Even as the revolutionary tide sweeps North Africa and the Middle East – and potentially further afield – there is a quiet revolution going on around the world. Civil society, including many forms of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are tackling an ever-expanding portfolio of issues from the aftermath of revolution to natural disasters such as earthquakes in Haiti and most recently New Zealand to poverty and social exclusion, within and across borders. Sheer numbers, increasing funding (from both government and private sources) and multiple channels to make issues transparent to a global audience, mean NGOs have more power than ever before. They are serious business – potentially contributing the equivalent of 5% of global GDP, about the same as France. Yet it is a sector that is often completely overlooked in economic debates which is a mistake. Through sheer need – of the people it serves and because of limited funds – civil society is creating some of the most innovative approaches to business, society and organization today.
It’s a sector I am excited about, not just because we published a report on NGOs today (so yes, it is top of mind), but because exciting new forms of partnership between NGOs, businesses and governments could really deliver on the aspiration of realizing mutual benefit for society and business, at the same time. Don’t forget, it feels good to help others according to science, so there are many innovative ways that NGOs/civil society are making a difference. For example, buy one, donate one: There were times where donations went into a collection box. Today there are multiple ways to help make a difference at the community level. It’s simple: You buy a product and give a product away to a less fortunate person for free, without the hassle of having to manage the giving personally. Pioneering Toms Shoes and OLPC have inspired worldwide projects like BoGolight, One World Futbol Project, Baby Teresa, and Blanket America. For example: The small town of Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire, U.K., is home to the Wasteless Society. By acting together they learned they could make a positive difference: Collecting and feeding a neighboring farmer’s anaerobic digester with waste helped them not only recycle but also to produce clean energy. It’s not an NGO as such, but operates on similar principles, i.e. mutual benefit to society and the community involved. For example: Catchafire is matching nonprofit projects with professionals who can help, often with tasks like marketing, PR, design, social media, strategy and finance. At the global level, the leading NGOs are having a positive impact on issues such as the environment (e.g. WWF), treating the injured and sick from conflicts and natural disasters (e.g. Médecins Sans Frontières), and disease and education (e.g. The Gates Foundation).
NGOs, with the aid of technology and a mindset of co-operation – versus the adversarial stance of even a decade ago – are starting to make a huge difference to how we think and operate as people and as businesses. It’s a growing phenomenon. Consider: Domestic NGOs number in the millions, with a 2010 estimate based on UN data suggesting there are around 40,000 international NGOs. A study by Johns Hopkins University across 40 countries suggests nonprofit organizations are staffed by the equivalent of 48.4 million full-time equivalent workers, and make an estimated US$ 1.9 trillion output contribution to the global economy, or around 5% of the world’s GDP — about the same as France. That’s a lot of people and a lot of output.
Businesses are increasingly (but often too slowly) embracing the rising consciousness and desire among consumers, as well as other stakeholders such as NGOs and governments, to do good (or be seen to do so) in a world recovering from recession and facing pressing global challenges. There are significant opportunities to innovate, to realize benefit for business and society at the same time, and to make a real difference to how the future evolves. Some companies have been working on it for a long time: McDonald’s has had an ongoing partnership with Conservation International for almost 20 years, trying to find new ways to tie together on-the-ground conservation efforts with an educational outreach campaign geared towards teaching kids about the importance of protecting threatened species. Others are actively involving their staff, because their employees are people who care about the future of the societies in which they and their families live: Deloitte donated the time of more than 33,600 of its employees, or 75% of its U.S.-based workforce, for its day of service last year. More than 150,000 IBM employees have contributed over than 10 million hours of service in more than 70 countries in the past five years. But there is no prescription for how businesses should partner with NGOs and society. The key is to understand where a business can make the most difference.
It’s a good time to review the smart partnering principles we set out in our article last year on Making the Most of Corporate Social Responsibility:
1. Concentrate your efforts. Management time and resources are limited, so the greatest opportunities will come from areas where the business significantly interacts with, and thus, can have the greatest impact on, society. These areas are where the business can not only gain a deeper understanding of the mutual dependencies but also in which the highest potential for mutual benefit exists.
2. Build a deep understanding of the benefits. Even after selecting your chosen areas of opportunity, finding the potential for mutual value creation is not always straightforward. The key is finding symmetry between the two sides and being open enough to understand issues both from a business and a societal perspective.
3. Find the right partners. These will be those that benefit from your core business activities and capabilities—and that you can benefit from in turn. Partnering is tough, but when both sides see win-win potential there is greater motivation to realize the substantial benefits. Relationships—particularly long-term ones, that are built on a realistic understanding of the true strengths on both sides—have a greater opportunity of being successful and sustainable.
NGOs and civil society have the ability to make a tremendous difference to our collective future. Whether businesses (and governments) choose to engage in the effort or not, the NGOs will have an impact – it will just be faster and more productive if the trend towards co-operation continues. So, who are you going to partner with?