Is the Time Right for Human Rights NGOs to Collaborate with Businesses that Want to Stop Dabbling with ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and Start Making Social Impact?

First published online: September 10, 2016

Journal of Human Rights Practice (2016) doi: 10.1093/jhuman/huw015

Abstract

Based on the author’s 12 years of working in a corporate foundation, this policy note provides an overview of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in its many guises. It explores the benefits and compromises which may arise for human rights NGOs looking to collaborate with the corporate sector in search of new funding and methods of programme delivery. The note is an exploration of some of the numerous terminologies and approaches being used by the world’s larger companies to engage in a positive way with the communities in which they operate and have influence. It identifies how corporate good intentions can be misguided, or even clash with the long-term strategic work being carried out by NGOs, and provide new challenges for the people delivering that work. In conclusion, the note highlights possibilities for companies and NGOs to collaborate, for each to play to their strengths, in order to reach common goals for significant social impact.

Key words

 

In 1997 I was working for Amnesty International and travelled to Hong Kong for the ‘handover’ of its sovereignty from the UK to the People’s Republic of China (China). It was one of the first times that Amnesty International had tried to engage the business community, using the message that safeguarding the rule of law sustained both the business environment in which they operated and the human rights situation. This did not meet with much business support.

David Tang, Hong Kong businessman (and founder of the chain of Shanghai Tang shops), was quoted in the South China Morning Post on 26 June 1997, just four days before the handover, saying ‘people should not expect businessmen to stand up for human rights … Their business is business. Their business is not human rights’ (South China Morning Post1997).

By contrast John Kamm, an American businessman living in Hong Kong, had been using his good offices since 1989—including his role as Vice President and President of the American Chamber of Commerce—to secure the release of religious and political prisoners in China. During the 1990s he was able to continue a human rights dialogue between the USA and China even during periods when relations between the two countries were strained; concessions were made, or a change in the mood of political relations indicated, by the Chinese government releasing a prisoner from John Kamm’s prisoner list. He went on to set up the Dui Hua Foundation (http://duihua.org) in 1999, a non-profit focused on ‘advancing rights through dialogue’, which carries out prisoner advocacy ‘for individuals detained for the non-violent expression of their beliefs’ as well as having a focus on juvenile justice and women in prison.

John Kamm inspired me. I wanted to be ‘in the room’ where the business was being done, and ensure that the business of human rights was being included. It seemed an exciting opportunity to be able to work with and influence the people who have power and access to government because of their status as successful business people.

When I left Amnesty International in 2002 I thought that businesses might be starting to adopt and implement policies, activities and values that upheld human rights. While that is still a long way off for the majority of the world’s companies, there has been a big shift in corporate acceptance of having responsibilities beyond what may be considered their traditional role of employing people, selling stuff, paying tax and making profit.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the term I have chosen to use here to refer to some kind of social impact work carried out by a company. In the past 15 years CSR has become more of an expected norm within large businesses, and something that smaller businesses aspire to. It is often driven by a company’s internal needs such as the demands of their younger employees, often known as Millennials (a socially connected generation who are widely reported to want to include social purpose in their work life), by wanting to be an attractive employer, or by a desire to enhance their reputation and develop an attractive brand.

Though CSR work may be done with passion and good intent, it is often done without much strategy, funding, purpose, or clear intended impact, and can be very focused on short-term outcomes. However, this is not always the case and an increasing number of companies are doing thoughtful, strategic work in collaboration with excellent local and global NGOs. Even then, goals are not often articulated in the language or standards of rights-based work recognizable to the NGO community. Moreover, the CSR activities and their outcomes are rarely seen as being material to the core business of the company (though there are of course exceptions such as the clothing industry).

According to NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, ‘Respecting human rights while advancing business interests is one the most important—and least understood—business challenges today’ (http://bhr.stern.nyu.edu/approach).

In this policy note, I am sharing some of my own observations of the good, the bad, and of what may become possible, based on 12 years of working within the field of CSR in a technology company. My observations are unlikely to be comprehensive, but are intended to prompt discussion about how CSR efforts may mesh with the needs of human rights organizations needing to find new sources of long-term funding, and may spark ideas about practical ways to collaborate with businesses wanting to use their resources to ‘do good’.

From the early 2000s, companies started including some sort of CSR in their business; for many it meant adding social issues to the environmental sustainability work they had started in the 1990s.

The terminology used by companies for their CSR is varied: corporate sustainability, corporate philanthropy, corporate purpose, community engagement, corporate citizenship and responsible business are widely used terms, and some are using the term ‘shared value’ which is explained in more detail later in this note.

Since the release of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, the term ‘sustainability’ is now being more commonly applied to cover both social and environmental issues, where previously it was more commonly understood to refer solely to environmental responsibility. Broadly, all of these terms are used to describe a company’s commitment to an intention to ‘do good’ largely, though not exclusively, through partnering with or supporting NGOs. Activities include volunteering, sponsorships, giving grants, fundraising, or the use of products or services to help NGOs fulfil particular activities or parts of their social mission.

The European Union (EU) defines CSR as ‘companies taking responsibility for their impact on society’ and determines that ‘Companies can become socially responsible by: following the law;

[and] integrating social, environmental, ethical, consumer, and human rights concerns into their business strategy and operations’ (European Commission 2016).

A company’s CSR may be delivered by an internal department, a business unit, or by a separately registered charitable foundation that is closely linked to the company, probably shares the company name, and makes use of company resources to meet their social impact goals.

CSR employees may be company employees working full or part-time on the CSR function, or may be ‘gifted’ as a resource to the separate charitable entity, or even be employed by the charitable entity. Generally a company can give its equity, expertise, employee resources and time, products and services, technical support, or any manner of things to support its charitable foundation, but the charity can do nothing that provides commercial benefit to the company.

A corporate foundation is somewhat different to a family foundation or those set up by tech billionaires to further their own personal philanthropic objectives, which are not intrinsically linked to a company, its activities, people or products. For example, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (https://www.facebook.com/chanzuckerberginitiative), founded with 99 per cent of the Facebook shares owned by its founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, is separate from Facebook; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (http://www.gatesfoundation.org), which is a private foundation set up by Bill and Melinda Gates, is not linked to Microsoft Philanthropies (https://www.microsoft.com/about/philanthropies).

In 2005 in an article entitled ‘The Myth of CSR’ in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the author, Deborah Doane, writes that CSR emerged as a corporate response to a:generation that felt that big business had taken over the world … rather than shrink away from the battle, corporations emerged brandishing CSR as the friendly face of capitalism, helped, in part, by the very movement that highlighted the problem of corporate power in the first place. NGOs, seeing little political will by governments to regulate corporate behavior, as free-market economics has become the dominant political mantra, realized that perhaps more momentum could be achieved by partnering with the enemy. By using market mechanisms via consumer power, they saw an opportunity to bring about more immediate change. (Doane 2005)

In the following ten years CSR has continued along the path identified in that article, of ‘winning the public relations game with both governments and the public, lulling us into a false sense of security’ (ibid.). CSR has gone mainstream in the corporate world; it’s possible to study CSR at degree and Masters level and it is increasingly seen as a desirable career option and an alternative way to work in a corporate environment, with all the associated work-related benefits. There are numerous CSR frameworks for implementation and evaluation, conferences, events and discussions aimed at helping CSR practitioners to show both social impact and corporate benefit. However, for many companies CSR is seen as a box-ticking exercise with no particular focus beyond the CSR team on creating real social impact.

Tom Levitt, a British former Labour member of parliament and founder of Sector 4 Focus, sums it up well in a recent article entitled ‘Good CSR? Bad CSR?’:Poor CSR is non-core, overseen by a CSR department with little authority or status or a public affairs department dedicated to creating a positive corporate image. Chosen causes bear little connection to the business’ own mission. ‘Downright evil CSR’ deliberately hides a company’s negative impact on the community, human rights or the environment behind a smile and a fluffy image. (Levitt 2015)

The initial intention of engaging corporate resources to benefit society under the banner of CSR has become somewhat discredited as many companies and their CEOs are still reluctant to acknowledge that their responsibilities go beyond a corporate volunteer team-building day or a charity fun run. Even those with well-developed CSR strategies still largely see it as an add-on, nice-to-have, not connected in any way with the real business of their business.

The cliché often cited is of the under-funded volunteer team (which sits in the marketing or human resources department) asking an NGO to provide at a day’s notice a one-hour volunteer opportunity for 60 people, ideally within a ten-minute walk of their office. Employees turn up in company T-shirts, are largely unaware of the purpose of the charity they are volunteering with, but are happy to be out of the office for half a day; they get a vague sense that they’ve done something good and the company gets some nice photos of employees holding paintbrushes for the CSR section on their website and for their annual report.

If the CEO is planning on turning up then the NGO needs to be ready to parade some beneficiaries, perform a dance, and then deal with the majority of volunteers (and the CEO) dropping out at the last minute as corporate priorities shift during the day and the important business of business squeezes out the tiny window of opportunity that the CSR team were given for community engagement

Meanwhile the charity have charged the corporate a fee for a mostly unnecessary volunteer activity and have raked in a little money towards the actual purpose of their organization in the process. Job done, but in an unsatisfactory manner for all concerned.

All of this is not new as a concept; successful business people have for a long time set up independent charitable foundations; The Barrow Cadbury Trust (http://www.barrowcadbury.org.uk/about) was set up in 1920 to focus on social justice, and the Carnegie Foundation has focused on the advancement of teaching since 1905 (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/who-we-are/foundation-history).

Companies have also been embedding their social purpose into the core structure of their company for many years. The Robert Bosch Stiftung (http://www.bosch-stiftung.de/content/language2/html/389.asp) was set up with the Bosch family’s inherited shares in the 1960s, and according to its website ‘The Foundation still holds 92 percent of Robert Bosch GmbH’s capital stock of €1.2 billion’. The share dividend received by the foundation is used exclusively for charitable purposes, to support general medical care, international understanding social work, training and education.

Carlsberg founder J. C. Jacobsen set up the Carlsberg Foundation in 1976 using ‘substantial amounts of the brewery’s capital’ because he ‘wanted to share his success with his country’ (http://www.carlsberggroup.com/Company/Foundations/CARLSBERGFOUNDATION/Pages/Default.aspx). When he died, he left the brewery to the Foundation, which also took ownership of the New Carlsberg Brewery in 1902. To this day, the ‘Foundation must hold at least 51% of the votes. The Trustees sit on the Carlsberg Board of Directors and the Foundation’s chairman is chairman of Carlsberg.’

As the examples above illustrate, corporate social engagement can be embedded into the core of a business, and in my experience, is more effective when the structure and strategy come from the CEO and are seen as material to the daily activities of the business—something on which people and departments are measured and which is reported on. Many CEOs are watching the lead that CEO Paul Polman is taking at Unilever. In an interview with The Guardian in October 2013, Paul Polman said:We all need to be way beyond CSR, and yet we still talk about it as CSR, which is basically activity-driven but not holistic. The concept of shared value is good but I think it is a post-rationalisation of not getting in trouble with society. Now some people will say that’s too pessimistic but I think it’s realistic. Companies will now have to provide solutions to some of these challenges and be co-responsible and that’s a higher level than that we have talked until now. Unfortunately not many see it as being absolutely crucial but it will come, I’m convinced. (Confino 2013)

Paul Polman refers to ‘shared value’, which is a recent, and highly influential, approach to embedding corporate social impact into the core of business as described in a 2011 article by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer entitled ‘Creating Shared Value’, published in Harvard Business Review.

Porter and Kramer open with the premise that ‘The capitalist system is under siege. In recent years business has been criticized as a major cause of social, environmental, and economic problems. Companies are widely thought to be prospering at the expense of their communities.’ They suggest that the problem lies with companies ‘which remain trapped in an outdated, narrow approach to value creation. Focused on optimizing short-term financial performance, they overlook the greatest unmet needs in the market as well as broader influences on their long-term success. Why else would companies ignore the well-being of their customers, the depletion of natural resources vital to their businesses, the viability of suppliers, and the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell?’. They suggest the solution is to ‘bring business and society back together … [redefining] their purpose as creating “shared value”—generating economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges. A shared value approach reconnects company success with social progress’ (Porter and Kramer 2011).

One example of the positive power of developing a shared value strategy is that of chocolate company Mars in Côte d’Ivoire. Rural farming communities in Côte d’Ivoire are the largest producers of cocoa in the world, contributing 50 per cent of the country’s GDP and employing a third of its population. However, a number of factors had combined which meant that the production of cocoa was in a cycle of decline, leading to decreased incomes and farmers making decisions to grow other products.

Mars realized that they needed to work with the farming communities to focus on building up infrastructure to enable increased productivity, develop an improved quality of product and adequate incomes for the farmers. Mars described this as being ‘business mission critical’. Working together with FSG, a social change consultancy (http://www.fsg.org/blog/shared-value-côte-divoire-creating-vibrant-cocoa-sector), and with the rural cocoa farmers they developed a compelling shared vision and have revitalized and recreated what is now a vibrant cocoa sector that enables rural communities to thrive, with adequate incomes which have enabled the community to access better education and health care.

However, many NGOs may be challenged by this approach being weighted more towards creating new business solutions and opportunities rather than collaborating with existing proven community or NGO solutions. The Shared Value Initiative (http://sharedvalue.org) identifies itself as a ‘global community of leaders who find business opportunities in addressing societal challenges’. Its website describes the shared value concept as:a management strategy focused on companies creating measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business. The shared value framework creates new opportunities for companies, civil society organizations, and governments to leverage the power of market-based competition on addressing social problems.

Alternatively, Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, argues in the Summer 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review for a ‘plural sector’:When one part of society becomes dominant—as the public sector did under communism and the private sector is now doing under capitalism—people suffer. A healthy society requires a balance between the sectors. Calling it ‘plural’ rather than nonprofit or third, will help this sector take its rightful place alongside the other two. (Mintzberg 2015)

A report published in December 2015 by think tank SustainAbility, entitled ‘Sustainability Incorporated’, gives multiple global examples of integrated CSR, though the authors note that ‘The reality is that very few corporations have fully integrated or embedded sustainability into their business models’ (Mosher and Smith 2015).

Often a company’s journey to adopt CSR starts with an ‘easy’ philanthropic option focused on education and workforce development—areas which resonate with employees locally and globally and are largely uncontroversial.

The CSR of some companies may be more controversial and may initially appear ironic given the nature of the product they sell. Since 2007 the Coca-Cola Foundation has focused on ‘global water stewardship programs, fitness and nutrition efforts and community recycling programs’ (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/our-company/the-coca-cola-foundation) as well as women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship. But the fact that ‘in 2015, The Coca-Cola Company and The Coca-Cola Foundation gave back more than $117 million to directly benefit nearly 300 organizations across more than 70 countries and territories’ makes this a powerful philanthropic programme, with a global reach and, for the right NGOs, one to take seriously as a potential partner and investor.

For large complex global businesses, their best efforts to implement a sophisticated, well-funded CSR programme working with expert partners and grassroots NGOs can be undermined by their internal complexity and communications, with the CSR strategy, message and intent not reaching, or not being taken seriously, by all parts of the company.

Nestlé has long been seen by the rights community as a controversial company with negative social and environmental impacts attributed to its products and working practices, both domestically and in the developing world, including the sale of baby milk formula and bottled water, as well as child labour violations (see Mattera 2013).

However, the ‘Sustainability Incorporated’ report highlights Nestlé for[placing] a particularly sharp focus on one of the many issues it manages closely, human rights, in order to more effectively embed it into multiple parts of the business and supply chain. Working with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Nestlé developed an eight pillar Human Rights Due Diligence Programme and established a cross functional working group to oversee the effort. Nestlé also incorporated human rights considerations into its supplier code and implemented an ambitious human rights training program, training 49,444 employees in 64 countries. Nestlé also set and achieved a goal to measure and reduce human rights violations across all 12 commodity categories within Nestlé’s Responsible Sourcing Guide. (Mosher and Smith 2015: 49)

After the collapse of an eight-storey garment factory, the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013, in which at least 1,000 people were killed, the role of the garment industry—mostly western multinational clothing companies—briefly highlighted in the media a large number of unpalatable rights issues for those who like to buy cheaply produced fashion. While companies using these factories were offering economic opportunity to millions of households, the unsafe working conditions, low wages for workers (largely women) and local corruption resulted in dangerous working environments, which were not being addressed. Many commentators highlighted the complex role of CSR in the apparel industry, and how good CSR intentions can be overridden by consumer and corporate requirements (Tripathi 2014).

While it’s in nobody’s interest—government, workers or global brands—to pull garment production out of Bangladesh, the incident has led to the development of some initiatives to improve many aspects of working conditions. Governments, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), NGOs and the World Bank have collaborated with a number of global high-street fashion brands to identify appropriate partnerships and programmes that include training and empowering women workers, training for factory owners, programmes for looking at the role of men and reducing gender-based violence, and the use of technology and media.

Clearly there is a balance to strike. CSR initiatives are balanced with their parent corporate vested interests, but must collaborate with expert NGOs to inform and guide their CSR work. However, NGOs will and must continue to campaign and confront companies involved in poor practice, while also helping them to develop proactive strategies rather than reactive approaches that focus on mitigating risk after involvement in an event such as the Rana Plaza collapse.

It remains true for most businesses that human rights are not a topic of boardroom concern or discussion. But while many corporate boards still believe that the purpose of a company is simply to maximize profit for its shareholders, others are at least starting to acknowledge responsibilities to their communities.

The Sustainability Incorporated report quotes Barnaby Swire, Chairman of 200-year-old John Swire & Sons, one of Britain’s seven biggest family-owned businesses (Prosser 2014), saying that ‘the business will be judged on its impact on the environment and the community’ (Mosher and Smith 2015: 77).

One global forum ostensibly well placed for making progress on social and environmental issues is the annual meeting in Davos of the World Economic Forum (WEF), a gathering of over 2,500 business, government and civil society leaders who are committed to ‘improving the state of the world’ (https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-meeting-2017), and where agenda topics and reports cover a broad range of global issues from all parts of the developed and developing world.

However, in an article in The Guardian Steve Hilton, who had previously been director of strategy for the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, describes the meeting in Davos as ‘the purest expression’ [of] a world run by an ‘insular ruling elite’—‘the annual schmooze fest where rich white men debate inequality and diversity … where the world’s biggest corporations earnestly set out footling “strategies” and “action plans” to give the impression they’re addressing the social and environmental problems that they caused in the first place’ (Hilton 2016).

But if Davos, where everyone who is anyone in the business world wants to be, is not the place for corporate leaders to discuss and create opportunities for significant social and environmental change, where is?

There are international standards and instruments for companies, such as those issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) on social policy and responsible labour practices, that are widely known and applied by many global corporations. However, many smaller companies would not consider that these standards apply to them, would need considerable help and resources to know how to start implementing them, and may see them as an additional burden rather than a way to engage in social responsibility.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011, clearly outline ‘the responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights’, stating that it applies ‘to all enterprises regardless of their size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure’ (UN, OHCHR 2011: 15) . Though again, it’s debatable how many medium and smaller companies, or even some of the larger companies, are familiar with these Principles.

New UN Goals for Sustainable Development launched in December 2015 build on the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or ‘Global Goals’ (http://www.globalgoals.org) were written with the call to action being that they are for ‘everyone … to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society …’. These goals are a good summary of the issues that much of the corporate world are currently comfortable with, expressed in language they are also comfortable with, and provide a good starting framework for companies to identify a core issue on which to focus their CSR efforts.

Many companies are now starting to revamp their nascent, less focused, CSR activities towards a core mission around which they apply their resources. The Global Goals focus on economic, social and cultural rather than civil and political rights, but it’s arguably easier for a company to see their connection with poverty, hunger, health, education and clean water, than with slavery, torture, arbitrary detention or the death penalty, and organizations such as Business Fights Poverty (http://businessfightspoverty.org) do a great job of helping companies identify tangible activities and use of resources to tackle global issues of poverty.

While the CSR of some companies skirts so closely to the company’s commercial purpose as an organization that it appears to be driven by commercial expediency, others use their expertise and resources to provide genuinely useful services to the NGO sector. For example, the Thomson Reuter Foundation’s mission is to ‘act to promote socio-economic progress and the rule of law worldwide’ and their programmes include Trust Law, a global pro bono legal programme connecting ‘the best law firms and corporate legal teams around the world with high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to create social and environmental change’, as well as putting ‘the rule of law behind women’s rights’ and finding ‘real solutions … to fight human trafficking and slavery’ (http://www.trust.org).

Executive leadership passion can be important in setting a bold direction for a company’s CSR. In 2013 global hospitality and travel company Carlson was the first company to receive the US Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The company has had a long-term commitment to this work, initially driven by the personal motivation of the company’s former CEO and Chairman, Marilyn Carlson Nelson (Carlson 2013).

For proactive or reactive reasons, there are corporations that are at least moving towards having a positive approach to human rights, including having a human rights policy. In this regard, NGOs, academic institutions and a variety of consulting organizations have developed frameworks, programmes and products to assist companies who want to create and embed policy. These organizations also play a role in holding companies to account and encouraging them to report on their policy.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (http://business-humanrights.org) tracks ‘the human rights policy and performance of over 6,000 companies in over 180 countries’, addressing allegations of abuses raised by communities and NGOs directly to the company involved, and giving them an opportunity to respond and act on the allegations, as well as following up with companies that fail to respond adequately to allegations. Their database contains information reported by corporations about areas of human rights on which they focus.

There is also the Institute for Human Rights and Business (http://www.ihrb.org), a global think tank working with NGOs and responsible business initiatives ‘on the relationship between business and internationally recognised human rights standards’. They ‘work to shape policy, advance practice and strengthen accountability to ensure the activities of companies do not contribute to human rights abuses, and in fact lead to positive outcomes’.

Some NGOs are themselves developing frameworks for businesses focused on their area of impact. For example, Save the Children, the United Nations Global Compact, and UNICEF have jointly developed the ‘Children’s Rights and Business Principles’ which were released in 2012, with the intention of giving ‘business a clear idea of where and how their business might impact children’ (http://childrenandbusiness.org).

As with the examples above, there are NGOs that are finding ways of partnering with business in order to better direct their efforts and resources toward long-term strategic impact rather than short-term gains for public relations. By being proactive and seeing business as a potentially powerful partner, NGOs can help to direct company resources toward real areas of strategic need based on their years of expert work. Better this than leaving it to a well-intentioned but uninformed CSR practitioner to decide.

The corporate CSR world needs more connection with the professional NGO world, through thoughtful interaction, not just through fundraising events or irrelevant volunteering.

Expertise in social issues can be significantly undervalued or misunderstood within a corporation—it can be seen as a ‘fluffy’ area that is not material to the serious business of generating sales, profit and growth. CSR departments may have been set up with few resources and be staffed by people who have been tasked with implementing the work, but who do not come from a social impact background.

In his book published in 2014, ‘The Social License: How to Keep Your Organization Legitimate’, John Morrison suggests that ‘businesses and other organizations are increasingly aware that they need more than just a legal licence for their activities’, and that they need to earn a ‘social licence’ which can only be granted by the society in which they operate and which is a delicate balance of interactions and behaviours ‘which mainstream Corporate Social Responsibility … often struggles to frame correctly’ (Morrison 2014).

A poorly equipped CSR employee can quickly undermine a company’s social licence by going out to meet their communities and potential NGO partners without sufficient knowledge of the issues, language, appropriate behaviour or dress, let alone any understanding of the methodologies and evaluation frameworks being used to address the social issues they are setting out to ‘fix’. This can create an immediate, but unintended, clash of cultures, priorities and values that is difficult to overcome.

However, people in CSR roles are often smart, keen to learn, engage, and partner with experts. There is an important educational role that can be played here by expert NGOs. Finding a company with a geographical reach, product, staff presence, or stated social vision that seems to tally with your NGO is a good way to start a relationship. Becoming a trusted adviser, helping to determine creative social impact goals, good activities and interventions, and to channel the company’s desire to do good, as well as their money, could be very welcome to the company.

It is important to set up any such relationship as a partnership and to use the resources available from both the NGO and the corporate partner. The partnership should not just focus on the money, but on the combined social impact that can be made with the NGO offering to share their expertise, critical long-term thinking, demonstrations of impact, understanding of community, government, power, global treaties and instruments, and so on, and the corporation offering their expertise, time and labour, influence and relationships, as well as grants or investments.

A good example is the partnership between health and hygiene corporate giant RB and Save the Children (http://www.rb.com/responsibility/communities/save-the-children). RB started their collaboration with Save the Children in 2003 with a donation of 100,000 pounds sterling. The relationship has grown into RB’s signature programme to help stop children dying of diarrhoea. The programme is focused on areas within India, Pakistan and Nigeria identified by Save the Children as locations where such deaths were particularly prevalent.

The programme works to implement the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF seven-point plan for comprehensive diarrhoea control. In 2013 RB committed to giving 5.5 million pounds, with a substantial amount of this coming through engaging employees in fundraising activities. Through a combination of RB’s research and development expertise, suppliers’ expertise in fragrance, and working with the University of Nairobi, they developed two hygiene and sanitation products suitable for and appealing to children under five and their mothers. Using RB’s existing distribution and sales processes and teams they got these products out to the intended beneficiaries, and used Save the Children’s expertise and frameworks to track and assess the impact.

As the RB example shows, corporates often need and want to partner with the expert NGO world to help them get it right. But it can be hard for a company to find the right NGO, and they may not look beyond the obvious big brand-name charities when they would be better served by partnering with a smaller, less well known organization. Companies need people within their business, or as trusted partners, who understand the social issue they’ve decided to focus on and who know how to find and develop appropriate partnerships, who can articulate the impact they want to make, and help develop long-term strategies for doing so, as well as setting shorter-term goals to meet corporate reporting objectives.

It can be alarming to NGOs when corporate funding bypasses the traditional relationships of corporate funder/NGO expert. For example, The Freedom Fund (http://freedomfund.org/about/what-we-do), who focus on modern slavery, have created a private donor fund set up by three privately funded philanthropic foundations, which attracts also other philanthropic money. They carry out their own research to identify interventions to develop and broaden their work to end slavery.

Knowledge, access and visibility can be a big issue on both the NGO and corporate sides; both corporations and NGOs can be quite isolated, opaque and uncooperative between themselves in trying to achieve social and environmental outcomes and impact. Sometimes corporates start their own direct activities or interventions because they don’t know about the work of existing NGOs working in their chosen field of social change, or haven’t met an NGO they think they can collaborate with.

NGO people need to find a way to become more comfortable with working within, and in partnership with, the corporate world; corporates really need help from people immersed in social impact but often don’t know where to find them.

And for the NGO world it can also be extremely difficult to work out which companies are focused on which issues and what the entry points are for collaboration or funding. CSR teams may not get much space on the corporate website to describe what their focus is or how they wish to work. They may be subject to quick changes in their CSR focus imposed by senior corporate whims or wishes. Many corporates look to each other for comfort in the focus and funding of programmes, so there may suddenly be a fashionable CSR issue such as supporting the teaching of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), computer coding for girls, or women’s empowerment. Companies have been known to congregate around a particular organization that is deemed to be making good impact, that is seen to have a high profile and therefore becomes a ‘safe’ organization to give to.

Many developed world CSR programmes are unfamiliar with working in the developing world, though they may have a desire to focus on a particular country or theme where they believe they can have an impact due to having a company presence there or a relevant product.

NGOs working on global issues should look for companies with a presence, customer base or employee base that aligns with their own focus. For example, Standard Chartered operate in ‘some of the world’s fastest-growing markets, across Asia, Africa and the Middle East’ and their sustainability work focuses on delivering global ‘programmes that promote social and economic development focusing on health, youth and financial education’ and they have flagship activities for avoidable blindness, HIV and empowering adolescent girls (https://www.sc.com/en/about-us).

For companies less globally established than Standard Chartered, a lack of familiarity with developing genuine grassroots NGO partnerships can foster a focus on ‘domestic friendly’ NGOs—these may be based in the developing world and fronted by a charismatic spokesperson who is willing and able to travel the world and speak articulately (in English) about their particular social or environmental issue. This may not be a good way to pick an NGO partner.

NGOs developing partnerships with CSR teams can offer their expertise in finding, assessing and directing funding to grassroots partners. This would ensure support for NGOs that are less visible, may not have English speakers or a website and don’t use social media. Larger NGOs can act as a bridge to smaller, geographically distant NGOs and help them to access corporate grant makers, fill in application forms and help with the verification needed by many corporates’ grant-giving compliance frameworks.

In an article entitled ‘Empowering Women at the Grassroots’ published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Marissa Wesely and Dina Dublon explore how ‘initiatives to develop the economic potential of women are becoming a staple of corporate activity in many parts of the world. But companies often overlook an important set of would-be partners—locally rooted organizations’, and they give examples of a number of corporations, including Nestlé, Hindustan Unilever, and Avon who have worked hard to find effective grassroots women’s organizations that they can partner with to develop programmes (Wesely and Dublon 2015).

There is no doubt that corporate relationships are often uncomfortable for NGOs: they can feel one-sided and compromising. Many NGOs are distrustful of the corporate world—their intentions and understanding of issues—and do not want corporates to be wielding power and money to decide global policy on environmental, social, and human rights issues. Nor do NGOs want to have to compromise their deeply strategic, well-researched, long-term work for a short-term outcome in order to access corporate grant money.

Both sides can find these relationships very culturally alien; with high degrees of suspicion and many assumptions being made about the values, politics, motivations, needs and priorities of the people on the ‘other’ side. But effective collaboration can come from pooling expertise and resources.

A current ‘holy grail’ within the CSR world is around the measurement of their programmes and their impact. This can be made more difficult by not having a clear idea at the outset of what they want their impact or outcomes to be. They may be driven by corporate reporting objectives to fulfil a certain number of volunteer hours, or to give a certain amount of money or to deliver a programme in a particular city or part of the country, or to give away a product that might have a small beneficial effect but is fantastic for marketing and public relations.

NGOs can help companies develop programmes that spend the grant money with good outcomes, and need to play a role in showing how vital it is to fund long-term human rights work that does not have an immediate or reportable outcome. Encouraging a company to commit to a broad goal such as those articulated in the Global Goals could result in funding going to a combination of long- and short-term programmes.

Global Goal No. 1, ‘no poverty’, can be broken down into achievable targets that a company can report on in the short term, make visible within their organization, and use as a theme for volunteering and grant making, while also funding work which is focused on developing the systemic frameworks and strategy for long-term poverty eradication.

Understandably, NGOs are generally reluctant to ‘package’ and ‘sell’ work to potential funders; some have policies or unspoken red lines about which organizations they can or will accept money from, so as to ensure that their research, advocacy and campaigns are driven by the facts on the ground and relevant contextual and political analysis. Their fear is that engaging with corporate philanthropy could subvert this objective.

But without input from credible expert NGOs, many corporates are trying to reinvent the wheel, attempting to develop and implement social programmes in a vacuum.

If they are ‘packaging’ their work for seeking corporate grants, NGOs should not fall into the trap of trying to identify for a company what the public relations or marketing benefits of the partnership might be. It’s not the expertise of the NGO to determine corporate marketing objectives so their attempts to articulate public relations benefits can appear ridiculous read in a corporate context. NGOs should stick to what they know and what they are expert at. The integrity of a well-presented project with clear social outcomes can be compelling and refreshing.

Doing a bit of homework to understand what, or who, they are approaching prior to making contact seems obvious but is often overlooked by NGOs. While some companies have vast Donor Advised Funds or other pots of philanthropic money that they don’t know what to do with, that’s not true for many large, medium and small companies.

It may be that the discretionary grants budget of a CSR team or corporate foundation is tiny. The CSR team or foundation may be responsible for creating their own grant budget through fundraising or through a revenue-generating model. Understanding their funding model, granting priorities, the potential size of grants they give, their grant-making cycle, and whether employees have access to grants or influence over the grant making process, can all help NGOs in framing their approaches when seeking support from corporate partners.

The groundswell of opinion and action, driven partly by the next generation of corporate leaders, does seem to be turning towards companies taking a more active part in addressing the world’s greatest challenges, and using their resources to do so.

I believe that this presents a great opportunity for NGOs to engage with companies, beyond fundraising and volunteering, to identify how to influence the use of corporate money and other resources in a way that meets both their short and long-term strategic objectives.

 

© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

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