Business-NGO Partnerships under the spotlight

Business Fights Poverty


The global context of the 21st century presents new development challenges, to which single sector solutions have proven an inadequate response. Cross-sector solutions – whether to economic, social, cultural or environmental challenges – involve organisations from all sectors systematically collaborating with non-traditional partners to share risks, costs and benefits in meeting new challenges and working systematically towards sustainable development.

The International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) has been at the forefront of the cross-sector partnership movement since 1990, disseminating knowledge and developing methodologies for effective partnerships for sustainable development through hands-on action, research, skills training and standard-setting. IBLF’s partnership work is typically undertaken as a partnership with organisations from different sectors.

One example of this is the recent discussion paper, Under the spotlight: Building a better understanding of global business-NGO partnerships, which originated as part of a Cross-sector Partnership (XSP) project involving World Vision, Accenture Development Partnerships and The Partnering Initiative (a specialist programme of IBLF).

Focussing specifically on partnerships between business and NGOs, this paper aims to play its part in:

• Revealing partnership potential;
• Addressing the challenges that working outside one’s comfort zone invariably brings; and
• Pushing forward the partnering agenda so that it starts to have significantly more sustainable impact.

It considers the partnering landscape from a global perspective and explores the (sometimes) differing experiences of partnerships of NGOs and business. Though both sectors understandably have concerns, the benefits of collaboration provide an increasingly compelling case. A representative of an NGO interviewed for the project explains:

“My personal view is that when we weigh up the moral consequences of our decision to work with business, and because the relationship enables us to get things done more efficiently and effectively, the collaboration is entirely appropriate and justified.”

From the business perspective, interviews with business personnel in eleven different countries produced a clear rationale for partnering with NGOs, identifying five specific benefits:

• Building greater employee motivation, loyalty and productivity from working for a company that they believe to be acting responsibly
• Strengthening stakeholder relationships
• Giving a stronger licence to operate
• Providing opportunities for positive brand differentiation and market development
• Better understanding of development issues from the not-for-profit sector perspective which leads to organisational learning and system change.

Another NGO leader summarised the shift towards partnership, emphasising the growing significance of collaboration that, though still being explored, is fast becoming accepted as an integral delivery mechanism for sustainable development:

“Companies have become, in effect, the largest overseas development agencies. With the growing recognition that trade and markets are the most important drivers for development, lines of responsibility are getting blurred. Every sector is exploring new roles, working relationships and ways of doing business. Partnerships are fast becoming the preferred mechanism for delivering sustainable development.”

Both business and NGO leaders present at IBLF’s Annual Summer Event discussed the issues further on July 2nd 2008. One company CEO stated “partnering with NGOs is critical”, talking positively about the time Wal-Mart brought together business leaders from each of the 300 companies in its supply chain to discuss sustainability issues and to attend a trade fair where they met with NGOs and consultants to consider their role in the supply chain. He felt that bringing the sectors together like this was “absolutely the right thing to do as we have the same objectives in mind”.

Collaboration between the two sectors remains a learning process, but both sides recognise the importance of it in the long term. One company CEO observed that:

“You will not always agree and you have to go into it knowing that, but at the end of the day as a company we are all about sustaining communities, and without sustainable businesses we will not have business at all. It is therefore vital that business gets into the debate.”

NGO leaders also view collaboration as the best way of achieving their objectives – particularly of achieving scale and reach. One NGO leader stressed that whilst there are risks in associating with any company, the real risk is not having enough resources available to fulfil the mission. He explains how it is necessary to reach across borders and find solutions to challenges in a limited timeframe, something made easier through collaboration with business: “We are going to need the kind of transformation that I can see really only coming from business and NGOs, not from governments.”

Writing about IBLF’s event in the Financial Times, Michael Skapinker found the clear willingness of business and NGOs to collaborate very encouraging. He observed:

“As leaders of some of the world’s top companies and NGOs gathered it was impossible to tell them apart. As their discussions proceeded, it was striking not only how well they knew each other, but also how tolerant they were of each other’s foibles.”

Skapinker also notes that the growing levels of trust and co-operation between business and NGOs are in contrast to the less notable collaboration with, and trust in, governments:

“Companies and NGOs are responsible to their own constituencies. They also act as checks on one another. But it should worry us that they need to step in where governments have failed, because neither companies nor NGOs formally answer to us as citizens.”

You can connect with Graham Baxter, a Director at the IBLF, here on Business Fights Poverty.

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