Slide 1

Ian Harris, The Z/Yen Group
Brendan May, Marine Stewardship Council

[An edited version of this article first appeared as “Sleeping with the enemy”, Charity Times (Autumn 2000)]

Brendan May (Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council) and Ian Harris (Director of Z/Yen Limited) argue that the voluntary sector is often still too anxious about working with industry to provide any real solutions to the problems of the new global economy.  NGOs seeking to change the world are starting to learn that they can sometimes get results more quickly by working with industry, rather than against it.  But is this sleeping with the enemy? Do such NGOs start to "be what they eat?" Brendan and Ian argue persuasively that government is becoming decreasingly important and industry is becoming increasingly important in achieving results for NGO causes.  Further, they argue controversially that the voluntary sector, especially environmental organisations, have frequently failed their beneficiaries through overly idealistic and confrontational approaches.  The voluntary sector should be about getting things done and getting results, not utopian posturing and pontification.  Brendan and Ian have found that you can achieve results far quicker and more effectively by working hard to find some common ground with industry than is possible through a war of attrition with industry.  In the case of the marine environment, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council is starting to get real results from thoughtfully working with industry.  In this article, Brendan and Ian set out the principles they have learned, which should be interesting to all manner of NGOs as a possible model for achieving results.

A sea change in global influence

Perhaps it's just a coincidence but the new millennium has come at the same time as some fundamental changes to our political, economic and social landscape.  Just over a decade ago, western nations still battled over territory and ideology, flexing their military muscles.  Today there is no Cold War.  The explosion of market economics (much of it fragile) and the spread of neo-conservative thought (much of it adopted by the new left) has required fundamental changes in the way in which we measure the success or failure of our world.  It also changes the way NGOs need to advocate and campaign.

There is increasing unease about the inevitable but devastating excesses which accompanied the empowerment of consumers after the old left lost the market forces argument and tactfully withdrew to the sidelines.  Arguably, the role of government will never again be as wholesome as it was in the decades following two world wars.  Governments have only a limited ability to manage globalisation.  We have let the market settle many of our arguments.  Often now government must simply content itself with managing the fine tuning of decisions which are being made, not in Whitehall and on Capitol Hill, but in board rooms by unelected finance directors and corporate affairs executives of major multinational corporations.

As a result, new alignments have emerged, between those who argue that the market can be the only guardian of freedom and others who believe that unrestricted corporate activity is a threat to our long term stability.  Nowhere is this argument more important than in the stewardship of our global environment.  Ironically, many of the environmental crises which now confront the new decision-makers are in part the result of governmental failures of the past.

There's no time for posturing

Charity Times readers may well have seen recent media coverage of the perilous state of the world’s oceans.  Scientists have repeatedly warned that many of the world’s most commercially important fish stocks are on the brink of collapse.  Nowhere is this environmental issue more pressing than in the Europe.  There is now a very real prospect that many of the fisheries on which we depend for seafood and employment could be closed within months.  It is worth remembering the horrors of 1992, when one of the world’s richest natural resources, the cod stocks off the Canadian Grand Banks, disappeared virtually overnight with devastating consequences for the marine environment.  Forty thousand jobs were lost and the fisheries remain closed today.

If we do not respond quickly to the alarm bells being sounded closer to home, it is no exaggeration to say that within a few years many of the seafood species which are so familiar in our supermarkets and restaurants could be gone from our tables forever.  The seafood industry provides an economic lifeline for coastal communities across the globe and the major source of protein in many developing countries.  The social implications of this crisis are every bit as serious as the environmental ones. 

Enter the MSC

In 1996, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever (one of the world’s largest seafood buyers) joined forces to create the non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). They sought to find a way of creating real economic incentives for improved management of fish resources.  The now independent MSC has developed an environmental Standard for sustainable fisheries.  Any fishery of any size in any region may apply to be independently certified against that Standard.  Products from a certified fishery win the right to use the MSC sustainability label on their packaging.  This identifies the best environmental choice in seafood to consumers.  Using their buying power, consumers can help reverse the decline.  Three fisheries have already won the right to use the MSC logo.
Industry and consumer behaviour is starting to change.  Many fishery managers now see the MSC logo as a vital tool in adding value to their products.  The market is therefore being used for the good of all.  Industry safeguards its future and avoids attracting negative publicity from NGOs.  Consumers can be assured of continued supplies of seafood.
Environmentalists achieve their conservation objectives.

Does this sound familiar? The MSC is grappling innovatively with issues similar to those that many NGOs face, especially those specialising in relief to developing countries, reducing poverty, protecting the environment and the advancement of education.

Generic Pitfall - aka Utopia Limited

There are however those in the environmental sector who believe that any partnership with industry constitutes a privatisation of the soul and that it is only through utter purity that change is worthwhile.  We believe this attitude, whilst pure in spirit, is irresponsible in practice and does not offer hope for progress within meaningful timescales.  Some NGOs are so concerned with what is flimsily termed ‘process’ that a frequent casualty in their cause has in fact been progress.

Of course, utopian pontification is a vital tool in raising awareness of global problems.  Without radical opposition and protest it is harder to gain public attention.  Organisations like the MSC would probably not exist were it not for the pressure applied to industry by radical environmentalists.  Following the success of such campaigns, the pragmatists should now enter the stage highlighting solutions, not problems.

The MSC, for example, can only deliver its objectives if it bridges the gap between commerce and conservationists.  This can be an uneasy position between the two, since for every conservationist who expresses caution about the organisation’s links with industry, there is a company who is reluctant to take part because of the MSC’s green credentials.  Squaring this type of circle requires vision, thoughtful planning, diplomatic implementation and prompt evaluation of the results.

MSC results so far

The MSC has won the support of every sector with a stake in the future of seafood and is bridging this gap between environmentalists and commerce to bring about real change.  The participation of industry is the key to this success.  All the major UK supermarkets support the MSC.  Unilever has pledged that all the seafood in its product range will be sustainable by the year 2005.  With good reason, as a recent survey conducted in America showed that 70% of people would prefer to buy labelled sustainable seafood.  Many British supermarkets are now racing each other to stock MSC labelled product.  Where they cannot win price wars, they compete on environmental responsibility.  Programmes like the MSC are central to their sustainable development strategies.

Generic lessons learned

The following table sets out the generic lessons we have learned, which we believe should be useful to all manner of NGOs.

Catch phrase

Lesson learned

Inference for NGOs

Solid ground

Businesses are far more likely to change if the scientific community provides them with sound science

Help businesses to find and understand sound science

Follow the leader

Where there is a compelling argument for change, once one major player leads, the others will surely follow

Convince one major player to lead

Added value

Businesses will usually act promptly and comprehensively if an idea is going to add value to their business

Find innovative ways to help add value to the businesses with which you work

Corporate responsibility

As consumers become increasingly savvy, businesses are learning that they need to behave responsibly

Offer to advise businesses on responsibility in your areas of knowledge

Think global

Irresponsible businesses will often apply good practice in the developed world only to "compensate" by transporting bad practice to the developing world

In such cases, your campaign needs to be global in order to achieve your aims ethically

We address each of these lessons in turn below.

Solid Ground

NGOs of all sorts, not just health and environmental organisations, can benefit from using a scientific approach to the issues they raise with businesses and other organisations.  For example, many social work based charities are increasingly moving towards evidence-based practice development and learning.  Much science that reaches the public domain is directed towards changing the behaviour of individuals rather than organisations.  For example, most readers will be aware of research directed at them to discourage them from smoking and using sunbeds due to scientifically proven links with several lung and skin cancers respectively.  Readers (and many interested NGOs) are probably not so aware of confidential scientific studies which, for example, link some permitted industrial emissions and food additives with forms of cancer.  Such studies reach the public domain if/when leaked or "released at an appropriate time". NGOs often have to rummage around to find supporting evidence for their work and/or initiate research of their own.  In some instances NGOs can persuade businesses and/or government sector organisations to finance scientific research into areas that are in the interests of business.  A consortium approach to scientific research can benefit the NGO for several reasons, not just the obvious "source of funds" reason.  Scientific research undertaken by or for a campaigning NGO alone is often (possibly unfairly) tainted with a charge of bias.  The more independent the science, the more solid is your ground for using that science as a justification for your case.

Follow the leader

It can be enormously frustrating when you have a brilliant idea or compelling argument yet you cannot persuade any of the large target organisations to participate because the other large organisations are not yet participating.  This can feel like a cross between Catch 22 and Kafkaesque bureaucracy gone mad, literally! However, the same strange psychology starts to work in your favour if you can persuade one organisation to pioneer with you.  You will then often find it surprisingly easy to get several organisations subsequently to join with your idea.  Z/Yen, for example, conducts several competitive cost comparison surveys for major banks.  It was not easy to get this area of work started, but once we found one bank that was keen and prepared to push itself forward, many others followed.  Now we find that banks other than the original leader seek to initiate new studies.  This psychological bottleneck and release is pertinent to many aspects of NGO activity, not just campaigning and advocacy, but also fundraising and volunteering activity.  Community groups for example, will often identify the need for "critical mass" of interest within the community to get their ideas moving.

The current authors emphatically do not advocate the following technique we have seen used by the advertising department of a well known trade magazine (no name, no pack drill but not Charity Times). The sales people phone each of the major organisations in their target sector and tell each one, fallaciously, that several of the others have already signed up to their latest advertising wheeze.  This technique regularly results in several of the majors indeed signing up to the wheeze.  We believe that technique to be dishonest, but it illustrates the point we are making.  You can usually get many organisations to follow once they see one or two similar organisations participating in your scheme.

Added value

The current authors believe that one of the key challenges to modern NGOs is to demonstrate that their work is adding value.  Indeed, this issue alone can be the subject of an article of this length.  Suffice it to say that this issue is pertinent to almost all aspects of NGOs' work and is becoming increasingly so.  For example, in recent years, corporate fundraisers have extended their use of quantitative measurement to demonstrate the benefits to businesses of working to help charities to raise funds.  Business people, who are used to undertaking cost/benefit analysis to support their decisions, often feel uneasy when NGOs advocate solely intangible or qualitative benefits.  Of course, some NGO issues are intrinsically qualitative, hard to measure and tricky to express in financial value terms.  Our argument is that NGOs should nevertheless try their best to provide empirical evidence to back requests to the business world.  This sometimes requires real imagination.  For example, Z/Yen is currently working with the MSC to try and prove the tangible value of the MSC's certification scheme using the same real option theory techniques that Z/Yen uses to help industry with decision making and government lobbying.  Many NGOs can use these and similar techniques to support their fundraising and campaigning work with business.

Corporate responsibility

The corporate world is waking up to the fact that many of its potential customers, clients, investors and staff are increasingly interested in doing business with responsible corporations.  Younger people in particular seem motivated by the ethical aspects of corporate behaviour.  This trend presents many opportunities to various aspects of NGO activity.  Conventional forms of fundraising, to some extent, can benefit, but we argue that this trend is more to do with active participation, which can include but is not restricted to fundraising.  Volunteering through corporate activity is an obvious trend, exacerbated by the large amounts of public money and publicity being generated at the time of writing to promote volunteering.  Some NGOs will benefit enormously from this volunteering.  The corporate responsibility trend also presents opportunities to campaigning and advocacy organisations to encourage businesses to change their behaviours in the interests of responsible business and therefore their reputations.  The authors predict that this trend is likely to be a reasonably long-lived trend unless the economy suffers a serious and sustained shock.

Think global

There are many examples of businesses "exporting" bad practice rather than eradicating it.  Tobacco companies, for example, have tended to compensate for loss of business in the developed world by aggressively chasing revenue growth in the developing world.  Industrial companies, unable to use pollution-belching equipment in the developed world re-deploy the offending equipment in countries with less regulation.  Campaigning and advocacy organisations should be aware of the possible knock-on effects of their work and strive as best they can to eradicate rather than relocate bad practices.  This can seem a difficult or sometimes near impossible task, but bear in mind the other lessons learned in this article.  If there is a solid, scientific case for change, that case probably applies globally.  The trend towards corporate responsibility should help you to advocate your case.  Try and persuade one of the more responsible, global businesses to take a lead.  Consider the financial case involved; economies of scale can often make it more cost effective to deploy a change across a whole business rather than a piecemeal, shuffling approach (e.g. the replacement of old technology). Think about how your NGO can help business to benefit from doing the right thing.


Market economics and industry’s paramount role in modern society is a fact.  We cannot vote out industry and we cannot pretend that all business is inherently evil.  Surely then, many of the solutions sought by NGOs can be achieved by working with industry.

Sleeping with the enemy, for want of a kinder phrase, is not easy.  It requires a delicate positioning between many conflicting interests and a search for common ground.  Once those compromises are made, we believe results are achieved far more quickly and effectively than is possible through wars of attrition.  Indeed, the MSC has found that some of the organisations it thought might be its enemy have proved to be its most valuable allies.  If that leads to a more sustainable stewardship of the world’s greatest renewable food source, it will surely have been worth it.

Brendan May is Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC's objectives are to bring about a sea change in oceans management by providing economic incentives for sustainable behaviour and advancing public education in the principles and practice of conservation.  The MSC is now one of the leading voices in the marine conservation community.  It is a global charitable organisation with its international headquarters in London.  The MSC programme works through a multi-stakeholder partnership approach, taking into account the views of all those seeking to secure a sustainable future.  Through the MSC's sustainability seafood logo, consumers are encouraged to support sustainable fisheries to ensure there will be seafood for future generations.  Contact: Brendan May, The Marine Stewardship Council, 119 Altenburg Gardens, London, SW11 1JQ UK. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7350 4000, Email:

Ian Harris is a Director of Z/Yen, the risk/reward management practice, which is currently working with the MSC to help the MSC further its strategic goals.  Z/Yen specialises in risk/reward management, an innovative approach to improving performance through strategy, systems, people and organisation.  Z/Yen clients include blue chip companies in banking, insurance, distribution and sales/service companies as well as many non-governmental organisations.  Contact: Ian Harris, Z/Yen Limited, 5-7 St Helen’s Place, London, EC3A 6AU, UK.  Telephone: +44 (0)20 7562 9562. e-mail: