Culture clash in business-NGO partnerships

Ten years ago last month, Jem Bendell published what turned out to be one of the most influential books yet on business-NGO partnerships called Terms for Endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development. To mark the anniversary, the publisher Gre…

Ten years ago last month, Jem Bendell published what turned out to be one of the most influential books yet on business-NGO partnerships called Terms for Endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development. To mark the anniversary, the publisher Greenleaf is offering a big discount on the book (50% off) and making a number of the chapters free to download. Included in the free chapters is Andy’s chapter, “Culture clash and mediation: exploring the cultural dynamics of business-NGO collaboration”. We’re really pleased to see this and some of the other chapters made freely available. The book itself was a great collection of articles and it really helped kick start a critical perspective on partnerships and an engagement from the academic community with the political ramifications of corporate responsibility practice – a theme that regular readers will notice that we’ve become ever more interested in.

So in support of the anniversary Andy has written a blog post reflecting on writing the chapter all those years ago. The post will go up on Jem’s website sometime later this month, but he’s agreed for us to publish it here first. So here it is – and don’t forget head over to Greenleaf and download some classic chapters for free.

If truth be told, I discovered business-NGO partnerships pretty much by accident. I was trying to complete my PhD, which was about the “amoralization” of corporate greening. That is, how business involvement in sustainability was accompanied by some form of removal of moral framing and content. I’m not just talking the business case, though that was certainly a major part of it. But also how even social mission companies sometimes failed to morally engage their employees in green business. Or how middle managers in companies would try to make environmental issues as normal and unthreatening to their colleagues as possible. “The environment” my respondents basically seemed to be telling me, was “not ethics”.

I ran into the WWF Plus Group, which is the partnership that I examine in the chapter that is included in Terms for Endearment, because one of the companies I was writing a case study on was involved in the initiative. The Plus Group (a working group seeking to implement the Forest Stewardship Council accreditation scheme in the UK) seemed to me to be an especially interesting context to explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. Here, I sensed, the moral complexion of the different partners might come into sharp relief. Not exactly a “good” NGO facing up to a whole bunch of “bad” companies like some latter day cowboy story. But certainly plenty of potential for a collision of moral worldviews – or more broadly culture clash as the chapter title puts it.

So I got deeper and deeper into the initiative, and became invigorated by exploring the cultural dimensions of business-NGO partnerships. A number of researchers had alluded to the potential for culture problems to arise, but no one had investigated them in any real depth. In the end, I got so into it that, like a badly behaved guest, I probably wound up staying longer than I was supposed to. But I also think that the kind of work I was doing was necessary to move our knowledge up a level.

Looking back now, I think that the chapter still holds up well. It shows that there are different ways of thinking about culture with respect to partnerships, which is a point still missed by many people who study the phenomenon. In that respect, I think it’s great that Greenleaf is making the pdf of the chapter freely available. It will help to disseminate the more critical approach to culture that the piece showcases.

And then there are the insights I provide about the role played by ‘cultural mediators’ in managing cultural translations across and within organizations. At the time that I was writing the chapter, more than a decade ago, this seemed fresh and new. It captured a very real and, I think, important dynamic at play in partnerships. In fact, I’ve had a number of practitioners over the years that have the read the piece saying, ‘yes, that’s exactly what I do!”

So the identification of cultural mediators, and my analysis of the role they play in this complex cultural milieu of partnerships, still rings true. Actually today, it’s much more commonplace for partnering organizations to go so far as to formally identify such a role: NGOs have partnership managers; companies have stakeholder relationship managers and other similar posts. But if we peer beneath the surface, we’ve still got a long way to go before we really understand what’s going on here.

That said, I’ve been heartened in the last few years to see some interesting studies emerging which really help us to see these deeper cultural dynamics more clearly. May Seitanidi, for instance, explores in her recently published book, The Politics of Partnerships, the dangers posed by seeking partners with too great a cultural fit, and the limits to meaningful change imposed by managing away conflict. Bahar Ali Kazmi, who is completing his PhD at the University of Nottingham, has been looking at how cultural mediators operate among different moral logics in the realization of human rights in developing countries. So there’s a lot of great work going on. And I expect that in another 10 years time, we’ll be looking back at how the research of these emerging scholars has helped shape the evolving field of business-NGO partnerships.”

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