Reflections On 30 Years of Corporate-NGO Bridge Building

For over 15 years, I battled corporate giants over nuclear power, open space protection, and the throwaway society. I campaigned with Ralph Nader for consumer protection and recycling laws. I railed against oil companies and petitioned for anti-trust action. I organized college activists and raised a million dollars in media coverage criticizing beverage companies over recycling.

Today I run a different kind of advocacy organization, an unusual non-profit called Future 500. We place ourselves between groups that often hate and demonize one another. Usually, that's either a battle between a major corporation and an activist group, or it's a two, or three-way battle between conservatives, libertarians, and progressives on social or economic policy.

At Future500, our objective is to drive systemic solutions to global sustainability challenges, from climate protection to fair trade to sustainable economic growth. We take strong positions, and not everyone agrees with us. But we seek solutions that deal with problems at their root.

In the process, we find common ground between would-be enemies, whether they like it or not. We are proud to say that, once people have worked with us directly, they appreciate the results and they learn and appreciate that we help them advance their mission.

This process is demonstrated by the mix of funding we receive from companies, foundations, and government over the past several years in support of our stakeholder services. With our funding base, everyone has a reason to trust us, or not trust us, as they choose.

But we are growing, and as we do, more people are hearing about our work and are expressing concerns.

At Future 500, our team completely understands why activists and companies might worry about what we're sticking our noses into. They don't want us taking sides or getting in between them - if they choose to engage, they want to engage directly.

Activists don't want us helping CSR executives "manage" stakeholders so the top executives can focus on business-as-usual - they want to disrupt business-as-usual, to gain the attention of top executives, and motivate them to act.

Corporate executives don't want us "exposing" them, fearing unintended scrutiny that comes from engagement.

Activists don't want us doing PR, or "corporate communications" that makes soot look green - they want transparency and truth.

Companies fear we'll sympathize with activists, making them look more organized, or powerful.

Activists don't want us to do sustainability work that the company should be doing - they want that to be embedded across its operations.

Companies don't want us to build bridges to them that would take activists months, if not years, to cultivate.

Both might trust that our hearts are in the right place - but think we can be naïve about their true intentions.

Or they might not trust that our intentions are honorable - and assume we're helping greenwash the enemy.

They may not believe that we can earn revenue from providing stakeholder services, and not be in the pockets of those that pay those bills.

All of those are plausible reasons to worry about groups like ours facilitating relationships between companies and activists.

Just because those concerns are plausible, however, it doesn't follow that they are necessarily true.

In fact, when activists and companies assume the worst and decline to engage with us, their worries can become self-fulfilling prophecies. We're more likely to be less informed on stakeholder positions and make mistakes if we only hear from one side.

The work we do is very sensitive -- issues of integrity are always a priority topic for discussion. We put these issues on the table and work them until we are confident in the integrity of both our intentions and our actions.

Yet we are never so sure that we stop looking and listening.

I have been an activist all my life, engaging in everything from petitioning to canvassing to corporate campaigning to civil disobedience. Many of my colleagues have been too.

We do our work between adversaries now, because we believe the problems we face are mostly systemic. They are not the work of evil enemies, so much as they are a consequence of outdated institutions and deeply vested interests that can be overcome with diligence. Breaking through the barriers and forging change-positive coalitions is how we can best advance sustainability.

But we don't just follow the assumptions of activists, or companies. We don't try to be politically correct for show. Our staff come from diverse backgrounds, the right and left, NGO and corporate, prompting us to often take positions that are different. Our views are front-and-center on our website, in books, articles, and videos.

This is not easy. It is extremely difficult, and painful, to take a principled position that goes against the preconceptions of your tribe, your group.

It is emotionally challenging even to gently differ from the assumptions that unite your tribe against their enemy.

It is personally risky to put our reputations on the line, and possibly be accused of naïveté, greenwashing, protecting the enemy, or somehow selling out.

But it is weak and cowardly to not challenge the status quo of the activist community and the business community, if we believe that they are achieving less than they could, greenwashing the movement, or somehow selling out their mission.

If we have these concerns, we express them directly, privately, and without prejudice - because we want them to give us the same respect. When we are doing our job well, we are challenging (usually annoying) both sides in order to be effective advocates for systemic change and always desire constructive, direct feedback on how we can improve. We want to get better, always.

The truth is that activists do not always know everything they need to know to carry out an effective campaign that actually advances their mission. Nor do corporate executives always know everything they need to know to advance a particular sustainability initiative.

Activists might make a small but impossible demand of a company, when we've seen that a different and much bigger demand was within reach. Companies might ignore a letter that we knew was a fateful volley across the bow that was a precursor to war.

Activists and corporate executives might undermine their internal advocates at their respective organizations, unintentionally strengthening the hands of those who solely demonize.

They might miss strategic opportunities to embed more sustainable practices - because they don't understand the unique circumstances that would give that company and activist a competitive advantage or win in the eyes of their networks and funders.

They might have their hearts in the right place - but be naïve about how to best leverage their power to drive change.

Or, occasionally, they might not have honorable intentions - they might be seeking to greenwash their own ineffectiveness.

They may find it difficult to distinguish between what's good for their institution or their reputation, and what's good for the planet.

I have been at this for over thirty years. Looking back, I believe I have reason to be thankful. Looking inside, I have reason to be proud. Looking left and right, I have allies on both sides. Looking forward, I have reason to be hopeful.

A few people have been convinced I was their enemy. Most have changed their minds. Several have actually taken me aside to apologize.

Those experiences guide the way we do our work - the Values that we follow. They are on our website, and on our wall. We take them very seriously.

In all our work, we strive to adhere to the following values and practices:

  • Integrity: To act in the interests of the whole - our partners, stakeholders, and society at large.
  • Embedment: To transfer our skills and systems to our partners and stakeholders, so that they can do our work without us.
  • Respect: To behave as equals in all relationships - with partners and stakeholders.
  • Expertise: To be the pre-eminent experts in stakeholder engagement on controversial, complex issues.
  • Feedback: To share mutual feedback with our partners and stakeholders, even if disagreeable.
  • Self-improvement: To constantly seek to improve our skills and systems.
  • Adaptability: To change course instantly, as needed to better serve our mission and the social need.
  • Systemic: To seek to solve problems and meet needs at their root.

We put our mission first. We never undermine a stakeholder that engages with us. If we ever err (and we have and will again), we want to know about it, and correct it. Our metric for success is the enduring confidence of all stakeholders, corporate and NGO, from right to left, that have the experience of working with us in solving tough problems, together.

Bill Shireman is CEO of Future 500, a global non-profit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.