5 ways for NGOs to get smarter about private-sector engagement

Through a partnership with the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, IRD worked with local government and community leaders to construct better water catchment systems in Somali’s Gedo region. Photo: IRD

Every week seems to bring new headlines about public-private partnerships, whether it’s large initiatives, like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and the Power Africa initiative, or smaller country-level alliances.

With all this excitement around private sector engagement, it must be easy for a nonprofit to get involved, right?

The truth is that the PPP landscape can be quite confusing for those who are new to it.

I know this because in 2012, my organization, IRD, made a strategic commitment to expand its corporate engagement. I was brought in to make that commitment a reality. I am experienced in development, having served in the Peace Corps and worked for national NGOs, international NGOs, and the United Nations, but I was new to the partnerships field. I had a lot to learn, and I had to learn it fast.

With the support of experienced colleagues and helpful professionals at other organizations, I’ve learned how to recognize some of the false trails and promising pathways to successful partnerships.

To help those who follow in my footsteps, I’d like to share five hard-earned lessons in forging partnerships for international development.

1.       Agree within your organization what a PPP is – and what it’s not

When I started working on PPPs, someone told me that a shoe manufacturer’s donation of shoes was a public-private partnership, simply because the manufacturer – a private company – was giving away shoes to members of “the public.”

Another person told me that our organization’s work under a grant or contract from a government agency could also be considered a PPP, since we – a non-government entity – were using public funds.

Clearly both of these definitions are off the mark. Every contribution – financial or in-kind – that a company makes to a development or humanitarian cause should not be considered a PPP. And neither should every NGO grant with a government agency.

For partnership-building professionals, this wide range of definitions for PPPs can be challenging, to say the least. You can’t build a house if you can’t agree on a blueprint.

USAID’s Global Development Alliance model is recognized by many as an effective working definition, and it’s a definition that IRD has largely adopted. In short, I’ve learned it is important to have consensus within your own organization about the definition of a PPP before you embark on one.

2.       Accept that PPPs take time. Sometimes a lot of time.

A while back, a program officer told me his project was ending and said, “You work with corporates and partnerships, can you find us $500,000 by next month?”

Successful PPPs, like any new project idea and partnership, often take time to develop – and having a partnership does not mean your organization has tapped into a spigot of cash.

Rather, private sector partners are, well, partners. A really effective PPP is as much about the relationship as it is about funds for project implementation.

In a system dominated by the need to write proposals quickly, I understand why some imagine PPPs can be developed in a short timeframe. The more realistic timeframe will vary based on the size, scope, and participants in the PPP, but expect the process to take anywhere from eight to 18 months, at a minimum.

This cycle-time can be off-putting: Some of my counterparts at other organizations tell me one of their biggest frustrations is that their organizations, once so eager to start a PPP, tire of the back-and-forth dialogue and give up halfway through.

If you’re working in this space, it’s vital to communicate a realistic timeline and manage expectations accordingly.

3.       Develop and understand your organization’s goals

  So you’ve defined what your organization means by PPP, and you’ve set timeline expectations. Now, you need to help your organization figure out what it hopes to gain through a PPP.

From my experience, many working on PPPs – donor and recipient organizations alike – do not fully understand their organization’s PPP goals, assuming they’ve been defined at all.

Start by having a conversation with your organizational leadership about what they want to achieve, not just in terms of dollars, but how they envision the PPPs will help accomplish the organization’s mission.

At the same time, engage your colleagues who implement the projects—in the field and headquarters —on the same issue. It’s surprising the number and breadth of goals one can find, all rooted in the same mission and same project ideas. Perhaps the goal is to expand the number of corporate donors. Perhaps a PPP is the best way to create long-term and sustainable development.

Whatever the reason, agree on what the goals are with your leadership with input from the field. Then get ready to remind everyone of these goals as the partnership gets underway.

 4.       Take time to understand your partners’ needs

The development sector needs to do better at simply having a conversation with the private sector. Not every conversation needs to be about moving the ball toward the “goal” of singing a Memorandum of Understanding.

I’ve found that corporate professionals are eager to discuss what they do and why. They are also eager to dispel stereotypes, for example, that they invest only the minimal level necessary into community development to maximize profits.

During those same conversations, I have heard repeatedly from corporate professionals that they feel we in the development sector are too eager to find the partnership “hook” to have an honest conversation.

Want to find out a group or individual’s goals? Ask. And then listen honestly, without immediately thinking of what your organization can get out of it. 

5.       Be open, communicate shared values and think big

I remember when I first started working on partnerships, everyone seemed to expect miracles. And in a perfect world, partnership professionals like me would have enough time to forge a consensus on definitions, goals and results. But the truth is there never is enough time, and as a result, it’s important to learn to manage expectations: not only your colleagues’ and your clients’ but also your own.

Part of the fun of working in this emerging PPP field is that we have the opportunity to pioneer new pathways, to explore new and innovative ideas. Sometimes that means collecting the best information you can find and making a calculated guess. I’ve discovered helpful resources on the websites of the World Bank, USAID, and the companies themselves. Host countries also often provide public records of agreements and corporate citizenship requirements for multinationals that operate in their communities.

The hardest part of taking this PPP journey, however, is internal to the development community. Nonprofits often try to present an outward image of programmatic perfection and are unwilling to share mistakes and lessons learned with prospective new partners. But would you want to parner with an organization that has not disclosed their strengths and weaknesses? Of course not.

A sustained and open dialogue about expectations, shared values, challenges and solutions is immensely valuable for groups working on private sector engagement.

Forums like the recently established InterAction Private Sector Working Group offer the chance for professionals to engage at a deeper, more strategic level around this topic. That said, we’ll never have all the information we’d like, and there is a danger in waiting too long to design the perfect activity.

My advice is: Do your homework and then speak with confidence – and honesty – about the work to which you are giving your all.

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