7 lessons learned by Canadian humanitarian groups on private sector partnerships

Ayu and Fitri live with their relatives in a camp that sheltered survivors of the tsunami that affected Indonesia in 2004. Photo by: DFATD-MAECD / CC BY-NC-ND 

Partnerships with the private sector are all the rage in development circles, but what this means for humanitarian organizations isn’t always clear.

Members of Canada’s humanitarian community had a chance to reflect on the issue during the Humanitarian Conference, a two-day event held last week in Ottawa. The conference came just as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development — which oversees Canadian foreign aid efforts — announced the funding of a large research and consultation project with the private sector and humanitarian aid agencies on the potential of cross-sector partnerships.

We look at lessons learned about private sector partnerships shared by the experts who spoke during the conference.

1. Partnerships begin well before disasters strike.

Private sector businesses may be eager to help during humanitarian operations, but for civil society organizations, crises are the worst time to engage into that type of discussion. The conversation must take place when both sides can take the time to get to know each other. “We need to build relationships before they’re actually needed,” said Charlotte Empey, a former editor-in-chief at Metro News who entered into a partnership for editorial content with Canada’s Humanitarian Coalition.

2. We need to start speaking a common language.

“We have a problem, which is that there is lots of definitions, but no common vocabulary,” noted Jay Aldous, director of private sector partnerships at the World Food Program. Civil society organizations aren’t always aware of the many forms partnerships can take, from cash donations to volunteer assistance, to knowledge transfers. On the other hand, businesses need to improve their understanding of the humanitarian sector, and what could be an efficient contribution on their part.

3. Good partnerships are rare.

Partners need to be clear about their rules and expectations, and make sure both of them can deliver. “It’s like dating or a marriage, you have to choose your partner really well,” according to Plan Canada CEO and President Rosemary McCarney. Her organization teamed up with retailer Sears Canada on a clothing partnership for the “Because I am a girl” campaign, but not before both parties went through a thorough due diligence process in order to make sure the deal would not go sour. “What NGOs have and must absolutely protect is reputation,” McCarney added.

4. Negotiate, and learn to say no.

Partners may not agree from the get go, and must often need to take the time to understand how to work together. But humanitarian organizations must also learn to recognize when a partnership isn’t going to work out — and just say no. “No is a good thing, because it allows us to pick smart partnerships that we can invest in,” said Aldous, who mentioned that revenue driven from private sector partnerships went up 36 percent from 2013 at WFP, even though the organization’s portfolio decreased significantly. The U.N. agency had learned to foster the right kind of relationships.

5. It’s all about building trust.

Civil society organizations often have a bias toward the private sector that may cloud their judgment when looking for potential partners. “We're too often very quick to judge and assert our values on the business community,” Aldous told the audience in Ottawa. “We tend to be very black and white when it comes to what’s right, what's wrong, and what's acceptable.” Part of the due diligence process also involves making sure that the other party isn’t just interested in a CSR exercise, and that their motivation is clear. “It took us a long time to get to the point where our partners realized that we weren't trying to do anything except support the effort,” shared Brent Carbno, program director at Ericsson Response, the nonprofit arm of the telecommunication company, which has teamed up with several humanitarian organizations over the past 14 years to assist them in relief efforts.

6. It’s not (just) about cash. …

Partnerships with the private sector are not just about securing additional sources of funding, but can take many forms, including technical expertise. Nongovernmental organizations should ask themselves what their needs are, and what type of organization is most able to fulfill these needs (civil society or business; local or international). WFP teamed up with MasterCard for its food voucher program in Lebanon as part of its assistance to Syrian refugees, because the company was able to offer both technical services in the form of e-vouchers, and logistical help for navigating the banking system.

7. But cost does matter.

Partnerships may not always involve cash, but do require time and resources that translate into costs on both sides. Organizations should take the time to put a monetary value on their partnerships, and estimate whether the relationship will ultimately be profitable. “Partnerships are expensive,” said Aldous, who pointed out that partnerships can be seen as investments that must generate a return. If that return isn’t enough, then the relationship may not be worth keeping.

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About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada, covering international issues and cities through a social lens. Her work has appeared in WIRED, the Guardian, Le Monde Afrique, Jeune Afrique, the Correspondent ,and Devex.