collaboration, NGO, corporate, Asian, women

Building trust with corporate-NGO partnerships

Corporations and NGOs have had a turbulent relationship with each other for years. Sini Harkki, Programme Director, Greenpeace Nordic says it is time to change this and join forces. How can that benefit society?


A recent study of 130 UK based NGOs and large companies with equal representation from both sides, found that 71% of the corporates feel that partnering with nonprofits helped address core, mission relevant, and purpose-led issues in a way to create value for the society. But only 33% of the participating NGOs agreed to that. Why this gap?

Sini: Corporations would be quite happy if through talking to NGOs, they can identify what the core issues are, and then they have their own ways to deal with them either through discussion in the next strategy session or to mitigate risk with a communication strategy. And NGOs usually want to see outcomes and change, and hopefully something quite measurable in the short term. And if that doesn't come out fairly soon after the talks, then they probably would feel disappointed.

The same survey also found that most of the companies and NGOs agree that their partnerships are helping change the business practices for the better. Then why does the public perception appear like confrontation is the preferred choice instead of constructive dialogue, especially in emotionally charged issues like the environmental impact?

Sini: I've been in numerous constructive talks and have done campaigns that try to focus on the positive and solutions and they just don't get visibility in the same way as conflicts and confrontations do. So I think that's one reason. Probably another reason is that NGOs quite often are somehow pioneers in a new issue, and raise something on the agenda that hasn't been discussed or taken seriously before. And at that point in the discussion, the issue doesn't resonate very much and their demands are not met.

When you're in a position like that, it forces you a bit into a more confrontational direction. And I don't think that's a bad thing, because activism is really a key component of a resilient democracy. We need activists to present a real challenge to the current ways of thinking and actions. But I also agree that it's definitely too tilted in that direction. And I do take it as a challenge upon us in the environmental movement to try and make those positive approaches more interesting.

Times have changed and overall societal sentiment has also transformed. As a result, several of the big oil companies have also revised their strategies and are aiming to gradually phase out fossil fuels. What is your reading of these changing strategies?

Sini: What's very clear is that oil companies finally can also read the writing on the wall. I think actions from especially investors and banks have been leading and influencing this change. To get credit and investment at the moment, oil companies need to show some kind of a low carbon pathway. And I think that is the main reason why we see this now.

In order for these to really be credible, I would need to see that oil companies are also advocating for strong climate policies. They would really need to show that they're no longer trying to delay climate action on the level of the society and then align their pathways with the 1.5 degree Paris agreement. That would be truly convincing. For now, I think my analysis is that they have finally understood that the world is changing. And at some pace, we are getting rid of fossil fuels.

This really requires that companies and NGOs work a lot closer together and not against each other to make this massive shift happen. What's your thinking on this?

Sini: I absolutely agree. Climate change needs all hands on deck. It’s not possible to achieve the change that we need to see within any one sector, or certainly within just the NGO-environmental movement bubble. We need to work much better together and try to identify bottlenecks and problems and find new kinds of solutions.

I think what makes the difference between a credible and not so credible scenario, or pathway or response to the sustainability programme would be that if your goal is clearly further away, such as 2030, or 2035, is there a credible pathway with milestones and a roadmap and also short term measures that will take you there? And I think if that is there, then we're usually talking about quite a good approach.

How can purpose and trust change companies and their relationship with stakeholders, particularly with NGOs, for the better?

Sini: Well, I think it is changing already and has changed a lot. Look at climate change, and the polls done both in Nordic countries and around the world show a steady (like 70%) support from people almost across countries for strong climate policy. And that probably means that in any company a clear majority of the staff also want to do the right thing there. So the purpose is there. When these values become acknowledged on the corporate level, on the leadership level, it gives people the mandate to show their values at work. And when they do, then there's really a chance, for both (companies and NGOs) to explore, learn something new, and find better solutions. That to me is the key.

This conversation has been abridged. To hear the complete conversation, please listen to the podcast.

In this episode
Atte Palomäki
Atte Palomäki
Executive Vice President Communications & Branding