Sounding off on transforming corporate-nonprofit partnerships

Farmers in Aguaymanto, Peru. What are the ways to improve the partnership between iNGOs and private corporations to maximize impact? Devex readers chime in. Photo by: Ayuda en Acción / CC BY-SA 

To maximize impact, a number of international nongovernmental organizations are rethinking the way they collaborate with corporations. In an exclusive commentary for Devex, Chad Bolick, director of partnerships at FSG’s Shared Value Initiative, outlined ways that iNGOs are doing this — by reviewing their business models and internal organizational structures, as well as investing in measuring shared value.

Operating at the intersection of social and business impact, FSG’s Shared Value Initiative has created a working group for iNGOs to help them explore avenues to build shared value partnerships.

“To engage in more transformational corporate partnerships, iNGOs are also exploring something quite novel: collaboration with their peers and erstwhile competitors,” wrote Bolick. “Identifying areas where interests overlap and different iNGOs can work together with other partners can help accelerate genuine innovation and perhaps prompt additional exploration of nonprofit mergers and acquisitions.”

Devex readers noted a series of hurdles that might make it challenging for nonprofits to change the way they operate.

Some of these hurdles are “systemic … that will likely make it very difficult to advance into this direction,” said Naser Al-Ardah, based on his experience working with iNGOs.

Reader IainH shared the view, noting that policy may be well-intentioned, but it’s always a question of how it is implemented in practice.

The same reader also mentioned the limited cooperation between in-country NGOs and “only identified competition” among them.

“Thus we find iNGOs operating in all sorts of programs outwith their core focus. This is unsurprising as iNGOs are essentially operating as subscription-subsidized development consultants,” IainH wrote, adding that managing change “is extremely hard at the best of times but in the case of iNGOs I would guess it will be even harder.”

In response, Bolick acknowledged the difficulty of shifting from transactional to strategic partnerships, but affirmed that for iNGO partners of FSG’s Shared Value Initiative, “the status quo is unsatisfying … and we're keen to explore and prototype new types of partnerships.”

Reader William Carter, meanwhile, criticized Bolick’s article for not providing an in-depth examination of the problems faced by iNGOs when collaborating with corporations. He highlighted the case of several major conservation iNGOs that partnered with companies in the 1980s and 1990s, which he said were “severely constrained in framing and implementing their advocacy strategies, so as not to be in conflict with corporate interests” such as on the issue of climate change.

Bolick countered by pointing out that his piece did not intend to explore all the challenges iNGOs face in partnering with companies, but was rather an attempt to highlight early efforts of FSG’s partner iNGOs “that have come together in a pre-competitive, open environment to candidly discuss both the internal and external barriers to more transformative, less transactional relationships.”

“Shared value is about encouraging companies and their partners to think differently about [a] business opportunity in solving social and environmental problems in a way that does not rely solely on philanthropy and bilateral donor support — hence a focus on new iNGO business models,” wrote Bolick. “The 15 organizations we are working with are hungry to progress the conversation and develop the skills needed to transform the ways in which they partner with companies.”

Devex, in partnership with the Shared Value Initiative, FSG and Global Impact, is examining how the world’s largest international nongovernmental organizations are transitioning their partnership strategies from traditional corporate partnerships to more scalable initiatives. We’ll look at how these initiatives accelerate both social impact and a business return on investment, while highlighting engagement in shared value during this special series “The Future of International NGOs.” Join the conversation using #FutureINGO.

About the author

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    Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Currently based in New York City, Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.