Start dating - rules of (stakeholder) engagement

Can you remember the first time the two of you got together. The stolen looks, the uncomfortable moments of silence, the tripping over your sentences, the sweaty palms, the he-likes-me-he-likes-me-not thoughts, the private meetings when no one was looking, the awkward first kiss. Yes, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. Just as with any relationship in the early wooing and courting stages, stakeholder engagement is never easy at the start.

Most companies just don't know how to talk to activists and campaigners. Hey, make no mistake, activists hardly know how to talk to companies either. But they don't need companies to like them as much as companies need activists to like them. Or at least leave them alone and not target them.

Don't feel bad when they target you. It happens to the best of companies. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes not. I remember seeing an anarchist kicking a Nike sign at the WTO riots in '99 - while wearing his Nike shoes and top...

But there are a few tips you should follow if you decide to engage and start courting. This is not an exhaustive list. Just a few tips to get you through those first uncomfortable early stages of stakeholder dating:

First, do your homework and find out a bit more about the NGO and what it regards as its 'bottom line' - it is unlikely to be financial! I was invited to speak to the global affairs team of a very large pharmaceutical while I was at Oxfam (I headed up the Access to Medicine Campaign for a while). I was shocked to hear that the majority of people at the company thought that Oxfam only worked on health issues. And this happened when Oxfam was in the middle of their Coffee Campaign! Dig around a bit first and find out what the NGO does and what its mandate is. Most are registered with a mission that states their focus and how they work. This will help you understand whether there is any potential for a longer term constructive relationship - or just a one night stand. Like with all first dates, you should try to know who you are dating--except if you like blind dates!

Second, respect the differences between NGOs by not lumping them all together in the same room for a consultation exercise - NGOs are proud and competitive too. You wouldn't want to be grouped together with a whole bunch of companies from different sectors and talk about issues unrelated to your individual business. Likewise, you should respect their differences and treat each one differently. Meet each one separately in an environment that works best to put them at ease. Meet them where they feel most comfortable - maybe at their place. Especially if you want to build the foundation for a long-term relationship. Following the rules of dating - don't bring all your prospective dates together in the same room. They might just start sizing each other up and you will be left with no date at all.

Third, don't make the mistake of thinking that you are the only company that is the target of an NGO’s campaigning efforts, or that the NGO doesn’t have other programs and projects that may have nothing to do with your business. Just as with the large pharmaceutical company I mentioned, most NGOs have numerous focus areas and different programs and projects to try and achieve their overall goals. And most large campaigning NGOs have various campaigns going at the same time. They might have one single broad focus, but it plays out in different campaigns and programs. For instance, Greenpeace is largely an environmental NGO, but they focus on climate change, oceans, forests, genetic engineering and nuclear issues. So your company might only be a small part of their focus and interest. Same with dating--a friendly smile does not mean they want to date. It might just be a friendly smile.

Fourth, start by talking, learning about each other and building trust rather than immediately expecting ground-breaking strategic partnerships. There might be a few obstacles to overcome - perceptions of what 'big business' is all about and a feeling that you want to 'clean' yourself by associating with them. Take it easy and just talk. Let them get to know you. Don't create expectations. Just listen and learn and see where this might take you. Again a good tip for dating as well--don't ask your date to marry you or expect 'the commitment' on the first date - it might just scare him or her off.

Lastly, remember that cash does not necessarily have the same currency for NGOs as it does when buying products or services from other companies. First and foremost NGOs want to affect change. But they don't always see money as the way to achieve change. Yes, some of them have huge budgets and operate like multinationals, but they generally have strict guidelines on receiving money from companies. For instance, Oxfam will not accept money from companies that fall within an industry they target in their campaigning. They might not even accept money for travel - never mind for a program. They would rather see you 'do the right thing' than pay them to do something. Okay, this one is less relevant for dating. Money generally impresses prospective dates!

Okay, one more tip. Don't expect them to agree with you on everything. And don't make this a prerequisite for your potential relationship. I love my wife to bits, but we only agree 80% of the time. That said, we don't let the 20% of the time we disagree define our relationship. Instead, focus the relationship on what you have in common and don't get stuck on the differences. It's part of being human - we are all different. And the same for companies and NGOs - we are all different. And I learned that I am wrong 20% of the time in any case. Just ask my wife.

--Henk Campher, Former Vice President, Corporate Responsibility