Credibility of civil society organizations in CSO-business partnerships: A case study of forests of the world

Marianne Due & Mette Pfeiffer Jørgensen

Student thesis: Master thesis


CSO-business partnerships are being promoted as a way of addressing complex social, humanitarian and development challenges. For CSOs, CSO-business partnerships present an opportunity for resources and influence in a time where the external environment has sparked competition for resources and CSOs are encouraged to increase effectiveness and find alternative sources of funding in for instance CSO-business partnerships. In spite of the promising outlooks for CSOs engaging in CSO-business partnerships, such partnerships do not come easily or without a cost. CSOs risk jeopardizing organizational credibility. As little empirical research has dealt with the topic of threats to the credibility of CSOs resulting from their engagements in CSO-business partnership, we identified a gap in literature which this thesis contributes to filling by providing an empirically based analysis to answer our research question: How do CSO-business partnerships present a threat to the credibility of civil society organizations? We undertook a case study of the small environmental CSO, Forests of the World, interviewing the internal stakeholders, i.e. people who, in their capacity as members of the executive committee, employees or active volunteers, are part of the informal or formal decisionmaking processes in Forests of the World. The organization is currently drafting internal guidelines for their future collaborations with companies. In this process the topic of threats to CSO credibility is highly relevant. To be able to answer the research question we carried out an analysis in three research phases. In the first research phase, we examined our first sub-question: What is CSO credibility? We mapped the attributes assessed to contribute to CSO credibility. As an example the mission, vision and organizational purpose of working on behalf of nature was seen to contribute to CSO credibility. The identified attributes were discussed in relation to theory on legitimacy and accountability where the above example was explained in terms of moral legitimacy. This first research phase provided us with an empirical and theoretical understanding of CSO credibility as perceived by the internal stakeholders which was necessary to be able to unfold and operationalize what is being threatened when we refer to CSO credibility. In the second research phase, a mapping of the threats enabled us to answer the second sub-question: What are the threats to CSO credibility presented by CSO-business partnerships? To give an example, greenwashing was assessed to present such a threat. The identification of threats was necessary to move on to the third and final research phase. In this third and final research phase, the empirically based findings from the two preceding research phases were combined to enable a discussion answering our overall research question. To continue with the above example, this third research phase discussed how the attribute to CSO credibility of mission, vision and organization purpose (from research phase one) was threatened by the risk of greenwashing (from research phase two). In these discussions, we found that only certain aspects of CSO credibility was threatened when CSOs engage in CSO-business partnerships while other may indeed be strengthened. The implications of the fact that some aspects of CSO credibility was threatened and others were not, was further discussed. Continuing the ongoing example, the theoretical term of moral legitimacy was found to be threatened be greenwashing. By identifying that moral legitimacy was threatened we discussed the implications that moral legitimacy, in comparison to for instance pragmatic legitimacy, was harder to work with strategically. In a discussion of other aspects of CSO credibility, we suggested that it may be questioned to what extent an organization such as Forests of the World can have both a watchdog role and a more collaborative role in relation to businesses. We argued that the different roles that the organization takes on in its relations to companies may be difficult to balance and should therefore be attended to. Finally, we presented the implications of our research for practice and research. For Forests of the World, we suggest that the mapping of attributes to CSO credibility can be used to spark an internal discussion to clarify which aspects of CSO credibility are considered more important. We argue that this is important as the opinions of these internal stakeholders shape the direction of the CSO. Moreover, in relation to the discussion of opportunities and threats resulting from CSO-business partnerships, it is important to know the priorities if the CSO. We suggest that other CSOs may benefit from the findings and the methods used in this thesis as these can serve as an introduction internal discussion in other CSOs. The implication of our research to research is as follows. First, we have suggested what CSO credibility is embedded within a specific context and point in time. Having thoroughly described the case organization, findings and methods may be used by other researchers to test findings and develop theories from these. Second, we have provided an empirical case study of threats to CSO credibility which is a topic on which little empirical evidence exist. Similar to the findings in relation to CSO credibility, the findings concerning threats may provide basis and inspiration for further research on the topic.

EducationsMSc in Business, Language and Culture, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2011
Number of pages133