In a world of constrained resources and pressing global challenges, partnerships between companies and NGOs have emerged as an effective way to harness limited resources to tackle big problems. 

For NGOs, this trend has typically involved looking to businesses for funding, while businesses have turned to NGOs to demonstrate their commitment to and credibility on particular social or environmental issues. To some, these motivations may seem superficial. From my position having managed a corporate-NGO partnership initiative in China, however, I have seen how these motivations deepen and grow as partnerships come to life.

Since 2010, I have managed BSR’s CiYuan Initiative, a three-year effort to enhance the development of the Chinese nonprofit sector through corporate-NGO partnerships. During that time, our team created, facilitated, or evaluated seven pilot projects between Chinese companies and NGOs. By working together toward commonly defined goals, these relationships leveraged partners’ strengths, built the capacity of the NGOs—including their ability to partner with the private sector—and positively impacted employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Since the first nonprofits were registered in China in the early 1980s, the sector has faced a number of significant challenges that continue today, including a lack of talented professionals, few examples of successful cross-sector collaboration, and very limited funding for grassroots nonprofits.At the same time, businesses in China have become increasingly eager to engage with the social sector and address some of the country’s social and environmental problems.

Our initiative saw opportunities for both groups. Businesses could contribute not only funding but also technical expertise, products, and staff time to help nonprofits achieve their goals. The nonprofits, in turn, could lend businesses their expert knowledge of particular issues, their ability to reach beneficiary groups, and their experience in running successful programs on the ground.

Now that this initiative has come to a close, I have been reflecting on what we learned while working with companies and NGOs along different stages of the partnership continuum. I’d like to share three key lessons that may help others forging cross-sector partnerships in China and beyond.

1.  Identify a partner with complementary resources

Finding an organization with the right mix of resources, objectives, and capacity to partner is the most important first step in establishing partnerships with NGOs.

Take the case of B&Q, a London-based multinational that has become the largest DIY home-improvement retail chain in China. The company’s business in China wanted to respond to both increasing customer interest in environmentally friendly home solutions and new government policies on energy conservation. The company found the right partner in Friends of Nature (FoN), China’s oldest environmental NGO.

During a three-month pilot, FoN used its experience in environmental products to train 60 B&Q designers on energy-saving home improvement best practices.

“Our designers expanded their knowledge of environmentally friendly products and their understanding of customer needs in this area,” said Annie Zou, a B&Q human resources coordinator.

The B&Q marketing team and store leads also worked with FoN to organize a series of product-promotion and customer-education trainings, leveraging its relationships with media to attract the public to events at five Beijing stores.

FoN used its knowledge of environmental lifestyles to help customers understand more about their own environmental footprint, the company’s pledge to promote environmental protection, and which B&Q products can help them create a more energy efficient and healthy home for their families.

Finally, the NGO also shared up-to-date information about new Chinese government policies on energy and emissions reductions with the company. As a result of this knowledge exchange, B&Q realized how it could better align its business practices with government policy through green product design and customer education around energy-efficient home improvement solutions.

In this case, the combined value of both partners added up to a successful pilot partnership, which has led to an ongoing collaboration between the organizations.

2.  Invest time in understanding your partner’s organizational culture

In CiYuan’s very first corporate-NGO pilot, we supported a partnership between Nike and the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF), one of the largest government-organized NGOs in China. The idea was to empower youth to make changes in their communities through sport.As it turned out, both organizations had very different organizational cultures and work styles.

For example, CYDF was each managing between 10 and 20 other partnership programs at the same time as the Nike project, meaning that staff members had less time to devote to the partnership than they would have liked. CYDF also had a more fluid planning process than Nike did, relying less on written plans and formal communication tools.

Nike had different challenges. The company wanted to coordinate project implementation around seasonal marketing in order to attract the greatest number of youth to the program, a priority that affected CYDF’s implementation timeline.

These differences in work style impeded the partners’ ability to work together efficiently, meet timelines, and maintain positive personal relationships among project staff.

The solution was for both partners to set aside time to understand the other's decision-making processes, resource constraints, and prior experiences—even if this delayed project implementation.This process involved several steps. First, senior leadership from both partners got involved to help the project team understand the greater organizational context. Next, informal meetings were organized so program staff got to know each other better and were able to share experiences and potential challenges they were facing both internally and externally. 

Through this multi-leveled communication, the key players were able to increase mutual understanding, align expectations, and, as a result, work together more effectively toward common goals.

3.  Establish governance and accountability mechanisms

With support from Taproot Foundation, BSR’s CiYuan initiative established a five-way partnership among Taproot, Hewlett-Packard (HP), local Chinese NGO Huizeren, the Narada Foundation, and BSR to bring pro-bono volunteering to China. Through this partnership, volunteer teams from HP supported Chinese NGOs in key functional areas including marketing, legal, human resources, and communications.

With so many partners involved, it was critical to find a way to ensure mutual accountability, in terms of holding parties responsible for commitments, tracking progress against goals, and correcting any areas where the pilot was steering off-course.

Together we established a steering committee that brought together all the China-based partners around the idea of understanding the central partner’s challenges and needs and communicating on progress.As it was originally conceived, the steering committee was meant to meet quarterly, chaired by Huizeren, but in practice, the meetings took place less regularly due to staff turnover at Huizeren and some of the partner organizations. Despite these challenges, the committee still generated insights into how the project was tracking and provided a forum to strengthen communication among partners so there were no surprises at the end of the project’s first year.

After 18 months, the pro-bono volunteering program was more formally established, and Huizeren’s board of directors assumed the committee’s role. From then on, Huizeren maintained communication and feedback with the other partners separately.

Accountability and progress tracking in a partnership is always a delicate balance. It is important that accountability procedures are not so rigorous and intrusive as to undermine trust between partners. Some of these procedures can inadvertently introduce administrative burdens on the NGO partner or weaken the environment for experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation.

In this case, HP respected Huizeren’s ownership over program implementation and allowed the NGO to steer the program’s direction. The committee therefore became a forum for Huizeren to report on their implementation progress and for partners to troubleshoot any issues and provide support.

To create transparency while encouraging risk-taking, accountability systems for partnerships should prioritize incremental learning and incorporate lessons learned into short-term goals as evidence of progress.

Creating an environment where partners feel comfortable communicating challenges should be encouraged, so that accountability is not feared or avoided. This type of environment was particularly important to establish in China, where it can be difficult for partners to acknowledge difficulties in front of others, especially in situations where the balance of power between organizations is uneven, which can be the case between companies and NGOs.

As we will continue to track the evolving cross-sector partnership landscape in China, I look forward to working with new partners to identify complimentary resources, common visions and help drive positive impact.

This article also appeared in Devex Impact.