’ve ever encountered, Temple Grandin.

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