How should NGOs position themselves in a world of development partnerships?

Teamwork. In a recent article about private partnerships, Devex readers offer their insights about the increasing partnership between nonprofit organizations and multinational corporations. Photo by: Daryl I / CC BY-NC-SA

In this new development world order, where both corporations and donors are speaking the language of partnerships, how best can nonprofits positions themselves to generate added value?

In her recent Devex Impact column, Why nonprofits deserve more credit for public-private partnerships, author and consultant Susan Rae Ross argued that nonprofits, as the “beating hearts” of these partnerships, need to be more confident in articulating the value they add.

Todd Kirkbride, TechnoServe’s public-private partnership director in Mozambique, did exactly that with his column, Investment advising as a catalyst for shared value, in which he described how his NGO works one-on-one with investors to link up their business goals with the country’s development needs.

But the response to both columns showed that the role of NGOs in the partnership landscape is far from settled.

Devex reader Ted Greiner expressed skepticism about NGOs’ increasing engagement with corporates.

“Private partnerships are being used by multinational companies to exploit well-meaning NGOs to expand their markets into developing countries,” wrote Greiner, a professor of nutrition at Korea’s Hanyang University in Seoul.

“For the companies, this is much cheaper and more effective than having to do their market research and develop their own on-the-ground networks.”

John Brittell, founder of Capitol Food Ventures, questioned whether the “shared value” model, as it was originally articulated in the well-known Harvard Business Review article by Michael Porter and Michael Kramer, has room for NGOs.

The idea of shared value “stems from the belief that an NGO is an actor (and therefore not a true partner) within the commercial system, along with other stakeholders,” wrote Brittell. “This view is authoritarian in nature and originates from the firm.”

Other commenters were more sanguine about existing models in which NGOs help bring corporates, donors and host government together.

Andrew Clenaghan, a program coordinator at U.K.-based NGO Practical Action, suggested that NGOs can leverage their corporate relationships to push for more inclusive business practices.

“NGOs can play an important role in making the case to the private sector for another type of PPP: ’pro-poor profit,’” wrote Clenaghan.

John Tull, the Grameen Foundation’s global director of mobile agriculture innovation, agreed that NGOs must make time for a sometimes-lengthy process of “mutual discovery” with corporates before any shared value can be uncovered.

“Folks have to understand who they’re dealing with and what it takes to move from a ‘date’ to marriage,” wrote Tull, who previously worked for TechnoServe as a senior business consultant in East Africa.

Tull also echoed a call for more in-depth coverage of the “gritty details” of partnerships, so development practitioners can learn from the successes and failures of others.

Have you worked on a multistakeholder development alliance? What did you learn? Should NGOs play a background role as partnership “catalysts” or should they be push to become full partners in this new era of development alliances?

Join the conversation by leaving your comment below.

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About the author

  • Andrea useem devex cropped2

    Andrea Useem

    As Associate Editor and Content Director for Devex Impact, Andrea creates and manages cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.