Lola's development blog

Lola Karpf

Can NGOs work with corporate business responsibly?

The partnering of NGOs and corporate businesses remains a controversial alliance, but it’s becoming increasingly common, so I’d like to explore some of the arguments for and against this. NGOs can be any non-governmental organisation that receives funds from businesses, foundations, governments or private persons. The corporate businesses I refer to are large, privately owned companies of shareholders, usually with an aim of making profit.

What do I mean by ‘responsible’? To me, this is being both socially and environmentally conscientious and respecting others of a different sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality etc. Above all, being responsible as an NGO means continuing to operate according to its founding principles, without the negative influence of other bodies.

Many would argue that NGOs and private businesses can form successful partnerships and there does seem to be benefits for both sides, often referred to as ‘shared value’ or a ‘shared goal’. The most obvious of these gains is the funding/sponsorship that private businesses provide to charities. Large corporations that are used to thinking more strategically can also help NGOs to do the same and even accelerate their social mission, or increase the impact of their work. In The Guardian’s article, ’10 things you need to know about corporate-NGO partnerships’, Emma Howard states at number two that ‘when non-profits and for-profit companies work together they can create something bigger than they would alone’ (Howard, 2014). She gives the example of last year’s collaboration between Plan and Aviva in Indonesia, which ‘has helped to change the law on birth registration, enabling thousands of street kids to be registered for the first time’ (Howard, 2014).

And in return? Charities can help private companies to improve their reputation in their industry, and make them look more socially responsible. It would also be wise for NGOs to remember that the general public whom they target (for donations or for raising awareness about a certain issue) are also consumers and the customers of businesses – in fact, the two actors share the same audience. Creating a partnership between them would be like using a celebrity to promote a cause; it raises the profile of the campaign and appeals to multiple concerns or interests that people have, rather than just one.

For me, one of the most convincing arguments for an NGO-corporate partnership, is that instead of isolating large companies who are seen as ‘enemies’ and standing against them (such as the enduring feud between McDonald’s and Greenpeace), NGOs can act as a critical friend and open up a space for communication. Smitu Kothari insists ‘the biggest change needs to come from those in power, those with privilege and wealth’ (Kothari, 2007). Perhaps the best way to drive this change is by doing it from the inside. NGOs can help corporations to rethink what they are doing. According to the 2014 C&E Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer, ‘87% of corporate respondents stated that corporate-NGO partnerships have improved business understanding of social and environmental issues’, while ‘59% stated that their business practices have been changed for the better as a result’ (Howard, 2014).

However, there are great disadvantages to this relationship. The strategic and market-orientated way in which NGOs would have to adjust themselves in order for the partnership to succeed, may not work with the types of human issues they are dealing with. Everjoice Win argues that ‘when development is reduced to simplifying difficult contextual realities into, for example, logical framework formats, more problems may be created than solved’ (Win, 2013, 9:123). These are real people’s problems that charities deal with and discussing them in a boardroom far away is perhaps not a solution.

Another significant difference between NGOs and their business counterparts, are the fundamental core values at the centre of each. Corporate businesses are motivated by profit, rather than social justice, and this also means the people working in either group will have a different mindset and way of approaching their work. Unlike NGOs, private businesses may not be interested in the effect or consequences of their actions. The Colombian author and professor, Arturo Escobar, noted that in order to solve development, we must decolonize the ‘individual and collective imaginations from the dominant modern standards that emphasize individual, market, expert knowledge, so-called rational action, consumption, separation between nature and culture’ (Escobar, 2007). These traits are exactly the kind that corporations value, so how can the two work together?

Lastly, the lack of autonomy that NGOs would have over their own decisions and actions when partnering with private businesses is, for me, intolerable. Instead of having absolute control, they’d have to adhere to the wishes of others and ultimately make sacrifices in order to secure funding from their corporate parent. How can an NGO continue to function in line with its founding principles, which could be for example, respect for women’s rights and health, when their Nestlé partner is asking them to pressure women into using expensive powdered milk to feed their babies, rather than breastfeeding more nutritiously for free? This leaves charities in a dangerous trap of sacrifice and dependence, which could take them further and further away from their original aims.

These are just some arguments for and against the partnerships between NGOs and corporate businesses, though there are many more. In my opinion, a business’ ability to extend the work of an NGO is an important point, and even more, the fact that NGOs can shape change by working with a company, rather than against them. However, I would say this collaboration involves too much risk for the NGO and while businesses do provide support (and reap its results), the huge difference in central values and the loss of independence for an NGO overshadows the possible benefits they could enjoy together.

Bibliography

Escobar, A. (2007) ‘Reflections on 50 years of Development’, Development [Online]. Available at: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v50/n1s/full/1100394a.html (Accessed: Monday 26 October 2015).

Howard, E. (2014) ’10 things you need to know about corporate-NGO partnerships’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/nov/24/10-things-corporate-ngo-partnerships (Accessed: Thursday 29 October 2015).

Kothari, S. (2007) ‘Reflections on 50 years of Development’, Development [Online]. Available at: http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v50/n1s/full/1100394a.html (Accessed: Monday 26 October 2015).

Win, E. (2004) ‘”If It Doesn’t Fit on the Blue Square It’s Out!” An Open Letter to My Donor Friend’, Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationships in International Development. London: Routledge.

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