British American Tobacco's involvement in Burma has once again put the ethical cat among the pigeons regarding the debate on the relationship between the voluntary and private sectors.
The Ethical Corporation's invitation to BAT to participate in a panel discussion on corporate social responsibility has met with criticism from a number of voluntary organisations. This is unhelpful, unless it opens up the long overdue debate about the parameters of corporate affinity and its impact on our work.
Broadly speaking, the sector gives a voice to and empowers those who are excluded and provides a catalyst for change. We work towards such aims by engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, such as service-users, government, decision-makers, supporters, the media and funders. Increasingly in this process, we engage with the corporate sector.
Private companies are driven by profit and, historically, corporate social action often seemed motivated by benevolent paternalism. In recent years, coinciding with the growth of the third sector as a deliverer of public services and the emerging societal interest in active citizenship, attitudes in the corporate sector have changed. Companies recognise that they can extend their expertise beyond customers and shareholders to benefit the communities in which they are based. This, in turn, creates new currency with growing recognition in society of social capital and consequent commercial benefits.
However, I would suggest that the fact that "good works" can increase profits is not in itself a problem. It's what companies do with their profits and the values they adhere to in pursuit of their goals that count - and also where any controversy may arise. It is important not to confuse these two issues.
Problems appear when the moral and ethical value base of a company is called into question and impacts on the reputation of charities it supports.
The response of the sector to this potential dilemma must be both robust and astute.
We need to get our act together and develop clear ethical investment policies and value bases. So, rather than lambast corporate "offenders", we should work with them to develop appropriate ways to achieve social as well as financial gain.