Maximizing the Business-NGO Relationship

Photo Credit: Renjith Krishnan

Supporting a local or international non-profit organization, especially one working for a social or environmental cause, is a great way to support the community and expand your corporate social responsibility (CSR) program.

Non-profits have the distinct advantage of being both experts in their particular cause and having actual members on the ground within the communities in which they operate.  This is especially critical when focusing on socio-economic issues in developing countries.  Nothing beats their local knowledge and unique understanding of the challenges associated with driving social change within a particular country or culture.

However, we often see the relationship between businesses and NGOs as charitable in nature, with a private business donating money to the NGO and, in a sense, outsourcing the corporate social responsibility. Although its great to provide financial support to a good cause, it may be represent a missed opportunity to make a lasting difference.  An excellent academic article by Dima Jamali and Tamar Keshishian (2009) appropriately titled “Uneasy Alliances: Lessons learned from Partnerships Between Businesses and NGOs in the context of CSR” brings this phenomena to light.  The article points out that business-NGO partnerships are not inherently successful, particularly in cases where companies have a more “hands off” approach to the partnership.

Although the article goes into detail on what constitutes an effective business-NGO relationship, it essentially comes down to seeing the relationship as a strategic partnership between organizations.  In the same way that two organizations might create a strategic partnership to create a competitive advantage, a business should seek out an NGO whose unique expertise provides a competitive advantage in achieving a CSR goal.  On the flip side, this means that if done correctly, an NGO should also be able to utilize the technical advantages of a business to become a better organization and ultimately produce better results in the field.  With this synergy, the partnership should be greater than the sum of its parts.

One great example of this process in action is the partnership between Habitat for Humanity and the Home Depot Foundation.  The Home Depot, as expected, provides financial support to Habitat for Humanity in the form of donations, but also enhances the relationship by supplying technical expertise, building materials and training to charity members. This allows Habitat for Humanity to build better and more cost effective homes and frees up resources to plan even better building events to maximum benefit.

The relationship doesn’t even have to be technical in nature, since large organizations can provide support through marketing and exposure that wouldn’t normally be provided to small NGOs with even smaller budgets.

Unfortunately this kind of strategic relationship requires a lot more leg work and research to see the true priorities behind the brochures, promotional videos and web pages and make sure the goals of your partner align with the goals of your CSR program.  However, the potential payoff is a much more effective integration that instills a sense of accountability between both organizations.

In this sense, partnering represents an opportunity to identify common goals, delineate relationships, and build bridges towards mutual learning and engagement, greatly improving the chances that both organizations will make a real difference.

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About Jody Addah

Jody Addah is an environmental professional with over 12 years of experience in consulting and the public sector. With a background in environmental science and engineering (and an MBA to boot), Jody’s interests lie in finding sustainability through process improvement and strategic opportunities. When not trying to figure out the problems of the day, Jody spends his time trying the figure out the two little people that have recently come into his life.
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