I spend a lot of time trying to understand how the coffee sustainability sector, which I know firsthand is full of smart, ambitious, well-intentioned people, so often falls short of its goals.

My colleagues and I care deeply about making change, so why does it feel that the greatest challenges that coffee faces are beyond our grasp?

Why does sustainability work consistently fail to engage the vast majority of coffee farmers, particularly the farmers who need our support most? Why is growing coffee becoming an increasingly unappealing option to young people in communities where it has been a staple crop for generations? Why are certifications gaining ground despite ample evidence that they fail to deliver impact? Why do we struggle to justify our work in the eyes of the public when we know how needed it is?

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

I recently stumbled upon an idea that I think may be a start to answering these questions. It was a quote by journalist and author Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

This got me thinking – what are our biases? Are there ways in which our thinking about the challenges facing coffee are shaped by our knowledge of who is funding our work? Are we challenging the sector, respectfully but openly, when we have perspectives that they need to hear, or are we subservient because we’re afraid of alienating our donors? Is there any possible model for funding our work that wouldn’t bias us?

My mind went immediately to the watchdog organizations. Who is funding the NGOs that are supposed to keep the coffee sector honest and push us to take a long-term view? These organizations should be our sector’s cops and conscience, but they have to raise their budgets annually just like anybody else, which makes them susceptible to just the kind of biased thinking that Sinclair warns us about.

We shouldn’t be surprised that corporate partners expect something in return for their investments in NGOs; publicly held corporations are legally bound to generate the greatest possible profit for their stakeholders, and their sustainability programs are not exempt from that obligation. And, now that public donors like USAID are increasingly taking their cues from industry, we shouldn’t be surprised that an ever-growing portion of available funding is directed at addressing business needs.

We should, however, think long and hard about how a given partnership affects our autonomy and our thought processes. And just as we are adjusting to the ways that corporations think and speak, we should find ways to help them understand our outlook on the world and why some of our work is vital even if it can’t be captured by ROI.

I’ve created a mental checklist to use when I think about partnerships, as a way of making sure that my salary doesn’t keep me from understanding essential facts:

  • Would I feel comfortable being honest with this donor? Have they displayed an openness to feedback, a desire to learn together, and an understanding of the language of sustainability? Is everyone being honest from day one about what we’re getting out of the partnership? 
  • Does this program serve farmers, industry, or both? Have we consulted thoroughly with farmers to ensure that we’re meeting their real needs?
  • Could someone argue in good faith that the project is green-washing? How would I respond to such an accusation? 
  • How does this project shape the overall revenue mix of my work? Am I so reliant on any one donor, or even any one type of donor (public, corporate, foundation, or individual), that I would hesitate to do the right thing for farmers for fear of losing donors’ favor?
  • How did the donor set their priorities? What business need are they meeting in supporting sustainability work?
  • Do I think the donor has a fundamental respect for the role of sustainability NGOs and an understanding of why our work matters?

I can’t fully unbias my thinking, none of us can. But this feels like a step in the right direction.

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