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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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Of course, there’s still risk on both sides. The company’s programs can come off looking like a public-relations maneuver. Activists, who potentially gain access to resources as well as decisionmakers, run the risk of looking like sellouts.

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"It’s a very fine line for the nonprofits to walk," says Coughlan. "Their missions sometimes get clouded when they get so close to the organizations they once worked against." The result is often a relationship of cautious optimism. "You can find examples of relationships built over years with good outcomes, but in 2009, 2010, most fall under the category of each side cautiously monitoring the other to make sure each side lives up to what they’ve promised," he adds.

When EDF and Wal-Mart started to work together, Ms. Harvey fielded many calls from angry EDF supporters and had to convince people at Wal-Mart "that we weren’t there to throw rocks at them." She now describes the partnership as "positive and productive." Neither EDF nor the other NGOs in this story take money for their corporate consulting. EDF relies instead on donor underwriting.

This activist-corporation dance can be delicate. In mid-decade, Oxfam and Starbucks formed a pilot project to improve conditions for Ethiopian coffee growers. Then, in 2006, the international relief and development agency launched a campaign to press the coffee conglomerate to recognize the right of Ethiopian coffee growers to trademark their product, thereby giving the African growers more control over their brand, and putting more money in the pockets of poor farmers. The NGO and the firm battled publicly until 2007, when Starbucks and Ethiopia signed a licensing agreement.

Now, Oxfam and Starbucks have put those tensions aside to work together (as part of a consortium of businesses and activists) on policy initiatives related to climate change, an issue hitting Starbucks’ supply chain in the developing world.

"What we have found is we get a lot more traction moving public-policy positions forward if we can bring a wider range of advocates to the table," says Chris Jochnick, director of the private-sector department at Oxfam America in Boston. "These NGO-private sector coalitions can be much more effective in terms of advocating for a position."

When a company the size of Wal-Mart, Kraft, or Ford makes even small voluntary changes, they create a huge ripple effect. Having such a powerhouse in the activist group’s corner helps strengthen its position when it comes to regulatory issues, too. Still, Harvey says nonprofits need to be mindful of "greenwashing" – corporate attempts to appear environmentally friendly without making substantial change – and of getting too cozy with the corporation.

"I think there’s a growing recognition whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit or a government agency, that we all want the same healthy, safe environment for ourselves and our family," she continues, "but I think there will probably always be a need for people with protest signs."