Why don’t companies want to talk about shared value?

The Vodafone headquarters in Eschborn, Germany. While many companies are engaging in partnerships for development, few seem to want to talk about how these partnerships help their bottom line. Vodafone, for example, does not share revenue numbers for its successful M-Pesa platform. Photo by: Wolfgang Lonien / CC BY-SA

At the meeting of the Devex Impact Strategic Advisory Council this summer, representatives from companies, donor agencies and major development alliances agreed on an important point: They want Devex Impact to provide in-depth examples of corporations connecting their core business to development outcomes.

Devex Impact delivered on that promise last week, offering a close look at a new and innovative partnership between the GAVI Alliance (a member of our strategic advisory council) and U.K.-based telecom giant Vodafone.

The article details how Vodafone’s in-kind donations of business expertise to GAVI will help Mozambique’s Ministry of Health improve its vaccine supply chain through mobile technology. For the company, it also represents another effort to break into challenging mhealth markets.

(Read the full story here: “Can GAVI’s new partnership model crack ‘mhealth pilotitis’ while opening new markets for Vodafone?”) 

GAVI’s representatives were generous in sharing information, providing in-depth interviews and introductions for our correspondent, Stephanie Hanson, to those who will be implementing the project in the field.

Vodafone, however, seemed reluctant to share details and provided only limited access to its representatives.

In particular, it was hard to extract details about how the partnership may help Vodafone break into new mhealth markets in developing countries. While reporting this story, we also learned that Vodafone does not disclose how much revenue it earns from M-Pesa, the mobile-money system widely praised as a successful “shared value” type of initiative.

On one level, this may not seem surprising. Corporate communication team keeps a tight lid on information – dog bites man, right?

But I think there might be something else at work here. Because Vodafone is not the only company that hesitates to articulate how a development-focused initiative may help its bottom line. 

I think that the very nature of “shared value” partnerships – where a company is motivated by core business strategy to engage in development work – leads to corporates being less open with information.

To better understand these dynamics, I called up Justin Bakule, executive director of the Shared Value Initiative, started by FSG and 18 supporting organizations. (Nonprofit consulting firm FSG was co-founded by Mark Kramer and Michael Porter who co-authored the original Harvard Business School article, “Creating shared value.” (Get up to speed on this important idea with our handy primer: ”5 must-reads for companies seeking public-private partnerships.”)

“Given how society currently perceives corporations, many companies would see it as a negative to be seen as creating value for themselves even while simultaneously creating meaningful social good,” Bakule suggested. He pointed to recent comments by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that distanced his new Internet.org initiative from Facebook’s own business strategy.

As a result, you may find development practitioners talking enthusiastically about how companies will, say, expand market share through a partnership, while the company itself only talks publicly about potential social impact.

There’s another factor at play, one that gives us a peek into a future where private-sector partnerships may dominate the development landscape.

When core business strategy is involved, businesses are more likely to clam up. Bakule considered Vodafone’s position in talking about its new partnership with GAVI: “This is something innovative, and most companies in that position don’t want to tip their hand to competitors when they’re doing something new.”

Some companies – including Starbucks, Nestlé, Marks & Spencer and medical technology maker BD – have distinguished themselves by communicating “authentically” about their work and sharing both successes and failures, Bakule noted.

In Bakule’s experience – and in my own – this is exactly what companies are hungry for: details about how these partnerships actually function, in terms of governance, finances and project outcomes. Yet when it comes to their own work, few will share those details.

Here’s the challenge I see ahead for development practitioners. As development work shifts from externally facing corporate citizenship offices to, say, emerging market business units, companies’ involvement in development projects will more likely be considered proprietary and, therefore, confidential. So we can expect fewer details about this work.

Given the push toward transparency and better impact assessment – for example, through the International Aid Transparency Initiative – this trend should give “shared value” champions in the development community pause.

And to the companies who want to know more about how shared-value partnerships work in real life, I would say: Seize the opportunity to show leadership by sharing your own story first.

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About the author

  • Andrea Useem

    As former associate editor and content director for Devex Impact, Andrea created and managed cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea also 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.