Leading Sustainable Organizations
Making sustainability a priority is not easy, especially in the early days of a company. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, only half of new businesses survive past the first five years, and only one-third make it past 10 years. When a new company is focused on keeping its business alive, other considerations such as sustainability may get little attention.
A recent report from the Pacific Basin Research Center in Orange County, California, suggests that executives increasingly are working with government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help adopt sustainable business practices. There are many potential benefits to these relationships: enhanced reputation and credibility, access to technical expertise, long-term stability, higher employee engagement, new market opportunities, and better regulatory preparedness, among other benefits.
It is important to understand the differences between these two types of collaboration, and how to best approach them to increase the chances of success. Getting it wrong can waste resources, attract negative media attention, and ultimately lead to a failed project.
A simple analogy helps explain the main differences in these relationships. Imagine you are driving a car. There are rules of the road that need to be followed. Otherwise, you can get fined or lose your license. Other conditions can facilitate or restrict the drive, such as weather, construction, and traffic congestion.
As this analogy applies to companies’ sustainability efforts, the rules of the road represent government regulations, and the driving conditions represent NGO concerns. The rules must be understood before getting behind the wheel, but they usually don’t change much. NGOs’ concerns require more constant attention, as these “driving conditions” change often and need to be planned for and managed. Partnering with an NGO is like enabling a GPS to help you plan the best route.
To understand the best approach to each type of engagement, we spoke to members of the Environmental NGO-Corporate Partnership Taskforce, funded by the Pacific Basin Research Center. A list of standard questions were emailed in March 2014, and the responses were manually codified to identify patterns. Taskforce members are leaders from Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Sempra Energy, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and No Barriers USA, an education nonprofit.
A pitfall to avoid when working with government is the appearance of working too closely together. For example, with the U.S.
i C. Coglianese and J. Nash, “Performance Track’s Postmortem: Lessons from the Rise and Fall of EPA’s ‘Flagship’ Voluntary Program,” Harvard Environmental Law Review 38 (2014): 1-86.