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NEWS FOCUS: Dealing with NGOs

NEWS FOCUS: Dealing with NGOs

A detailed look at the pros and cons of working with non-government organisations

Thanks to Microsoft and it's involvement with NGOs, Bail's seaweed farmers effectively target their product. Photo: Jean-Marie Hullot

Thanks to Microsoft and it's involvement with NGOs, Bail's seaweed farmers effectively target their product. Photo: Jean-Marie Hullot

In the first part of this news feature, ARN investigated why corporate citizenship is considered a smart investment rather than just philanthropy. In part two we look at the pros and cons of working with non-government orGAnisations (NGOs).

For a group of seaweed farmers in Bali, a new technology centre has had a significant impact on their lives.

For the first time, those farmers have been able to access the Internet and learn basic skills for programs such as Word and Excel. Through those newfound skills, the farmers discovered that they were losing money to the seaweed sellers, who were making up stories about the price of seaweed fluctuating up and down.

Thanks to the Internet, the Bali seaweed farmers discovered that the bulk of their produce was heading to Japan, where prices were actually pretty stable.

The technology has also enabled those farmers to more effectively grow the seaweed, and grow more than one type – broadening the time of year they have seaweed to harvest.

This technology was provided through a Microsoft grant and NGO involvement. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, Microsoft provides grants and effectively engages with NGOs in more than 15 countries.

As we covered in the last issue of ARN, behaving as a good corporate citizen has become an important part of business.

Turning the citizenship message into a business practice requires organisations to look beyond mere philanthropy, and make genuine investments into building a practice that benefits the business and the people receiving aid equally.

Those investments will typically result in some level of engagement with NGOs. As organisations with unique capabilities in the hard-hit regions around the world, NGOs have an understanding of an environment that a commercial organisation can partner with to maximise the impact it can have on the market.

The NGO can also be a corporate enemy if not handled properly. For example, while it can be argued that it is difficult to effectively engage with Greenpeace at all, many IT organisations have felt that NGO’s wrath. In 2009, HP had “Hazardous Products” painted on its Palo Alto headquarters’ roof in protest against a delay in HP’s commitment to eliminate certain materials from its computing products.

Consumer electronics vendor, Nintendo, has also regularly run into problems with Greenpeace for refusing to provide the NGO with information on the environmental impact of its processes.

Not all NGO’s are as militant as Greenpeace, however, and it’s a vital point that Gartner raised in its NGO Influence Spawns Real Corporate Risk, but Opportunities, Too report, published on October 15, 2010. It’s important to select the right NGOs to engage with.

Done right, a partnership with an NGO can provide everything from expertise and experience when dealing with certain environmental risks (such as avoiding corruption or unethical business partners in developing markets) to acting as an early warning systems for supply chains with problems.

In this way, an NGO can act as a very effective business partner. But at the same time these organisations, not commercial in nature, are driven by a different set of priorities to the typical commercial organisation that can make finding a common ground difficult for the more traditional businesses out there.

What NGOs want

The Accentures and IBMs of the world engage with NGOs by providing people skills, but other forms of donation can be just as effective, provided the donation is more than a chequebook branding exercise.

“Even if you have the smallest NGO, there is a basic level of technology that you should have that allows you to function,” Microsoft manager of community affairs and citizenship, Asia, Clair Deevy, said.

Microsoft, in response, has a technology donation program across the world for its software to help support NGOs. It provides grants to run training in community centres to give people access to technologies and understanding on how to use it, and allows employees to donate three days of volunteering per year.

According to Deevy, the Microsoft strategy is to engage with both NGOs and Government on philanthropic projects. This is an effective way of getting the technology into territories Microsoft might have otherwise had a minimal presence in and, in turn, build the vendor’s brand and presence in those markets.

“We’re really looking at creating multi-tiered partnerships. I think there is such strength in these markets – we’re doing this in Malaysia and China, for instance, where you have a business and a NGO and a Government agency because it spreads the benefits as well as the risks of what you’re doing,” she said.

“Often by having those different partners then you come up with a brand new project. You help the Government get to where it needs to go in a compliant way and it is these partnerships where we’re seeing the most interest.

“The aim of this company is to get a computer on every desktop. There’s another five billion people that don’t have the access to technology. Now the times may be changing and that technology may no longer be a computer on your desktop, it could be a mobile phone. But by working in countries to increase access to technology and increase an interest in technology and showing the value of what we produce, over the long term we believe that will have business benefits.”

This philosophy fits with the goals of a typical NGO. In basic terms an NGO is moved by the pursuit of a greater good. Whether this is through improving the quality of the environment, or the working and living conditions of people in disadvantaged cultures, an NGO is not a commercial entity, but it usually sees the value in forging alliances with companies.

“NGO’s recognise they’ll get better results working cooperatively with business to solve complex problems,” the Gartner NGO Influence Spawns Real Corporate Risk, But Opportunities, Too report states.

When it comes to dealing with NGOs, Gartner divides them into four distinct categories (with examples from environmental groups, but equally applicable to other areas of philanthropy).

Idealists are driven by collaboration and image. They are campaigners, lobbyists and position advocates willing to work closely with organisations to achieve end goals. They include the WWF, Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

Thinkers are also collaborators, but driven by the written word. These NGOs focus on analysis, policy and research, and have limited fund-rasing activities. This category includes NGOs such as World Resources Institute, Environmental Law Institute and ACEEE/ ACORE.

Activists are driven by image and brand, but unlike idealists, are more confrontational in approach. Greenpeace is the most well-known example, but Human Rights Watch is a good example of a non-environmental group in this category.

Finally, Watchdogs are the NGOs that focus on the written word, but are also confrontational in approach. Earthwatch Institute and National Parks Conservation Association are two examples of this type of NGO.

The different categories all have their own unique quirks when engaging with them as a commercial organisation although Gartner provides advice on keeping Activists and Watchdogs at bay while recommending working with idealists and thinkers.

There are so many NGO’s out there that selecting the right ones to engage with can be a challenge in itself. For a local example, Dimension Data has forged a close (and successful) bond with the Starlight Foundation (see case study), but Accenture director of corporate citizenship, Jill Huntley, perhaps sums it up best.

“What we look for are partners who share our goals and skills to success and have a kind of shared vision and enthusiasm for the value of business and non-profits working together,” she said.

“We aim to interact with them in exactly the same way we would with our commercial clients, with the same level of quality of interaction and discipline with the services that we bring to them.

“And we look to find ways to compliment each other. For example, a NGO might be experts in helping to equip people with the skills to find a job or build a business and we can collaborate with them on that and bring various business skills and capabilities to combine with that expertise and have a much greater impact than either of us can have on our own.”

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Tags ExcelGartneraccenturemicrosoft wordGreenpeacenon-government organisationsACEEE/ ACORE. managementEnvironmental Law InstituteWorld Resources Institute

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