Brendan May takes a sideways look at the wonderful world of NGOs

Businesses are always talking about engaging the “NGO community”. But there’s really no such thing, since no two non-governmental organisations are the same.

So, how to pick an NGO partner? Here’s an unofficial guide to the various species of NGO and their key behaviours. Can you recognise any?

The tunnel-visioned zealot The zealot believes that there is only one way to solve social or environmental problems: theirs. Zealots struggle when other campaigners suggest an alternative. If they attack their rival brethren, they look petty and silly. If they do nothing, they risk losing share of voice (and indeed market). The zealot’s solution is to grit its teeth, smiling politely in meetings when its rival is mentioned. But underneath rage is bubbling. We have zealots to thank for waking up the business world to ethics. We have business to thank for rejecting the zealots’ single-mindedness.

The hypocrite The hypocrite will opine endlessly about the need to eradicate carbon from the universe, live entirely off local nature’s bounty and preferably not go anywhere. This NGO will be masterful at persuading donors to invest in magnifying our collective depression. Yet its executives will be found “using up some air miles” in the business class lounges of Heathrow, JFK and airports within easy reach of the tropical havens where they hold “global retreats”. There they can better plan how to make us all feel terrified and miserable.

The angry activist This NGO is lethal. Its relaxed and courteous demeanour masks a cunning intent to “screw” companies that don’t agree to their demands. Driven by real passion, this NGO pops up at the most unfortunate times for the greenwashing corporate laggard. You really are best off not ignoring this lot. Sometimes factual accuracy can be a casualty of this activist’s zeal, but the political savvy and steely courage of this type of NGO means they continue to punch well above their weight. They are giants in the world of PR stunts.

The one-man band This person will never give up. You imagine even their tombstone will be devoted to a slogan boycotting the company they have been campaigning against all their life. Nothing can persuade this activist that the problem has been dealt with. The activist needs to keep the flag flying for their cause no matter what. Worryingly for corporations, this activist has endless hours to fill on Twitter. You have to admire their persistence.

The smiling salesman The well-cut suit and iPhone give this one away. This NGO is a slick, well-oiled, marketing machine. Money is king, and we want lots of it, please. This NGO offers corporations account managers and “client” reviews. No, it’s not a PR firm; it’s a charity trying to be business-like because it thinks that’s what the corporate wants. As corporations become ever more sophisticated in developing their own responses to the environmental crisis, there will be less room for this type of organisation. Anything for a bit of grassroots authenticity, please!

The overfed giant From the same genus as the smiling salesman, you can spot this one a mile off, not least because its offices can probably be seen from space. This NGO is overflowing with staff. They’re not out in the field delivering vaccines or auditing banana plantations; they’re standing round water coolers having meetings about meetings, and changing job title every few months. Often the result of large initial cash injections generated by a high profile founder or patron, this sprawling entity boasts big names galore, but few people know what it actually delivers.

The genuine article This type of group is not world famous. Explaining what it does isn’t easy, because it’s tackling complex challenges and doing so for the long-term gain, not the short-term headline. It is staffed by thoughtful experts, rooted in ground level change, and commands the respect of campaigners and business marketers alike. It sometimes struggles for share of voice because some of its programmes are quite dry, even boring. It’s hard to explain at a dinner party. But it’s making a real difference.

The critical friend It’s always good to have a critical friend, and this NGO is really a consultancy with charitable status. This group sometimes grapples with its twin purpose of being a campaigner for change and trusted adviser to business. But on the whole it does well because it is neither an overfed giant nor an activist so angry that it has ceased to be rational. These groups are proof you can be a change agent in the business world without compromising your integrity.

Brendan May is a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation and founder of the Robertsbridge Group. He has spent 12 years working with businesses and NGOs on sustainability.

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