Friday, 11 June 2010

Partnership and Placards

There’s a fascinating article on the relationship between the corporate sector and NGOs in The Economist this week. It’s written in the context of a backlash against NGOs who have build long term relationships with BP following the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The article cites a number of major campaigning organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and The Environmental Defense Fund, who have worked closely with BP to advise on extraction methods or help develop carbon trading schemes. Some have received donations from BP in return. Now, many of the groups’ supporters and other activists are protesting that those organizations are too close to the wicked BP and have sold-out.

The article reminds us that in the last twenty years the relationships between the corporate sector and nonprofits has changed beyond all recognition, and real partnership is the norm on both sides. ACEVO is currently working closely with the CBI on identifying what leadership skills are needed in both third and private sector in order to build effective service delivery partnerships. We are also running the Sustainable Business Forum, led by Oliver Rothschild, which is looking at the future of corporate-third sector relationships.

BP’s shattered reputation does raise some important questions about how our sector works with big corporates. There is no doubt that close partnerships make a real difference to the behaviour of organizations. McDonald’s relationship with a number of environmental groups is a case in point. An equal seat at the decision making table is always likely to bring about more change than waiving placards outside the board room. However, every nonprofit has, or should have, its limit; and sometimes things happen which we must oppose. So understanding the point at which we turn our back on partnerships and pick up our placards again is key.

Many organizations in the UK will be feeling a similar dilemma about our relationship with government. The partnership between the sector and government here is the most sophisticated in the world. However, the age of austerity and fears for our most vulnerable beneficiaries cause us all to ask at what point we have to turn away from partnership and protest. (Polly Toynbee wrote on this a couple of weeks ago.)

It is a tough call for third sector organizations as there is still huge potential opportunity in partnership with government. As ACEVO has been arguing since the start of the credit crunch, by focusing on prevention, devolving control towards service users and joining up silos, the third sector can bring about real reform in our public services – both saving money and delivering better outcomes. The question is whether or not government is brave enough and bold enough to lead that kind of reform. If not, salami slicing and the protection of vested public sector interests will leave many of our service users much worse off. When this happens we have a responsibility to cry out. We must not be afraid to do so when necessary.

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