Charities should be less squeamish and see private sector as an agent of change, not the enemy.

There’s a distrust of business, big business in particular, that I’ve experienced in my time in the “for good” sector that has always slightly puzzled me. It’s not that charity-private sector collaborations don’t exist; they do and there are some great ones. But there’s an “us and them” mentality, from the NGO side, that I think is unhelpful and restricts the scale and scope of these potentially game-changing partnerships.

I think this represents a huge underlying opportunity for us all that could release greater and faster change. If only we could get over our prejudices, which is something we’re meant to be great at!

There’s a saying I heard recently that resonated – “Business people are just people”. I worked in the private sector for over 15 years, for four different companies, and I can openly and honestly report back that they were indeed all actual people. Some of them very nice, some of them less nice, but none that I could make out were right-wing conspirators whispering in corridors about how to accelerate global inequality through the instrument of the capitalist machine.

They have sons, and daughters. They care for pets, might have elderly or infirm relatives, or friends who’ve died in preventable road traffic accidents. They could have had family members who’ve been alcoholics, suffered from mental illness, contracted a rare form of cancer. They could be L, G, B, T, Q or I.

In short, they’re just like you or me.

ChomskyNow I’m the first to call out the right-wing hegemony and shout “Neoliberal consumerist propaganda zombie” at innocent shoppers looking for a bargain on the high street. (I really must stop doing that if only for my own safety.) See here, or read “Media Control” and “The Establishment” if you want something heavier.

But most business-folk are generally just trying to make and sell stuff so they can buy food and go on holiday with their families, or perhaps even because they wanted to be able to donate to charity or support an elderly relative. And because they are just people, business people will have been touched by all manner of issues to which they will be personally empathetic as a result. In addition, like the rest of the human race they are searching for fulfilment in life generally, and doing something meaningful in their work can be very motivating.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not naïve. (Well, I am actually quite naïve; it’s one of my better qualities.) I know that at the top it’s different. The Murdochs and Trumps and their suited advisors, their politicos, have an agenda, and from what I can see, it’s either f*cking ignorant or f*cking evil, or possibly both. Unfettered self-interest and unequal power distribution is the heart of all the ills of our world.

What Owen Jones describes as the “revolving door” between politics, business and the media is a cultural structure that needs to get proper smashed up, preferably in a joyful, peaceful riot with The Clash playing “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” live in the background. That’s my dream anyway.

However, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about something more everyday – the people working in businesses, those drained, tired, squeezed and much-maligned middle-managers who are trying to sell more, make more or hire people to do so, because it’s their job. They didn’t choose the political infra-structure – who did, hey Noam? – they’re just living life. Someone has to stack the peas, right?
Those people are A) not the enemy, and, importantly B) have power. They have the power to influence their bosses, and the companies that supply them, the ads they make, the people they employ and so on.

Let’s have a couple of examples.

Maltesers and Scope

MaltesersThe recent Maltesers/Scope campaign has made a huge impact within the ad industry, winning awards and spurning many a conference debate. I should declare that I know about this because the person who commissioned that campaign happens to be my partner. And in case it all sounds a bit cosy – we argue regularly and viscerally about politics.

Even though 20 percent of the UK population have a disability, they are hardly ever featured in mainstream advertising. On the rare occasions disabled people are even present within advertising, they are normally framed as “superhumans”, as objects of admiration or inspiration – not regular people. In this campaign they were portrayed like everyone else: self-deprecating, able to laugh at themselves, and not exceptional.

By producing this campaign, Mars has not only done a good thing for the world in casting disabled people in advertising and hence starting to normalise what is normally stigmatised, they have also started an apprenticeship scheme to get people from lower-income backgrounds into their business, banned all-male director short-lists by their advertising agency, and are promoting a diversity and inclusion agenda across the ad industry, which shapes so many of our aspirations and stereotypes. They also sold more Maltesers as a result, by the way.

Now that’s the kind of people we should be working with (and Scope did exactly that).

But the key thing that big business has, that most NGOs don’t, is scale. Oxfam can do all of the campaigning and project work it wants on West African cocoa farming, but as the world’s single largest purchaser of cocoa, Mars changes its sourcing policy and massive change can happen, in timeframes we NGOs can only dream about. Actually there is a good deal to commend Mars for in this area, but of course it could do more.

Engaging with big corporations doesn’t mean just taking money from them. This can be problematic as it disrupts the power balance and is open to quiet abuse of the type that Save the Children became famous for. Of course, money can be part of the equation, and depending on what change you’re seeking to achieve, it may be enough. If you’re a local scout group and you need a new roof (always roofs and never floors, isn’t it), then a donation from a local firm could be all you need. Not every challenge needs a global, systemic solution. Sometimes, you just need a roof.

However if the change you’re seeking is bigger, it means finding a way of discussing and influencing that makes real change. Plus it needs to be attached to some thinking, which means it’s not just a patsy.

Oxfam and Unilever

Oxfam and Unilever have a long-standing partnership. One of the areas of shared work is on gender, with Oxfam advising on issues and policy. Unilever’s Opportunities for Women recognises the company’s role and responsibility across its business in furthering equality for women, from its supply chain through to its consumer advertising. The goal is to empower 5 million women in the company’s supply chain by 2020. This “unstereotype” initiative aims to “portray diverse images of women and girls… to cultivate more positive and supportive social norms”.

BTBAnd if that sounds like a nice piece of corporate CSR-speak, there’s real action there on achieving gender balance in management (risen from 38 percent to 45 percent) and recruitment, where hiring managers must achieve equal numbers of male and female applicants for 80 percent or more of roles. And in the 300 factories that Unilever owns globally, they are promoting a range of priorities to promote women’s issues including land rights, accessibility for blue-collar jobs and training women farmers.

In their Kenyan tea estate, they are dealing with sexual harassment by increasing their proportion of female team leaders from 3 percent to 30 percent, improved grievance reporting via a toll-free, local language hotline. Again, through its Behind the Brands campaign, Oxfam is not uncritical of Unilever in some areas, but just look how their practices have improved over the past four years – that’s real progress.

There’s a great blog here with examples where companies have actually sought to actively defend civil society space, with some interesting insights as to the types of business that are likely to be most responsive (consumer facing and those with strong values and engaged senior leaders).

So business people are people. And lots of them are nice and want to do some good, whilst also flogging Maltesers, or soap powder, both of which are nice things to have in the world.

What is your organisation’s approach to engaging with the private sector? What are your links – you’ll have loads, most people in the UK work in it, so start with the people you know first. Remember, business people are people. Find a sympathetic ear.

Most people working in the private sector find the work less than interesting. They have to spend their time in meetings about double glazing, pet food, or IT solutions. Saving the world, the planet or putting a roof on your local scout hut is both rewarding and interesting, and if you’re persistent you’ll find people who will be more than happy to support you. I promise.

Let me know how you get on.

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