Kate Nicholas: Corporations don't speak NGOs' language

Warren Buffett's $37bn gesture of largess to Bill Gates' charity may well go down in history as one of the largest philanthropic acts of its kind. But it isn't difficult to imagine how the deal was sewn up. Gates and Buffett operate in the same universe, they are both after their slice of immortality, and they speak the same language.

In fact, corporate giving on the whole is currently in decline, which is somewhat ironic given the fact that so many companies are looking to convince the public of their corporate social responsibility. Companies are turning their backs on simple philanthropic gestures and looking at more sophisticated and active ways to cash in on the halo effect that surrounds leading charities.

Corporate sponsors want more for their money – they want their customers to see how involved they are in the cause. But this isn’t quite as simple to pull off as old-fashioned philanthropy. Persuading NGOs to let you piggyback your commercial success on their cause requires rather more careful finessing.

I was thinking about all this while listening to the keynote speaker at the PRWeek Forum this week. Craig Sams is founder of the organic chocolate range Green & Black’s, bought out in May 2005 by Cadbury Schweppes, whose other subsidiary could do with a bit of Sams’ CSR halo effect at this moment.

Because despite being unashamedly concerned with luxury indulgence, Green & Black’s is a product generated entirely from a socially responsible proposition. Sams’ first chocolate brand, Maya Gold – launched on the Oxfam stand at the BBC Good Food Show in 1994 – was sold as much on the back of the issue of fair trade as it was on taste. While NGOs were telling horror stories about the plight of women on large cocoa plantations, Green and Black’s provided a perfect call to action: simply buy packs of great-tasting, ‘guilt-free’ chocolate and improve the lives of growers in Belize as well as the environment.

Sams talks the same language as NGOs, referring to supporters rather than customers, and even borrows engagement techniques more commonly used in raising funds. It’s not a wonder that his product was sold by the likes of Greenpeace.

Sams isn’t an activist, he’s an entrepreneur, but not many businessmen started life peddling green tea to the masses. Obviously a self-confessed hippy can learn the language of the boardroom, but can the boardroom ever learn to speak the language of the NGO?


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