What Business Leaders Wish NGOs Knew about Transformative Partnerships

As a leader of an NGO, you know that public, nonprofit, philanthropic, and private actors must work together to make progress on the most pressing global issues. In fact, you probably have a few companies you’d like to approach to talk about a partnership that will help your mission and the company.

But how can you start the conversation?

For many years FSG has worked with NGOs to develop transformative partnerships with companies, including Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, and The Asia Foundation. As part of a recent engagement with a leading international NGO, we interviewed corporate leaders from a variety of industries on their advice for NGOs seeking collaborations with corporations. Here are 5 insights from corporate leaders on building effective partnerships:

  1. Invest in building deep relationships with companies: Companies want to create long-term relationships with NGOs that they can trust and work with as true partners. To do this, NGOs need to hire, train, and send experienced staff to proactively cultivate meaningful relationships with company leaders. NGOs should invest in understanding the company’s business model and become a thought partner for solving strategic issues and furthering a company’s goals. As a starting point, we recommend that NGOs invite a company to their headquarters to meet with program leaders and showcase the key areas of the NGO’s work. This approach enables the company to begin to understand the NGO’s areas of expertise and discuss the company’s social impact goals. Similarly, NGO leaders should visit companies to better understand their operations and business needs. Conducting this foundational work is an important step in co-creating customized programs and authentic thought partnership, both necessary for moving toward the type of collaboration companies and NGOs want to see more of.
  2. Tailor offerings with a corporate lens: Companies desire partnerships that will help them advance their strategic goals and improve the environments in which they operate. NGOs should highlight areas of their work that specifically align to those goals in the priority geographies where corporations work. They need to demonstrate areas of expertise and the unique value that the NGO brings to the relationship, and communicate clearly how those skills can further a company’s business and social objectives. Being precise about the specific business goals your NGO can further—from increasing employee engagement to aligning with a company’s value chain—will make you stand out from your peers. For example, Mercy Corps has partnered with Starbucks to implement sanitation and economic development projects in communities where the company sources tea, benefitting 100,000 people and strengthening important value chains for Starbucks.
  3. Leverage company assets: Companies can increase their impact when they do more than writing a check. NGOs should seek to utilize as many of the company’s resources as possible, particularly non-financial assets such as people, platforms, products, technologies, and channels, in order to further the goals of both the company and the NGO. In particular, when creating an initiative with a company, closely involve company decision-makers in key steps along the way. During initial design stages of a partnership, including senior leadership from key business units can illuminate ways the partnership can benefit the company’s value chain, generate enthusiasm for the partnership, and further program sustainability. Tapping into the company’s distribution, marketing, and communications platforms during program launch can improve reach and scale as well as bring positive reputational benefits to partners. The well-known Project Last Mile, a partnership between The Global Fund, USAID, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Coca-Cola, leverages the company’s expertise in logistics, supply chain, and marketing to strengthen health systems in several countries in Africa.
  4. Be who you are: Companies often look for NGO partners with deep expertise and focus in a particular issue area. NGOs should be clear on who they are, what they do best, and what they stand for. Companies know that NGOs have their own agendas and values, and they respect that. NGOs should seek company partners that want to improve society, and value the expertise they bring to the work. Even if you find one part of a company’s activities to be problematic, you may find that it’s possible to have a partnership that is in line with your mission. And some companies welcome that tension, as shared by one leader from an apparel company:

    The balancing act between advocacy and partnership is one that we face quite regularly. It’s delicate, but it’s one we feel comfortable with. Sometimes there can be conflict between advocates and the private sector. We are most familiar with this around the workers’ rights perspective. Sometimes the grassroots organizations we fund can be at odds with our factories at a local level. That’s a healthy tension and I don’t think all companies feel this way, but we do. I want our partners to hold us accountable.”

  5. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable: The company leaders we spoke with were excited to partner to help improve the effectiveness, reach, and scale of the NGOs. In the context of a trusting partnership, NGOs should be transparent about their own challenges and ask how a company’s unique expertise can help fill those gaps to help them achieve maximum social impact. An anecdote from a transportation company elucidates this point: “A human rights organization came to us many years ago saying they needed supply chain help. They trusted us, opened their doors, and as a result became our top humanitarian partner. Saying ‘we need you’ is really important."

We hope these suggestions will guide NGOs and companies to build lasting, strategic relationships to improve lives around the world in a sustainable manner.

Learn more about FSG’s consulting services >

Watch: Save the Children’s Carolyn Miles on the power of partnerships >


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