Photo Credit: Crab Farming in Zanzibar, VSO/Ben Langdon

Michael Mapstone: Business-NGO partnerships – not why, but how….

Michael Mapstone

Business-NGO partnerships – not why, but how….

For some time now many of us have woken up to the fact that there is more to business-NGO partnerships than money. Money, of course, remains important in these economically tight times – NGOs certainly need all the money they can get at the moment and it’s great to see corporate philanthropy remains strong.

We know that to focus purely on the exchange of funds from one to the other fails to recognise how much more NGOs can gain from business and, crucially, vice versa.

The private sector, after all, has been the primary driver of economic growth in developing countries and, as economic growth is essential for securing long-term development and poverty reduction, it makes sense for NGOs to work with business to harness their skills and experience for the benefit of people living in poor communities.

We know ‘why’ this can work and why it can have a positive outcome; we’re just struggling with ‘how’ it can work. We need a willingness to look beyond money, a willingness to take some risks and an appreciation of the different assets and skills each sector can bring.

At VSO, for example, we’ve worked successfully with Accenture for more than a decade to meet the growing demand for business and management professionals in developing countries.

VSO and Accenture are aligned in purpose as the company’s corporate citizenship initiative, Skills to Succeed, aims to equip 250,000 people by 2015 with the skills to get a job or build a business. To help achieve this goal, more than 150 Accenture employees from around the world have volunteered with VSO partner organisations in Africa and Asia.

One example of a volunteer’s impact is in Zanzibar where a VSO-Accenture volunteer shared his business and marketing skills with women’s groups to help them reap the rewards of the local tourism industry. These groups rely heavily on agriculture to make a living but unreliable rainfall posed a serious threat to their crops. As a result, their income fluctuated throughout the year.

After analysing the local market and business environment affecting the women’s groups, the volunteer recognised that the women had to diversify and get involved in other activities to protect against the fluctuations in crops. For members of Kisakasaka Women’s Group, fattening crabs has become one such activity.

Members of the group buy small mud crabs for 500 shillings (20 pence) each and feed them twice a day with fish scraps. Six weeks later the crabs can weigh up to one or two kilograms and can be sold to hotels for up to 5,000 shillings (£2.10). The additional income enables women to send their children to school and to buy medicine for them when they’re sick.

A great outcome and based not so much on funds but on skills and time. So if business can provide expertise that benefits NGOs, how can NGOs help business?

NGOs that work in developing countries know the people, the communities, the local organisations and, most likely, the government as well. They come to know their infrastructure, health systems, education systems, and culture. Most importantly, they grasp the issues and challenges that are keeping people in poverty, and have the experience of designing programs that have a long lasting impact.

For a business working in the Global South, NGOs can prove an invaluable resource and a useful partner.

In Tanzania, for example, VSO is working with BG Group to develop a vocational skills training programme to improve the employability of local people in the oil and gas industries and related services.

For the company, VSO’s experience in recruiting professional volunteers, its 50 years in Tanzania, its track record for rolling out vocational skills training programmes and its expertise in the field of secure livelihoods (amongst others), made it a natural partner.

The innovative programme, based in the country’s Mtwara region, will secure employment for more than 500 local people in the next five years and give them the opportunity to work themselves out of poverty. Again, not a bad outcome.

Providing financial support to NGOs, which already have programmes in place and are working with local people on the ground, is still an impactful way for businesses to contribute to development. But they need to look beyond the transactional model at where else they can add value. Companies need to take a step into the unknown, be willing to be challenged by their NGO partners and be open to adapting existing business models and even creating new ones.

Likewise, NGOs need to be less risk adverse, understand their own value more and embrace the innovation that can come through working collaboratively with the private sector. Companies have skilled and experienced staff that can bring tangible benefits to local businesses, NGOs, even organs of government. Transformational partnerships which strengthen local business, provide jobs to people in poverty and help to drive inward investment are not only a sustainable way of doing development, but they also help to build vibrant economies from which everyone can benefit – companies and individuals alike.

It’s these partnerships, which harness and leverage the different expertise, assets and models that business, NGOs and government have, that we should all be aiming for.

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6 Responses

  1. I am impressed with this program. Our team is ramping up to do similar things. Kofe Annan
    did promote the Type Two Partnership, that has governments, non profit (university and tax exempts) with for profit businesses in a cooperation or collaboration addressing the United
    Nations Millennium Development Goals. Poverty and Hunger relief is one of our major actions
    and Global Climate Change mitigation projects. Yes, we too support Youth Vocational Training and our strong technical team will support uplifting the poor. We support the
    Triple Bottom Lines that benefit the People, the Planet and the Profit for true sustainable developments.

  2. Hi Sidney, thanks for the feedback, will keep you posted on how our partnerships develop (we’ve got exciting stuff happening in 2013!).  Be great to hear more about your work on Youth Vocational Training – let us know more when you can.

    Best wishes, Michael

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Michael! Great posting. You’ve articulated extremely well the case for better utilization of partnerships between business and NGOs. I am familiar with Accenture’s Skills to Succeed employee volunteering initiative and it is good to get a sense of how it is working in practice. Very impressive also to see what VSO is focused on.


    I totally warm to your point about the need to move from transactional to transformational partnerships, something that became obvious to me years ago when faced with having to set up partnerships with NGOs as part of the CSR strategy of the global telecommunications businesses I worked in. The de facto way of working tended to be about access to funds or assets or employee time and skills. Which I felt was fine but not enough. It still is the way for many. As you say, it under-utilizes the true potential that resides in collaboration.

     I have now moved on from the corporate sector to focus on cross-sector partnerships for sustainable development in an effort to do more with what I believe in. I certainly feel that partnerships can be positioned more innovatively and constructively within a business strategy –not just the CSR strategy. I have some experience of extending the product line to include unserved/underserved markets to serve both business & CSR impact. I also saw it as being perfectly reasonable for me to offer to NGOs to broker access to the product designers & developers, marketers, R&D community, people who ran manufacturing operations, environmental affairs, communications and so on. Not fish at the periphery where CSR might sit but in the mainstream where business decisions from product development to manufacturing to distribution are taken. Not surprisingly, this prospect can be daunting for both NGOs and businesses alike. But it is possible. Means starting small.  And knowing how to do it. And do it well to create the domino effect.

     I agree that there are benefits for both sides to raise the level of dialogue beyond skills, assets and resources – as that tends to keep people in the comfort zone of transactional outputs and outcomes – to how they could genuinely identify opportunities which place cross-sector collaboration in the core business model. But it requires a massive change in both attitude/behaviour and in practice across the sectors. And as I know from my own work, it also needs a great deal of practical support with the ‘how’ and the ‘who’.   It also helps that evidence such as provided by you, is available to underscore the importance of more enlightened NGO-business collaboration and indeed more enlightened practitioners.

  4. Hi Surinder, thanks for the feedback and great to hear there’s a growing community of people who want to create cross-sector partnerships that are based on shared value.  As you say, it does require a massive cultural change of both sides to make it happen and you’re absolutely right on the ‘how’ and the ‘who’. There is a growing body of evidence out there, though still not enough, which mean big leaps of faith all round. Now I could talk about this for ages…will keep you updated on what we do in this area and next year looks to be an exciting one for VSO…would be great to hear more about your work with TPI. 

    VSO has organised a session at the IAVE Conference in London today talking about just this and we’ll be joined by TPI, IBLF, Accenture and British Red Cross

    Best, Michael



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