The added value of NGOs in a partnering world


Who doesn’t remember the fierce debate between Greenpeace and Shell on the issue of Brent Spar or Nike’s public downfall on the exploitation of their factory workers? These public antagonistic campaigns have been the example of the tone of relationships between NGOs and businesses throughout the 1990’s and beginning of the 21st century. NGOs were able to push their agenda’s, influence the social responsibility of corporations and dictate the public opinion through activist campaigns. Recently, there came a turn in the relationship between NGOs and businesses. The focus switched to cooperation, collaboration and creating shared value, while remaining faithful to the respective mandates. The increasing attention for sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and public-private partnerships has also initiated the merging of different kinds of organizations into collaborative relationships which were not deemed possible before. Some NGOs have the role to live up to their objectives by campaigning, while others have the role to research and partner with others. In these cases, why exactly do NGOs and businesses seek each other and what value do NGOs add to businesses, which they do not have ‘in-house’ themselves?

To begin with, let’s start with what advantages newly formed collaborative relationships provide to both parties. How do they both benefit from such a relationship? ‘Unhidden knowledge’ is one of these benefits. Trends and upcoming themes are best known to those who are in the midst of the field of interest. NGOs and businesses are both best in signaling the latest developments, products and services within their area of specialty yet both are weak in finding (and doing something!) with developments in sectors which lay outside their own. On this aspect, NGOs and business have something to offer to each other, something they would otherwise not know and likely not have access to. Moreover, both sectors also have unique networks, NGOs in the realm of (international and local) governments, EU, community based organizations and large philanthropic foundations. Businesses have their network in the realm of (international and local) cooperation’s, suppliers and influential players. Combining these networks can create possibilities to relationships which otherwise would be difficult to link.

An advantage which these NGO-business relationships also have from partnering is the possibility to innovate on uncharted terrain. Since many NGOs are used to working project-based and consequently hardly have unrestricted funds to invest, partnering with a company can give access to capital which enables the roll-out of successful outcomes on a large-scale. Let’s take a company focused on water filtering and recycling wanting to expand its services to a developing country in the light of innovation and penetrating new markets as a example. This company can innovate itself by piloting with a NGO which has access to local governments, local target groups and knowledge on the local context of water use, recycling and existing services. The NGO could in this case benefit from this partnership by increasing the access to water for those who need it most at large scale. In this kind of partnership the company will not need to invest a large amount in order to reinvent the wheel but instead will innovate from partnering with a NGO. Both the NGO and the company in this example have created a win-win situation by collaborating.

Nonetheless, many seem skeptical even hesitant to listen and understand the added value of NGOs. Nevertheless they are vital in positioning businesses in unknown terrains. NGOs can take businesses to markets which could otherwise be difficult to reach and they can advice on lessons learnt and best practices in local contexts and needs which are unknown to multinational cooperation’s. With their years of experience, NGOs are strong in capacity building; making local institutions, organizations and actors strong in effectively implementing policy and programmes. Besides capacity building they know who to identify as a local partner due to a long-lasting networks. NGOs can embed ideas and create demand for products, through education, social marketing, awareness raising and their contacts with the governments. They are the ones that can enable businesses to bring a product to the target group it wants to reach, for example consumers at the base of the pyramid. They can add potential to the business case of interest. At the same time NGOs are able to create leverage by advocating with the governmental ‘top’. Over the last decade NGOs have also had an increasing influence in governmental decisions and societal opinion and will likely persist as an important and influential organizational form within the broader civil society the coming years. Businesses could use this authoritive role of NGOs to their advantage and in this way influence the markets they, together with the NGO, are wanting to target.

Therefore, the question that should be asked instead, why not seek the partnership with NGOs if the added value is so extensive?

Amber Lingmont is Portfolio Manager at AMREF