In 2004, Wal-Mart decided to make the environment a strong focus of its evolution. While many "feel-good" companies such as Ben & Jerry's had incorporated environmental values into their operations in the past, and most Fortune 500 companies had at least paid lip service to the issue, a mega-retailer's significant greening of its operations was big news.
So Wal-Mart turned to well-known environmental nonprofits and NGOs for guidance. One was Environmental Defense (ED), the 40-year-old group that specializes in working with business and governments in pursuit of environmental goals. The group began advising Wal-Mart on climate issues, alternative fuels, packaging, and sustainable seafood practices. But what began as a series of one-day meetings grew into something much larger: last May, ED opened a full-time office in Bentonville, AR, to be close to Wal-Mart headquarters.
"The work was extremely gratifying, but we felt that we weren't moving Wal-Mart as much as we could," says Michelle Harvey, the project manager who leads ED's work with the company. "And our goal really is to leverage the clout that companies like Wal-Mart have in changing the market."
Now, ED is almost a full time on-site advisor. At its own expense (the group takes no money from its corporate partners), ED has put great effort into "ensuring the validity of the [environmental] work Wal-Mart is talking about," notes Harvey. That encompasses everything from strategic advisory on the scientific aspects of its program to running sustainability-training sessions for the company's internal buyers to help them consider environmental goals in their work.
Harvey also collaborates closely with other NGOs doing related work for the company and serves as an independent expert for the media. "The media comes to us because they're intrigued" by the seemingly incongruous ED-Wal-Mart relationship, she says. "We're looked at as a 'second voice.'"
Adapting to the public
ED's work with Wal-Mart is but one example of how environmental nonprofits are adapting to the public's all-time-high green awareness. As more companies recognize that the future is green, corporate partnerships with NGOs are becoming de rigueur; and for nonprofits themselves, increasing attention comes with increasing competition, and new strategies to make their own voices heard.
ED's communications operation includes directors who oversee specific programs and issues, as well as regional contacts. Melanie Janin, media director for ED's corporate partnerships and international communications, says most corporate partnerships mean not only a meeting of the scientific minds, but also a true collaboration, with both parties signing off on corporate communications about the project.
While ED sometimes seeks out a specific company, increasingly companies are contacting it in search of environmental solutions.
"Smart businesses know that environmental benefits are good for business," Janin says. "There will be a PR angle to some of this stuff, but that's not what we really see... it's helping people think beyond what they thought they could achieve."
Many corporate partnerships involve years of work, splashy public rollouts, speakers, and lots of press. Others are more low-key.
"The recognition that this is something that needs to happen now is higher," says Janin. "We see much more media interest. For corporations the pressure is coming both from below and on top."
The group is also focusing more on online communications, starting its own internal blog and pushing out press releases to key blogs, as well as traditional media.
Various outreach tools
At The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the massive conservation-focused nonprofit that features a communications staff of almost 150 across the US, outreach encompasses everything from a self-published magazine and extensive Web site to direct mail and program-focused marketing materials.
Terry Richey, who oversees TNC's marketing, membership, and philanthropy efforts, explains that TNC groups those categories together "because we believe that all of that work ought to be integrated from a message point of view." He says that increased green awareness among the public is driving interest in environmental NGOs to record levels, and boosting the importance of a group's Web site as both a communications tool and a fundraising source.
"We just launched a carbon calculator on our Nature.org Web site, and I believe we've had about 75,000 [uses of it]," he says. "We're seeing that uptick tremendously on our Web site." Further, TNC is planning to launch its own in-house blogging and social networking program on its own site to harness the wisdom of the masses.
Richey notes that the environmental sector remains tiny as a percentage of overall charitable giving, so TNC is essentially competing for donations with every other type of good cause in the world, meaning its messaging must strike a delicate balance between hope and urgency. And while corporations are "beating on our doors" to form partnerships, he says, the group is vigilant about possible corporate "greenwashing" attempts. In fact, TNC values a partnership's ability to drive traffic to its own Web site just as highly as any revenues it may gain.
Relatively smaller NGOs, like Wildlife Trust (WT), an international network of conservation-focused scientists, are facing the same issues as their larger peers.
Anthony Ramos, WT's marketing communications director, spends a great deal of time on online communications work - including heavy utilization of existing social networks, which he deems effective for drawing support and pushing out messages, particularly among a young demographic. And while WT has many corporate partnerships already, he does not see the current trend slowing down.
"I look at NGOs as a corporate brand," he says. "[The green movement will] continue to grow."