We Mean Business

31 Oct

I’ve just spent two days in intensive meetings meant to take to the next level my employer’s in-house conversation about tapping into corporate support for relief and development work.

My prior grumbling clearly has not worked. And I find myself being worn down…

For-profit sector interest involvement in aid work is fully a reality of the world we live in now. We (and I say this for my own benefit as much as for the benefit of anyone else) need to acknowledge and deal with this reality.

Thinking out loud about what this means…

Just like bilateral, governmental and large institutional donors, corporate donors represent a very wide range of motivations and objectives, and also technical rigor. We must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that, regardless of any community benefit language that they may use, benevolent programming that they might support, or even as good as they might actually be, the for-profit sector and for-profit companies exist precisely for the purpose of making profit. Which means that they will come to the humanitarian aid conversation with a set of assumptions, priorities, goals and tolerances that do not necessarily overlap with ours.

I do not write this out of cynicism or distrust (although there’s justification for both), but simply as a statement of fact. We’re quite used to talking about this divergence of interests between NGOs and donors when it comes to bilateral government donors or funding from institutions like the World Bank. But it seems we’ve been initially somewhat naïve on that point when it comes to corporate donors. Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to believe, wrongly, that because the proposal formats, approval processes and reporting requirements for corporate funds seem almost endearingly simple in comparison to government grants, that corporate grant-making is somehow less calculated towards end goals. Donors fund aid work based on what they believe will advance their own interests. Period.

As well, after several decades now of NGO engagement and push-back and “donor advocacy” towards our more traditional governmental and institutional donors, we seem to have achieved a level of comfort with those relationships. We know very well where the areas of divergence and overlap are, and we know from experience where we can push-back and how. We’ve kind of made peace with the fact that we have to agree to disagree with those donors on some points. But now we’re having to start the process of getting to this point from the beginning with our corporate donors. It feels redundant, like going back to square one, and that’s frustrating.

We need to view and talk about and interact with the for-profit sector fully as an “aid actor” – and I mean “aid actor” in the same sense that we talk about ourselves, the UN, big bilateral donors like USAID or the EC, and relevant host government entities. Whether they participate in coordination meetings or not, whether they engage in the kind of analytical, strategic or competitive bidding processes that other aid actors do, the for-profits are increasingly a central part of the big picture, the “aid environment.” Corporations are fully part of the aid environment (they have been for some time, actually – what’s changed recently is that they themselves articulate that they are), and we need to engage them directly on those terms. We do everyone, including ourselves and our beneficiaries less than full service if we segregate out the for-profits in our overall thinking.

NGOs and perhaps particularly INGOs need to remain clear, internally and externally, about their/our role in the aid conversation. I see the role of NGOs becoming specifically more about advocacy, representation, championing the cause of the poor. Both the traditional donors and aid-involved corporations now increasingly employ aid professionals and maintain social responsibility units with immense technical capability. Our resource constraints will eventually mean that we cannot keep up with them on that front. Yet of all of the aid actors and non-aid actors in the aid conversation, NGOs are the only ones whose primary interest is (or should be) benefit to the poor on their own terms. For donors, whether governments, foundations, corporations, or individuals, helping the poor is a means to another end: advancing foreign policy, gaining market share, a tax write-off or accumulating treasure in Heaven. For NGOs, helping the poor is itself the end. We should be careful to not  understate our importance on this point.

Maybe we need to mean business about our core business. Maybe we need to get back to our roots of essentially telling donors what to care about and how to spend their money. We did it USAID and DFID and the EC and AusAID and the UN (and many others). Now we need to do it with the corporate sector.

6 Responses to “We Mean Business”

  1. Ian 4 November, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    Great post.

    In my own experience I’ve found colleagues having tendency either to think that the corporate sector is evil and against the very essence of development to them being the saviours and the wave of the future.

    I think its important to see them with a clear light. They have a potentially significant role both as donors, but also as social actors – but at the same time their social responsibility work is untimately driven by their own interests such as bottom line and brand building.

    Of course this is an opportunity for “principle-led” organizations (which I think goes beyond NGOs – but also excludes some of them) to work with corporates to help influence how they act and to identify the common ground betwen their objectives and ours (and to walk away or confront them when we can’t). Another key part of this is to influence the stakeholders in corporations such as their customers, shareholders and employees to help persuade them to align their social responsiblity activities with things that are – well – socially responsible.

  2. Alicia 10 November, 2009 at 8:01 am #

    While I agree with many points in this post, it paints a picture of for-profit companies/organizations as being evil. This is simply not true. Yes, many are selfish and only want to make money for themselves, but many donate the profit they make in order to make a positive difference.

    You also say that you’ve been able to tell the public donors how to donate their money – I’m sorry but this simply isn’t the case. Maybe you’ve been able to shape the projects themselves, but the donors only donate to countries where they have a strategic interest and they only want projects in the sectors they want (livelihoods, health, etc). Their profit isn’t money, it’s political power. And by taking their money, you’re helping to fulfill their goals, whether or not you’ve shaped/written a specific project.

    • J. 23 June, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

      You know, what? Actually, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong on both counts:

      First, I do not paint corporations as evil. I simply point out that their purpose, at the end of the day, is making money. They engage in corporate social responsibility to the extent that it helps, or at least does not erode, their bottom lines. That’s not a value judgment. Simply a statement of fact.

      Second, we (the Aid industry) have absolutely influenced the funding patterns and priorities of public donors. The very existence of USAID Child Survival is a concrete example. Can we make them non-political, non-partisan? Of course not. And… we’re back to the original point of the post…

  3. Stephanie White 23 June, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Is it possible for you to give some specific examples of how you work with corporations? How do they prefer to participate in development (both planning and implementation) and how do they make their goals known?

    My major focus in development is on the ag sector, and I can see how corporations want to participate there…and I have to tell you, I am not a fan. It appears to me that they use the language of mass starvation, climate change, population control, etc…for the purpose of plying their wares, and in order to extend the agri-business industrial model of farming. That corporations have such a narrow conception of what it takes to produce well-being (i.e. economic progress measured by the wholly insufficient GDP) is problematic, to put it mildly. I don’t see, really, how extending global corporate capitalism is really going to do much to alleviate poverty and suffering…..so that’s why I’m asking the questions in the first paragraph. Do you see corporate participation in other sectors similarly as you see it in the ag sector (realizing also that you might disagree with my characterization of corporate participation in the ag sector)

    • J. 23 June, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

      A few things that can be said, here:

      I am highly, highly skeptical of corporations and CSR. I’ll admit that bias openly (and it sounds as if we agree on this point). And in the case of agriculture specifically, there is very good reason to not be a fan. While on one hand it may feel intuitively as if anything to increase food productivity ought to be a “good thing”, on the other it seems very clear that agri-business corporations (Monsanto, et al) are about profit more than anything else. I do not see CSR as a necessarily a good thing.

      There is not a lot of precedent that I’m aware of in the industry for assertively engaging corporations around issues of strategy and programming models. And that’s the main point of this post – we need to engage them. As we did with governmental donors 15-20 years ago.

      As for whether other corporate sectors resemble the ag sector in how they engage globally… Ag lends itself to commercialization (and the abuses that almost invariably follow) better than many other sectors that the humanitarian industry might also engage in. Water & sanitation, for example, or reproductive health. And so on one hand the answer to your last question is a “no.” On the other hand, however, whether we’re talking about Ag or, say, pharmaceuticals (think Proctor & Gamble), it’s important to remember that – again – their purpose at the end of the day is to make a profit. They “help” to the extent that doing so is good for business, and so in this respect I’d see them all as basically similar.

  4. solemu 23 June, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    Great post! I’m fully with you. NGOs engagement and advocacy has to be the way for “donors education”. Corporations have an agenda, as all the other big donors (including individual philanthropists). It takes time, bunging our heads against walls, frustration. But isn’t it the same case for creating good practice & smart aid? I guess it’s hard work, the same as your awesome “campaign” against SWEDOW and BOGO🙂

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