Business-NGO Partnerships: The Challenges of Inequality and Time Management

September 20, 2010
  • Adam Lane

    Former Manager, BSR

As part of BSR’s new CiYuan initiative, I have been working to build partnerships among companies and NGOs that will enhance the value of social investment in China. While sitting in on several company/NGO partnership meetings, it has become clear to me that BSR will need to address two recurring challenges.

The first challenge is partnership equality. In many cases, partnerships are service contracts, similar to those BSR signs with our clients—where we are responsible for certain things, and so is our client. The best partnerships involve contributions from both partners, where each partner provides expertise and resources that the other needs, and as a result, both partners meet their goals. However, in the situation where a company provides funding to an NGO, the resulting partnership is often not equal. This is a real challenge. Often times, the NGOs become less critical or less willing to give their own perspectives when they are counter to the company’s—even when the company makes real efforts to encourage feedback. In other cases, the NGO provides guarded or subtle feedback that understates its importance.

The second challenge for NGOs is for them to appropriately estimate the amount of time it will take them to manage the project and the relationship with the company. In almost all cases, the NGOs underestimate this amount of time, which means they cannot charge the appropriate management fees to the company when they sign the partnership. Thus, their time is not fully accounted for and they incur opportunity costs for their staff.

The other week, I found both challenges manifested together when a global consumer products company continued to revise its requests for information from a local NGO. The burden on the NGO increased to a point where the NGO should have pushed back on the company. But the NGO did not because it did not feel like an equal in the partnership, and it did not want to upset the relationship with the company. As a result, the NGO is now spending even more time managing the project and the relationship with the company than it had planned or budgeted for.

BSR is playing an important role in facilitating the expansion of these partnerships. It is clear that we will be able to support both sides of these relationships, especially by providing our independent feedback to both partners to help address the issues of inequality and time management and to ensure the partnerships last and continue to grow.

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