NGOs building more capacity for private sector engagement

A Timely Suggestion for NGOs Trying to Save the Planet

Build More Capacity to Guide the Private Sector

Free Advice

I remember back when I ran a big NGO. We got so much unsolicited advice. Much more than we wanted, needed or asked for. I don’t want to be snarky about this. Most of our self-appointed advisors were well-intentioned and very good people. Many were also generous supporters. And they were all trying to help.

But most of their advice was just not very good:

  • There are too many NGOs. Why don’t you merge? 
  • NGOs spend too much money on overhead. Stop bothering us with fundraising pitches and all of this marketing stuff. 
  • Your teams are too big. Spend more on programs. Be more productive.
  • NGOs should collaborate with one another on everything. 

And so on.

After this experience, I vowed not to do the same. I promised I’d only speak up when I truly believed I had a very important point to make, rooted in observation and analysis. I think this is one of those times.

In our last issue, I praised NGOs for the great job they have done pushing the private sector to prioritize environmental problem-solving. And I urged private sector leaders to do more with the environmental community.

My Recommendation to NGOs

To make sure this private sector environmental momentum continues, please do this:

Please build more capacity for private sector engagement. 

I offer this advice respectfully and humbly. I know this is not nearly as easy as it sounds. I know there are competing interests. I know it requires funding that you might not have. I know all of these things, and yet I am also concerned that if you do not move forward in this area, you are in danger of losing your seat at the table. And we really need you at the table.

The Danger

NGOs have driven much—maybe most—of the important business engagement we now see on the environmental problem front. I hugely admire this. We all should. NGOs are making a very big and positive difference. More companies and investment funds than ever before are actively trying to figure out and execute their environmental strategies.

One result of this achievement is increased demand for advice and guidance. Companies and investors are pursuing more strategies and more ambitious ones at that.

Competition for NGOs is rising in two ways: 

  1. Business people are becoming savvier about environmental matters and coming up with sophisticated strategies on their own. 
  2. Private sector consultants—think McKinsey, BCG, et al—are growing their capabilities in these areas rapidly. 

When new players enter an arena, it changes the game. It’s mostly good. These new entrants are raising the bar. But it makes adding value for the incumbents a little more challenging. 

NGOs, if you don’t build your capacity, you risk being less able to keep up with demand for new partnerships, projects, and opportunities. Companies may go it alone or just work with consultants. You risk being left behind. 

This would be a bad outcome. Private sector players are doing a lot, which is great. But they still need the help of NGOs. Otherwise, business types will always be somewhat blinded by past practices and traditional P&L concerns. To reach our environmental goals, we need NGOs pushing, pressuring, cajoling, advising, guiding, and criticizing the business community every step of the way.