The motto ‘doing good & doing business’ of Impact Fest, Europe’s largest impact meetup, was a perfect fit for The Spindle, as the innovation platform of Partos, to disseminate insights from the guide on NGO-company partnerships for inclusive business, released in June 2019. For this publication, The Spindle partnered with Endeva, a Berlin-based international thought leader and facilitator on inclusive business. Together we hosted a session at the Impact Fest. More than 30 people, representing a diverse mix of companies and NGOs gathered to listen and discuss what it takes for NGOs to be(-come) capable and skilled actors in partnerships with the private sector for inclusive business.
An Inclusive Business Partnership is not business as usual
Insights from the Guide
In the first part of the interactive session, the facilitators from Endeva, Isabel von Blomberg and Nelleke van der Vleuten, shared main insights from the guide. First of all, the definition of inclusive business (IB) partnerships is ‘a collaboration between an NGO and a company which combines a social impact case, benefitting target groups of low income or marginalised people, and a scalable business case that links to the core tasks of the company’. Also, the chapters in the guide are explained as key building blocks of IB partnerships:
1. when to choose for this particular type of partnership;
2. the importance of relationship-building;
3. managing opportunities and risks related to the goals and implementation of a partnership;
4. internal organizational consequences of IB partnerships; and
5. the ending or evolution of a partnership.
Eye openers for some participants were that the ease or complexity of implementing a partnership runs parallel to the potential for the scale of impact of different types (see the infographic on page 12 of the guide) or that scaling up depends primarily on the company, rather than being a role of the NGO. Others recognised the huge differences in organisational cultures between NGOs and companies in a partnership and that the fact that a recurrent topic of discussion amongst partners is the way ‘that impact’ is defined and measured.
Participants got invited to share their ideas and questions through various exercises. The first exercise focused on the assets and added value of either the NGO or company in a partnership; this is related to the insight that parties need to know themselves first, for a good match to make. Participants came up with added values of NGOs including expertise on governance, social impact, comprehension of entire value chains, social image, credibility, prevention of greenwashing, or proper access to target groups. Companies, they felt, contribute through their expertise on scaling, marketing, logistics, financial resources, speed of innovation and legitimisation through brand names. (for the authors’ overview what each can offer, see page 31 of the guide).
The second topic for reflection referred to a dilemma that NGOs often have. Should they aim to be a paid service provider rather than an equal partner? (see page 51 of the guide). In a so-called fishbowl-setting participants shared their experiences. One of them realised that being paid by a company results in a more transactional relation. The key challenge for him is how to shift towards a strategic and equal partnership.
A company representative shared that they experienced a different mindset within the collaboration regarding an NGO’s head office and the NGO on a local level. Globally the NGO acted as a partner, locally staffs behaved more as a service provider. NGOs must thus ensure that on all levels they are aligned. Given the fact that various startups were present, the question was raised to what extent social enterprises can replace NGOs as a partner to larger companies.
The final exercise was a ‘hot seat’ in which participants could question representatives of a company and an NGO who presented their IB partnerships. Florentine Oberman, partnerships manager at Royal DSM, was interviewed about their partnership with World Vision International and Sight and Life Foundation. Jointly they aim to improve the nutrition of people in Africa and Asia through different stakeholder projects. They have learned that an IB-partnership requires a phased development in order to adapt to different contexts. Measuring impact and accountability frameworks are needed to steer the collaboration. (See page 80-85 of the guide).
Wim den Hartog, manager partnerships of NGO Dorcas, explained about their IB-partnership with a Dutch company producing and importing dairy equipment and local private actors in northern Africa that manufacture local equipment. Together they could combine business and social impact agendas by linking the interest for a higher market share for local entrepreneurs with vocational training and improvement of youth employment. A key lesson learned for Dorcas is that investment in partnerships with local actors takes time, but eventually benefits all actors involved. Wim den Hartog also emphasised that political contexts can be challenging and may hamper the functioning of a partnership. Keeping their clear exit strategy in mind, Dorcas learned from their experience to initiate new partnerships in another context.
Final discussion and next steps
Some general points of concern were raised: one participant emphasised that power relations are continuously present in a partnership; despite a shared goal also asymmetries exist between parties. These power differences must be made visible, addressed and discussed. Another person pointed to data collection, maintenance and ownership. Who is the owner of data collected and how can be assured that it will be treated in an ethical way? (You can find out more about this topic at responsible data.io).
At the end of the session, it became clear that several participants were eager to see more opportunities for interaction between companies and NGOs as this would help them to take the topic of NGO-company partnerships further. Do you also consider starting an inclusive business partnership? Download the guide here and go for it! For advice or support, contact Endeva (firstname.lastname@example.org) or The Spindle (email@example.com).