Each month, NBS spotlights a key sustainability issue for business leaders. These issues have been identified by NBS’s Leadership Council, a group of Canadian businesses recognized for their leadership in sustainability. This month, Jonathan Doh, a world expert on corporate and non-profit alliances, provides guidance on how businesses can work effectively with non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Businesses can improve their social and environmental performance and find new market opportunities through partnerships with NGOs. The knowledge, expertise and capabilities of NGOs and corporations are distinct and may be complementary; together, NGOs and companies can often accomplish more than they could alone. But misunderstandings and other obstacles can prevent partnerships from reaching their potential. Read on for key lessons for companies wanting to engage with NGOs, illustrated using the example of a partnership between Swiss Re and Oxfam.
Swiss Re and Oxfam: Achieving Results
Swiss Re, a leading global insurance company, was approached in 2007 by international development NGO Oxfam. Oxfam wanted Ethiopian farmers to have insurance against risks to their crops from climate change; no such insurance product was currently available and Swiss Re had the expertise necessary to develop it. Swiss Re, too, saw potential benefits in the collaboration. Swiss Re’s experience was primarily in wealthy countries, but it was interested in expanding its market to developing countries and had a strong organizational commitment to addressing climate change. Swiss Re valued Oxfam’s long-time presence in Ethiopia and its deep understanding of the country’s environment and culture.
In both organizations, the partnership had to overcome internal resistance. The project was novel and working with an organization from a different sector was unusual. At Oxfam, the project leader recalled, “Several influential and powerful colleagues speculated with open hostility about what Swiss Re’s real motives must be." Strong leadership allowed the project to go forward. At Oxfam, the project champion was respected by other employees and the project had backing from executive leadership. At Swiss Re, the project had strong champions who involved business as well philanthropic units, linking the project clearly to business strategy.
The two organizations began by working on a pilot project in one village in Ethiopia. They gradually developed confidence in each other and their approach to the issue, and continually explored ways that the collaboration could best suit the two organizations’ needs. A 2010 discussion between Oxfam and Swiss Re leaders on how the project connected to food security, another priority issue for Swiss Re, was “the moment that the light went on” and opportunities for expansion became clear. Five years after beginning their collaboration, Swiss Re and Oxfam are currently working together on projects in Ethiopia and three other countries in West Africa.
Key Lessons for Collaboration
The Swiss Re–Oxfam story highlights several key issues that influence whether collaboration is successful. These themes have emerged from multiple studies of corporate-NGOs partnerships, including large scale surveys, case studies and personal interviews. They’re important whether your business is working on a project at home or abroad.
- Embrace difference – carefully. Recognize and value the differences between your company and the NGO: without them, there would be no reason to collaborate. Different perspectives can make collaboration uncomfortable at times, but also valuable, as each side’s knowledge, expertise and capabilities complements the other's. One strategy increasingly employed to help better understand these differences is via hiring: Companies are employing NGO veterans to help guide their interactions with nonprofits and NGOs are looking to the private sector for managers who can help them navigate their relationships with companies. At the same time, it is important to think strategically about whether you are choosing the right partner – just as you would with a business partnership. What is each side bringing to the table? And especially with a significant partnership, is there a foundation for trust? Trust relies on shared culture or complementary mission and respect for the partner’s potential contribution. Swiss Re’s project leader recalls his first, positive, impression of Oxfam: “We had a feeling that Oxfam really knew what they were doing."
- Assign a champion and give her/him authority and decision-making ability. Because partnerships represent a new way of doing things, a powerful champion is necessary to overcome inertia and get things done. NGOs also want to see that the company is taking the relationship seriously.
- Make NGO engagement part of the core business. Partnerships should gradually be integrated into the responsibilities of business units and functions, rather than being maintained as a separate, stand-alone enterprise. Partnerships are most successful when each participant leverages its core capabilities and contributes resources that are based on expertise used in, or generated by, normal operations.
- Plan for the relationship to evolve over time. Environmental conditions, interests and positions will change. In some instances, these changes may mean that the partnership has run its course and served its purpose. That’s okay too. Just be prepared for and responsive to these changes. Regular meetings with both parties to assess the partnership’s usefulness and prospects are one way to build reflection into the process. Another is to build this evolution into the initial agreement or Memorandum of Understanding, so that both sides expect that the relationship will require reassessment.
Corporate-NGO partnerships are complex and challenging. But they can benefit both the corporate and NGO participants. To give new partnerships the best chance of succeeding, approach relationships carefully, structure them thoughtfully, and seek ongoing, sustainable support and development as they evolve. The Oxfam America-Swiss Re partnership reflects the power and possibilities of such collaboration, but also the real challenges to realizing these benefits.
Jonathan Doh is the Herbert G. Rammrath Endowed Chair in International Business, founding Director of the Center for Global Leadership, and Professor of Management and Operations at the Villanova School of Business. He teaches, does research and serves as a consultant and executive speaker on global strategy and corporate responsibility and sustainability. His most recent book is NGOs and Corporations: Conflict and Collaboration (with Michael Yaziji, Cambridge University Press).
More resources on collaborating with NGOs
- NBS resources on stakeholder engagement include a primer and executive report.
- Doh provides additional guidance in this article: Pearce, J.A. II, & Doh, J.P. 2005. The high impact of collaborative social initiatives. Sloan Management Review, 46: 30-39.
- If you’d like to find out more about the Oxfam-Swiss Re partnership, you can access a case study written by Doh and colleagues: Doh, J.P., London, T., & Kilibarda, V. 2012. Building and scaling a cross-sector partnership: Oxfam America and Swiss Re empower farmers in Ethiopia. Ann Arbor, MI: William Davidson Institute GlobalLens Case 1-429-185.