Five Lessons from Ten Corporate-Charity Partnerships

By Laurie Lee, Social and Environmental Sustainability Leader

At CARE Laurie Lee worked with ten of the UK’s largest FTSE100 companies, here he reflects on all of those experiences and distils the key lessons for companies to have a positive impact on poverty and the environment, and how companies, charities and governments can work well together.

In one of my series of articles about progress on eliminating world poverty in the last 25 years, I talked about why it’s not just about official aid. Government policy and the private sector really matter too. At CARE I worked with ten of the UK’s largest FTSE100 companies. And I gave a couple of those examples in that earlier article. A CEO of one major company encouraged me to reflect on all of those experiences and distil, what are they key lessons about how companies can have a positive impact on poverty and the environment, and how companies, charities and governments can work well together. So, here goes…

My five lessons are

  1. Charity partnerships can increase profits
  2. Low-income customers are valuable and numerous
  3. Work with other companies, but only when it makes sense
  4. The biggest impacts come from long-term partnerships
  5. Multiply your impact on the whole sector, and government policy

Before I go into the five lessons in more detail, here’s a quick summary of each of the partnerships.

Ten Partnerships

This is not an exhaustive list of CARE’s partnerships with the private sector and you can find the latest news about their leading edge work at Business with CARE.

1. CARE worked recently with Amanda Blanc, Group CEO of Aviva, around COP 26, the UK hosted climate summit in 2021. Amanda chairs Women in Finance to boost gender diversity across UK financial services. They have a Climate Action Group which produced a report for COP 26 on the link between gender equality and the climate crisis. The report drew on research conducted by CARE International UK on the overwhelming evidence that women and girls are more heavily impacted by the effects of the climate crisis. Reducing gender inequality in exclusion from financial services, will help women be more equally resilient to the impacts of climate change. The evidence also showed that including more women in pensions and savings, will increase demands for investments to be more sustainable. So the impact is in both directions. It’s not E or S or G – these things really do mutually support one another.

2. Banking on Change was a large, six-year partnership between Barclays, CARE and Plan, to reduce financial exclusion in several African countries and India. 750,000 people on income under £1 a day, including 300,000 young people, were supported to benefit from informal financial services through Village Savings and Loans Associations, saving $34M. 5,000 groups (125,000 people) were then linked to formal banking services in Barclays and other banks in six African countries and India. Over 100,000 micro business were sustained for at least six months. This demonstrated that Savings Groups were a nationally important and commercially viable route to financial inclusion. To the extent the Barclays Uganda CEO told us it changed his customer growth strategy and the Tanzania government put Savings Groups at the heart of their financial inclusion policy.

3. CARE’s partnership with Cadbury and Mondelez and the Cocoa Life Programme is another very large, multi-year partnership which is ongoing. I loved the fact that CARE’s partnership with Cadbury dates back to the 1940s, when Cadbury’s chocolate was included in some of the famous CARE Packages that were sent to families around Europe after the Second World War. The current partnership resumed in 2009, in the three largest cocoa producing countries producing 70% of the world’s cocoa. Recently, CARE was working with over 500 communities, to help them diversify and increase their income, and to support community priorities including clean water and education. All of this is essential to ensuring these communities can thrive and continue to supply Mondelez. CARE put a special emphasis on improving gender equality within the cocoa supply chain, at household and community levels.

4. CARE has partnered with Diageo for several years, to improve gender equality and reduce gender-based violence in Diageo’s operations and value chain, particularly in hospitality settings – bars. Training on hospitality industry skills that empowered under-represented groups and helped prevent harassment in the industry reached 150,000 people in 2019. This programme built on experience that CARE learned in a previous partnership with Heineken and the association for major breweries operating in Cambodia.

5. CARE worked with GSK’s Frontline Health Worker Initiative in nine least developed countries from 2011 to 2021. The £multi-million programme has trained over 12,000 community health workers, directly providing over five million people with better health services. Between 2010 and 2021, there was a 24.9% decline in the maternal mortality ratio in CARE-GSK supported communities. Comparatively, the global maternal mortality ratio declined by 14.9% during this period. There was an average decrease of 16 deaths under one year/1000 births (infant mortality) in CARE-GSK supported communities, which is almost twice the global decrease of 9/1000 during this same period. In Bangladesh, the largest programme, skilled birth attendance doubled, and women receiving at least one skilled ante-natal visit increased 74%. As a result, there was a 68% reduction in women reporting both pre-natal and post-natal complications, and a huge 35/1000 reduction in infant deaths.

6. In 2013, GSK and Barclays formed a new partnership to increase affordable healthcare and medicines for people in Zambia. They partnered with CARE to implement it and Accenture to independently measure its impact. CARE formed a social enterprise called LiveWell, which brings basic food, health and households goods to customers who live in remote areas. Over 400 Community Health Entrepreneurs have reached over 500,000 people (3% of the country’s population) with health tips and healthy products. A number of other initial ideas of the partnership were not achieved. The evaluation says, “More detailed analysis at the outset may have revealed regulatory challenges that later impacted both the pharmaceutical distribution model and the micro insurance product.”

7. CARE has partnered with Intercontinental Hotels Group since 2012, including the award winning Shelter in a Storm programme. Ten of thousands of employees from 4500 hotels fundraise when there is a disaster to support the humanitarian response by CARE and other NGOs when appropriate. The partnership has developed more recently, looking at gender inequality within the hotel linen supply chains in India and Pakistan.

8. In 2015, Marks & Spencer partnered with our GSK Frontline Health Worker programme in garment factories in Bangladesh, to form the Halow+ programme. It ensured workers in M&S supply factories had good access to healthcare and dignified and empowering working conditions. The Halow+ programme has supported over 50,000 garment workers (1.25% of 4M in Bangladesh) in factories supplying M&S. The programme was rapidly adapted and extended in 2020 to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

9. CARE has worked with Twinings (Associated British Foods) since 2017 on their Sourced with Care programme to improve the lives of tea estate workers. Community Development Forums facilitate dialogue between workers, management and the wider community.  This reduced labour disputes, improved worker well-being and increased productivity.  An independent evaluation showed that for every £1 invested in the Forums there were measurable benefits worth £11.21 to the workers, £26.65 to the tea industry, and £4.70 to the community.  Women are the majority of workers but a minority of managers.  The programme empowered more women to become leaders and managers.

10. Unilever and CARE have worked together several times. Unilever has long been a leader in ethical and sustainable business.  Currently, CARE is supporting Unilever’s female last-mile ‘Shakti’ sales agents, in a new programme to reduce gender-based violence, and ensure they are both safe and earn a good living.


Five lessons

1 Charity partnerships can increase profits

Well this is the critical lesson, right?!   If charity partnerships and ESG programmes pay for themselves and increase profits, why wouldn’t you do them?   Now, I am not saying they always achieve it as wonderfully clearly as the 27:1 return on investment from the Community Development Forums in the Twinings tea estates in Sri Lanka in example 9.  But it is important to recognise that they sometimes are very good business.  We saw it in garments factories in Bangladesh too, in examples 5 and 8.

Sometimes, the return on investment might be less obvious or take longer.   But it’s still there.  If cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire don’t thrive, why would they keep farming?  But if they diversify their income, have better health and clean water (example 3), then they are more productive, quality and volumes improve, they make more money and Cadbury secures its supply chain, without which profits are impossible.

Companies increasingly recognise that their positive social impact is vital to employee recruitment, retention and motivation, which in turn improves profits.  In example 7, for a small investment InterContinental Hotels give employees the chance to direct their social motivations to a good cause when it’s in the news.


2 Low-income customers are valuable and numerous

The aim of any corporate-charity partnership should be to have a lasting impact beyond the duration of the initial investment.  One of the main mechanisms for this is to adjust a company’s attitudes about whether the lowest income people are viable customers, employees and suppliers.  Once achieved, this will lock a more inclusive approach into the company’s business model.  Good for business growth and good for social inclusion.

In example 10, Unilever has sought to sell to low-income people in volume for a long time.  It began the Shakti programme in India in 2000,  It extended to Africa in 2011 and has recently extended to South America. It knows that low-income customers are valuable and numerous.  CARE is helping to ensure that it has the sales agents it needs to serve all these customers.

But other companies might need persuading.  In example 2, what began as a citizenship project with no foreseen direct financial return for Barclays, ended up informing the customer growth strategy of the Barclays Uganda CEO.  He could see that the combination of digital technology reducing the cost per transaction of banking low-income customers, and the role of Savings Groups in aggregating large numbers of those customers, made them a very viable stream of new customers.

In example 6, Livewell demonstrated that low-income customers don’t only want GSK’s products.  They also want over-the counter health, nutrition and household goods.  Solar lamps were particularly good sellers.  The opportunity is for those who can create the distribution network of sales agents to reach low-income customers.  CARE has supported several companies to do so as well as establishing social enterprises in several countries that do this.

Many of the successful examples above – including 3. Cadbury, 4. Diageo, 5. GSK, 8. M&S, 9. Twinings, and 10. Unilever – are also about including more low-income people as employees and suppliers in value chains, and treating them with respect, so they have safe and dignified livelihoods.


3 Work with other companies, but only when it makes sense

There’s a well-known African proverb that says: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’.  It’s painted on a railway bridge in Loughborough Junction where I live in South London.  It’s also painted on the wall of the Gates Foundation, where I worked.  A caricature of business would be that it’s sceptical of the benefits of slowing down to work with others, and therefore misses out on bigger prizes.  But it is always important to have a good reason for working with other companies.  Don’t do it for its own sake.

If you want to transform a whole sector, or influence government policy (see lesson V below), then it is a very good idea to work with other companies.  Business is familiar with trade associations.  Charities can help inform policy positions which trade associations adopt.  The COP26 Climate Action Group (example 1 above) carried much more weight coming from Women in Finance than if it had come from a single, however impressive, CEO.  CARE has also been involved in the Ethical Trade Initiative, Better Cotton Initiative, Ethical Tea Partnership and other sector-wide groups which I have not mentioned in the examples.  To really move a whole industry, this kind of collaboration is usually required.

But if you are just trying to achieve your own ESG goals, it may or may not help to worth with other companies.  Maybe, but don’t do it for the sake of it.  There are two examples above, both involving GSK and CARE.

I think example 8, with Marks & Spencer, was very successful because it brought together what these two companies were each doing in Bangladesh to make something even better.  GSK was already working with CARE to improve healthcare for women and communities, including in a few garment factories.  M&S was already buying clothes from many garment factories in Bangladesh.  So working together had real complementarity.  It allowed CARE to scale up the GSK programme to more factories.  And it increased the financial sustainability of the approach by integrating it into the garments supply chain, so it became less of an add-on GSK CSR programme, and more part of a normal way to run garments factories.

Example 6, with Barclays and GSK in Zambia, was less successful, because the starting point was a well-meaning decision by the two CEOs to work together, just because they both had businesses in southern Africa, and both were socially minded.  But apart from Barclays banking GSK, there were not many natural linkages between the companies.  Barclays and GSK tried a few things that didn’t work out.  CARE worked very hard to establish the LiveWell social enterprise, and it had a positive impact.  Whether it is financially sustainable enough to survive the end of the partnership and Barclays selling out of Africa, remains to be seen.  For me, this joint partnership was not as successful as Barclays’ Banking on Change programme (example 2) or GSK’s Frontline Health Worker Initiative (example 5), which shows that it isn’t always better to work with other companies.


4 The biggest impacts come from long-term partnerships

This may seem pretty obvious, but I think it needs saying.  As noted in Lesson III above, a caricature of business is that it wants to be fast and immediate and therefore misses out on bigger prizes.  But almost all of the most successful partnerships described above have been built over several years, and the biggest impacts have tended to come from the longest partnerships.  And I pay credit to all of those companies for taking that long-term approach.

This is not simply a matter of mathematics, that a 10-year programme will achieve x10 a one-year programme.  A long-term programme might achieve less impact in its first year than a one-year project, because it is gearing up, engaging with communities, managers, employees, customers and governments. But it might achieve x100 the impact in the end.

Reducing maternal mortality by 25% in Bangladesh example 5 above, couldn’t be done in lots of short projects.  Health workers had to be trained.  Communities had to be engaged. Government had to give its support.

Building thriving communities in Cote d’Ivoire in example 3 above also took time.  These communities had been at civil war.  The first couple of years were about peacebuilding, before we could even start work on community development.  But that made for a much stronger programme in the end.

There can also be a role for short-term partnerships.  Fundraising for charities-of-the-year is welcome unrestricted income for charities that struggle to cover core costs.  But as with all relationships, it’s the ones that last that matter most.


5 Multiply your impact on the whole sector, and government policy

I talked in Lesson II about creating more inclusive approach business models being one of the ways for a corporate-charity partnership to have a lasting impact beyond the duration of the initial investment.  Another way is for the partnership to change the way a whole sector, or government works.  Or in the case of example 1 above on COP 26, the whole world!

It is important in any strong corporate-charity partnership to think about how the programme can spread its impact and objectives beyond the direct project.  This can increase both the scale and duration of its impact.

In example 2, we worked with Barclays to spread the lessons of Banking on Change.  We launched the Linking for Change Charter to promote responsible banking of Savings Groups and low-income customers and urged governments, companies and the UN to sign on.  The biggest success was the Government of Tanzania, putting Savings Groups at the heart of their financial inclusion policy.

By working to improve part of the value chain, in example 3, Diageo is having an impact beyond its own business model.  Bars sell products from many companies, and Diageo is helping to make the whole hospitality industry safer for over 150,000 people.

In Bangladesh, example 5, the GSK Frontline Health Worker Initiative worked in low-income parts of Bangladesh where the government health service did not reach.  But CARE ensured that the midwives and Community Health Workers were trained to the government curriculum.  This meant that they could be integrated with the government system when it did reach, or if they decided to move and progress their careers.  It also ensured that public health information would be collected and shared in a consistent format with government.  This became all the more important during the Covid pandemic.

As you can see in the examples above, protecting and empowering women at work is a common element of many CARE partnerships with businesses.  Unfortunately that is because harassment, exploitation and violence against women is all too common, including in the workplace.  And in one-in-three countries there is no domestic legislation outlawing this.  So CARE worked with the ILO, other charities, trade unions and many business grouping in countries around the world, to campaign, for several years, for a global law to outlaw sexual violence at work anywhere.  ILO190 was passed in 2019 and entered into force in 2021, safeguarding at least 500 million women with no domestic legal protection.  It was ratified by the UK Parliament in 2022 and the UK Government has agreed to “introduce a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as explicit protections against workplace harassment by third parties, for example customers or clients.”  Several of the companies above, including Diageo and M&S, supported the campaign for ILO190, showing that partnerships can also extend beyond the immediate milestones of a programme and achieve even more as a genuine mutual relationship of common values.

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