THE BLOG
09/01/2011 10:25 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Panda Bashing: Reflections on NGO-Business Partnerships

NGO-Business partnerships have been getting a bad press lately. WWF for example: TV exposés questioning the use of donor money and partnerships with controversial companies, French employees publicly stating concerns about delivery, Global Witness criticizing GTFN. The Panda is not alone: Conservation International had that awful sting experience with Don't Panic. All the research tells us that NGOs are infinitely more trusted than corporates, but if those we trust most are faltering, where does that leave us?

Fascinating stuff. I think what's happening is that we've grown in a healthy, positive way as a society into a new, more cynical school. People now just refuse to believe what anyone tells them! Where's this come from?

Chris Lang at REDD Monitor posted a blog recently, citing Harry Frankfurt's work "On Bullshit".

Frankfurt says:

The increase in the amount of bullshit in contemporary life as compared with, say 100 years ago, is because of the intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society. We are constantly marketing things, selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programs, selling policies and once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something then your object is not to tell the truth about it but to get people to believe what you want them to believe about it. And so this encourages a resort to bullshit.

NGOs, like businesses, have an intense marketing motive. Businesses spend money -- lots of it -- on environmental and social programs. There's no shortage of NGOs with which to partner. This creates a dance where businesses bring their dollars, NGOs bring their programs, and amid much choreography, someone wins. Unsurprisingly, because that is how our human minds work, it is usually the NGO with the slickest marketing able to convince us that their program best matches the motive.

NGOs do spend money on marketing and where there's marketing, inevitably, there is bullshit, too. Nothing wrong with a focus on brand, but when the approach to build the brand value trends towards bullshit, you're in trouble. As competition increases -- more NGOs on the block -- so does the tendency to over-claim achievements. As money gets tight, you've got to fight harder for scarce resources. It's a recipe for high quality bullshitting and we shouldn't be surprised that it exists in the NGO world -- we're all part of the human system. That NGOs work for the public good doesn't mean they're immune to this most basic human tendency.

The problem for large NGOs in particular is that despite having been around for generations, with large headcounts and billion dollar budgets, the world's problems are getting worse, not better. People are starting to scratch their heads and are spotting a disconnect between flashy marketing and delivery.

This healthy cynicism, this great new questioning of absolutely everything, has gained momentum and intensity since the global financial crisis in 2008-09. People feel as though those they trusted fed them a bullshit-rich line there that caused the crisis. Things went badly wrong and people suffered. They're still suffering and this is breeding a whole new wave of cynicism. People now are asking more questions and raising an eyebrow to say "Really? Prove it to me!"

This is a lightning rod in the world of social media. Anyone can spot some bullshit and post it on Twitter or Facebook and bang, you are having an impact. People are gaining control of their lives. It's rich, it's excellent and it's putting everyone -- all of us who depend to some extent on marketing -- on notice to be mighty careful in claiming too much and setting off bullshit indicators.

Prenuptial dances between businesses and NGOs now focus more on questions of delivery. What are you delivering? How are you doing it? Is it bringing real change in the eyes of the people that count?

All of which is good news. 'Deliver or die' is the new maxim and there should be no NGO lamenting about it. The world is in a perilous state; we have to bring change, and quickly.

Our challenge as NGOs now is to think deeply about how to structure business partnerships within this new context, not to ditch them altogether. They must deliver what they promise. For businesses, the challenge is to hone bullshit indicators, to find dance partners who focus on real delivery, in the field, where it matters and who let the results speak for themselves. Partnerships like that, good ones, will change the world.