Onetime foes, companies and activists find ways to cooperate
Companies and activists are partnering on environmental, health, and other issues. Labor initiatives are more problematic.
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•Monsanto Co., a leading crop-protection and biotech company, launched a 2008 initiative partnering with multiple agricultural and conservation groups that will work with farmers to help reduce runoff from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.Skip to next paragraph
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"We’re really seeing a shift from a period of avoidance and lobbying toward one of engagement and collaboration," says Richard Coughlan, senior associate dean of the University of Richmond’s business school. The trend will grow because it’s strategic for both sides, he adds.
For nonprofit groups, corporate partnerships can generate concrete results.
"We learned quickly that the best way to stimulate widespread change was to work with companies to improve their practices and purchasing decisions rather than boycott or oppose them entirely," says Abby Ray, a communications associate for the Rainforest Alliance, which has developed successful partnerships with companies like Kraft and Unilever to help them buy goods from farms and/or forests certified by the Rainforest Alliance.
The partnerships can be extensive. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has worked with McDonald’s, DuPont, and FedEx. But its most intense partnership began in 2005 when Wal-Mart sought out the environmental group for advice on how to craft a better corporate responsibility plan. At the time, the megaretailer was getting lambasted for everything from killing small business to poor personnel management. The relationship grew closer as it shifted to strategy.
"Getting involved with Wal-Mart at the strategy-setting side has been a significant change from us saying ‘We don’t like what you’re doing,’ then they make a decision and let us know and we’d say ‘That’s good, but this would be better,’ " says Michelle Harvey, EDF’s project manager of corporate partnerships. "Now, they sit down and say, ‘Give us your thoughts on what we should do about this.’ It’s not that we direct it, but we have a greater potential to influence the direction they take." In 2007, EDF opened an office in Wal-Mart’s hometown of Bentonville, Ark.
For companies, partnering with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) comes down to managing risk.
"The best risk-management practice is to identify places where there’s ambiguity about how activist groups will respond to an action," says Mr. Coughlan. "If you can get the [group] sharing that with you in advance of setting that strategy, you’ve done a service to the firm in reducing risk."