How to engage with the private sector: A beginner's guide

Engaging with the private sector requires a much different and more nuanced approach than many small and medium-sized NGOs are used to with traditional donors. Photo by: Rawpixel

WASHINGTON — In 2017 it’s only practical for small and medium-sized NGOs to look to the private sector as a partner. With uncertainty prevailing around traditional sources of funding, stories of successful public-private partnerships between NGOs and private foundations and companies have flourished in conversations, conferences, and analyses of development trends.

Yet while there are many great examples of public-private partnerships in action, there’s far less information available about how to get started. Last month, Devex welcomed CollaborateUp CEO Richard Crespin to our studios for a conversation about how to prepare to engage with the private sector.

The big takeaway: Dealing with nontraditional donors requires taking a nontraditional approach to engaging with them.

Looking for practical advice about partnering with the private sector? Here are three tips from CollaborateUp CEO Richard Crespin.

“There are three big do’s,” says Crespin. There are also plenty of things to avoid. Here is his advice:

1. Do your homework  and get specific

NGOs tend to treat the private sector as a monolith when it’s in fact a diverse pool of organizations and people. When you’re thinking about engaging with the private sector, identify both the specific companies that may be a fit, and the people inside those companies who might be interested in speaking with you.

2. Recognize that it’s not about you

It’s not all about your NGO when it comes to private sector engagement. Don’t focus solely on your organization’s mission. Focus on the company’s mission and business strategy and find where there’s overlap. Ask yourself questions about where you fit into their strategy and bottom line.

NGOs often approach private companies ready to talk about the work they’re doing. When it comes to engaging with private companies, it needs to be the other way around. Try to understand where the company is coming from and align your priorities with their work.

3. Learn their language

Often companies will express themselves using business terms. Just as often, NGOs will misinterpret this as greed. Companies exist to fulfill a particular social good, but they’re also there to make money. It’s a different way of thinking, but NGOs need to consider how to reinterpret what they’re saying in terms of what aligns with their mission.

Get to know the language of the company or sector you’re targeting. Look at publications by trade associations and local chambers of commerce. Consult annual reports. This will help you communicate more successfully and understand the issues of the industry.

3. Be flexible

Don’t just ask for money. Companies of all sizes are looking to do more than give cash contributions. They might want to bring skilled labor to a task or offer in-kind donations. See how you can incorporate the whole company — its people, assets, and brand — into the mix to solve a particular social problem.

4. Think beyond the big donors

If you’re a small or medium-sized NGO, why not think about small and medium-sized donors? Many small and medium-sized NGOs flock to major corporations — but so does everyone else. There’s a whole tier of companies out there looking for opportunities. Make sure to look and see who is active in your field, region, or community.

5. Crisis is opportunity 

If something bad happens in an industry, it may be the right time to assert your expertise and help that company recover.

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About the author

  • Kate Midden

    Kate Midden is Devex's Engagement Editor. She oversees media partnerships, online events, social media, and Devex’s global opinions section. In the past, she has served as a press officer with USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, overseen media relations for the Center for Global Development, and managed consumer PR and crisis communications for Kaiser Permanente. She started her career as a radio producer for Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ.