Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


NGOs really need to learn the lessons of their past

January 2011

Non-profits can't just shout about what they don't want - they  must be more constructive, says Hilary Sutcliffe

Is the role of NGOs about to change? Money is tight, expectations are high, and their behaviour is increasingly subject to the same sort of scrutiny they apply to the corporate sector. Are they equipped to deal with new expectations and find new ways of working?   

In the past NGOs could put on a few high profile stunts to get media coverage for their cause and not worry too much about what happened next. Job done. But if they are to be, as John Sauven, director of Greenpeace recently said, the 'green policemen of the world', it won't be enough to simply shout about what they don't want. Funders, many supporters and other commentators increasingly expect NGOs to understand the implications of what they are calling for - and to be part of the solution.

They also have to learn the lessons of their own past.  In the area of human rights and labour standards, for example, well meaning NGO campaigns have sometimes caused more problems than they have solved for the very people they have sought to help, mainly because they haven't understood and thought through the repercussions of their positions.

A senior person in a leading NGO said to me recently:  'The trouble is, NGOs are so used to campaigning for something they never expect to get, that when they are asked to engage about the solutions they don't really know what to do!'  

If NGOs are increasingly expected to be part of the solution, and if, as Sauven says, their power 'comes from being outsiders and insiders', then this will require new skills, a new mindset and a new accountability. One could liken this dilemma to any political party that gets into power. It's pretty easy to come up with 'pure' policies when you're untroubled by the repercussions, or don't need to get your hands dirty with the necessary trade-offs that come with being in charge.  

Will NGOs who are used to being, as they see it, on the side of right, struggle with the messiness of making things work in the real world? Some are taking this very seriously. Amnesty has recently published it's first social report. I recall proposing this concept in 2004 when I was on the Amnesty UK Business Group, and though it has taken a while, it is a useful document and will be published annually from now on. Good on them.

Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund and some others in my own area of responsible science and technology are carefully considering their approach, consulting their stakeholders and working out how they can strike the right balance between campaigning and collaborating to get the change they want. With so many challenges looming, we need NGOs to be as thoughtful and effective as they can be. It's a difficult trick to achieve, but if they can get it right then it will be more powerful than the narrowly-focussed approach some of them have been adopting up to now.

Hilary Sutcliffe is director of Matter ( The Matter steering group, trustees and business group have not been consulted in the drafting of this article.

Hilary Sutcliffe | Global | NGOs

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