A large crowd of people holding posters seen protesting on a bridge

This is a summary of the SIGWATCH-GlobeScan webinar on the future of NGO-business collaboration, and contains key take-aways, case studies and important data points to better understand the dynamic situation. Click here to download the report in its entirety complete with infographics and more data!

The turning point today

Businesses and NGOs have always had a delicate relationship offering both challenge and potential for collaboration. GlobeScan and SIGWATCH have both noticed this change, however – and have come together to discuss what is changing and what it means for both businesses and NGOs.

The change: Why a new world means we cannot rely on old models

Higher stakes: Headline after headline calls out the collective threats around missed climate targets, poor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, and newly understood threats like biodiversity collapse. This means the stakes are rising in these interactions – creating more polarisation as many activists see little value in the slow and steady model of shared compromise.

The changing balance of trust: From GlobeScan’s global research with the general public across the 17 markets tracked since 2001, trust in the ability of governments and companies to operate in the interests of society has decreased between 2020 and 2021. In comparison, trust in NGOs has risen steadily since 2017. NGOs are also rated as being more effective than governments or businesses in helping citizens to live more sustainable lives as seen across the 29,293 people surveyed in 31 markets in 2022.

NGO influence grows: This moment of change and public concern is driving more NGO activity around the world, from coordinated advocacy campaigns to protests.

Pushback on NGOs and political polarisation: This growing role for NGOs also creates new challenges – as their actions and influence grow, they face more political pressure and active suppression by governments. This is true around the world, as seen in China, Russia, and India where many NGOs are branded as foreign agents with “anti-growth” agendas when they advocate for limits to fossil fuels. It is also seen in many “traditional democracies” that have claimed to be champions of NGOs but where there are increasing restrictions placed on the right to protest in countries like the USA and the UK.

Issue polarisation: The issues themselves are also harder to navigate as nuances are revealed. Climate crisis solutions may have knock-on effects for food and energy access and the land rights of Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, many social issues such as racial equity or LGBTQ+ rights have become battlegrounds in “culture wars.”

Where next: Confrontation or cooperation in the new world?

In this world of higher stakes, the question often asked is whether cooperation will win out over confrontation. The truth is that as the world becomes more polarised, there will be more of both. The more important question is: What actions can you take to navigate this change while supporting and sustaining the common ground on the issues that matter to you?

The growing confrontations – prepare to manage

NGOs take new watchdog powers: With the growing range of legislation around the world on sustainability issues, NGOs will have more legal bases to challenge businesses where they feel they are falling short. This can be seen through the new wave of greenwashing legislation from the EU to South Korea. Success will not come from running away from any communication or activity as that
will also attract criticism. Instead, businesses must prepare for increased scrutiny of pledges and promises, ensuring they are ready to justify or adjust actions where challenged.

Polarising tactics: The spectrum of NGOs and social movements will continue to polarise as some feel that progress on the existential issues is too slow, for example, the splinter groups from Extinction Rebellion around the world to Just Stop Oil in the UK and Fireproof in Australia. Businesses will not be able to engage all groups but should see the more “radical” groups as indicators of the direction of
travel and pay attention to the issues they are raising.

Radicalised youth and employee activism: The younger generation will be increasingly mobilised by what they perceive as the failure of prior generations to create a safe world with opportunities for them. This leads to activism within companies from increasingly challenging employees, which NGOs will help accelerate. This also manifests in the growth of “conscious quitting” for talent who
no longer believe in the company.

New shareholder activism: The growth of activists targeting shareholders, whether formally in groups like ShareAction or through the disruption of AGMs, creates a new arena for confrontation. However, where this engages formal decision-making in companies, it can create more direct opportunities for collaboration compared with NGO activity that targets public awareness or broader reputation.

The growing cooperations – plan your partnerships

Collective action: As the complexity of systemic issues becomes clearer, it is even more important to work together on bigger, coordinated solutions. This means partnerships of “critical friends” who can challenge each other but with the aim of building a better solution together. These collaborations will be essential since even though NGOs are well-trusted, collaboration is key to
their effectiveness. This is shown in the 2022 Sustainability Leaders Survey by GlobeScan and The SustainAbility Institute by ERM, a study of over 700 sustainability experts from over 70 countries. The top driver of NGOs’ perceived leadership is their collaborations over their activism while multi-sectoral partnerships are seen as much more important for overall leadership than NGO activity on its own.

Coordinated advocacy: The biggest shift that opens the most opportunity is the rapidly rising appetite for advocacy. In 2022, 71 percent of people in 31 markets around the world believe that companies should speak out in support of “government action on climate change.”

In fact, citizens see “supporting government regulations that force companies to provide options to consumers that are more environmentally friendly” as the most important action companies can take to help them live more sustainably – and one of the worst-performing at the moment.

Likewise, citizens see that same action on promoting regulations as the key high-importance, low-performance action for NGOs to take as well. Building the trust needed for effective advocacy will take work, but this is the only way to achieve the systemic changes that also set a level playing field for all companies and therefore ensure industries make progress.

What can this look like?

Case study: Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment

This ambitious initiative has brought together over 500 organisations in a common vision of a circular economy for plastics. Companies
representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to ambitious 2025 targets to help realise that common vision.

They have been able to make the ambitious commitments that few felt they were able to do on their own for fear of losing competitive
advantage. Equally, this is an area that needs continuing progress – critical voices have alleged that some of the signatory companies have not yet followed up their intentions with actions. This is where ongoing collaboration on shared solutions and societal expectations are valuable, beyond the old-fashioned approaches that saw signing a public commitment as an endpoint rather than an ongoing partnership with external organisations.

An important positive sign of opportunity is that some NGOs actively celebrate specific positive actions from companies. A few industries in particular are celebrated for their progress – specifically retail, finance, and consumer goods.

Takeaways for action:

Given the shifting, polarising world, rather than trying to predict the future you will endure, it is more valuable to work together
to create the future you want through:

• Changing your view on collaborations from reactive and project-specific to proactive and strategic. Identify those trusted partners –
both businesses and NGOs – that will help navigate the more complex landscape together.

• Instead of retreating to opposing corners when times get challenging, reach out and embrace radical collaboration with different voices. This is necessary to build the engagement that will uncover common ground and avoid the “doom spiral” of confrontation without understanding. Embracing criticism will help you progress.

• Ensuring that actions are not seen as “out of touch” with citizens and consumers by actively joining the social equity and affordability
questions with environmental actions rather than treating them in silos. This also means moving beyond polarised thinking in which
everyone is either all good or all bad – to more nuanced thinking which reflects the complexity of the problems that we are all facing.

A bespoke service

SIGWATCH’s analysis of the impact of activism is tailored to your business needs. Our team has experience working with clients across all sectors on the full spectrum of issues – from human rights to biodiversity loss to alternative energy sources.