10 Tips for Creating Successful NGO-Brand Partnerships

Choosing the right NGO partner can be a little like speed dating.

When it comes to shifting your business to a brighter, better future, placard-waving eco-activists may not be the first to pop to mind as a suitable partner. But many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are well-positioned to help leading brands develop innovative solutions that deliver a competitive edge. Of course, as with any business partnership or personal relationship, take time to assess your options before getting involved with an NGO. As they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea — you just need to catch the right one.

Why “go steady” with an NGO?

Climate change, environmental destruction, endangered species, toxins and pollution are not new issues, but more than ever they are part of boardroom conversations and customer considerations. Navigating day-to-day business challenges can be difficult enough, so when crossing an intersection of environmental change, calling on NGO experts who understand your industry and the complexities of the issue can position your company ahead of the curve.

With any successful relationship, brands that have strong partnerships with NGOs realize many benefits. The right NGO-brand affiliation improves the company’s social license and reputational capital and protects the brand against risk and potential backlash. Having an NGO as a resource expands the brand’s in-house capacity with experts who know what is cutting-edge vs. keeping pace and who can help launch initiatives or accelerate projects beyond the competition. NGOs also come with established networks and a track record that can help extend a company’s impact and reach dramatically.

These 10 tips will help your brand to create effective NGO partnerships to advance sustainability, accelerate innovation and increase overall impact.

Choose right: Rather than choosing the best-known NGO, determine which organization is most aligned with your brand and customer base. Seek NGOs with a long-term vision that can bring expertise to assist your company in creatively confronting environmental problems.

Include leadership: Involving CEOs and senior executives on both sides is integral to creating a lasting partnership. Engaging NGOs at a strategic level, rather than just tactical, can help build a legacy that continues long into the future.

Get aligned: Clarify each other’s roles and responsibilities and understand what you both need from the partnership. Establish communications processes and protocols so you can achieve mutually agreed-upon objectives, deliver each others’ value propositions and proactively troubleshoot.

Think long-term: Rather than looking at one-off projects, think about longer-term, industry-changing strategies. Working together to solve problems and broker agreements that would otherwise not be possible provides a return on investment that will exceed your expectations and extend well beyond those involved directly in the partnership. Likewise, explore all the ways that you can work together — NGOs often conduct market research to screen the greenest, industry-leading suppliers: important data to help brands achieve sustainability goals.

Think big: Many brands that have collaborated with NGOs have achieved notable industry firsts. If your organizations are aligned toward a big, bold purpose, how far can you go working together? Here are four world-changing examples worth a read.

Be generous: Open your address books to each other. The more successful each organization is on its own, the more successful your partnership will be. NGOs can act as a speed dater to appropriate suppliers, providing intelligence on which to avoid and issues to engage them on for improved performance. Likewise you can help an NGO to access decision makers in other companies and/or sectors – which sustains all of your efforts.

Be open to new: Ever heard the adage, “Brands are from Mars, NGOs are from Venus”? NGOs and brands may sometimes speak with different accents, but make no mistake that at its core it is the same language. NGOs may challenge your company to look at issues through a different lens or redefine the role you play within your sector. Stay open. NGOs can advise companies to avoid initiatives that verge on green washing or conversely, how to capitalize on those that are industry-leading.

Amplify each other: Work with the NGO and its promotional channels to share your successes, highlight major milestones or even enroll other companies to participate. As appropriate, lend your communications vehicles to advance your NGO partner’s message. Spread the word about how you are changing the game and making the world a better place — those are stories worth spreading!

You gotta trust: Like any relationship, the partnership is only successful if you trust your NGO partner and they know that they can trust you. That doesn’t mean that you have to think the same way or pursue exactly the same course of action. It does mean that you respect each other’s perspectives, communicate proactively about challenges and act in a manner consistent with shared goal(s).

Play to your strengths: NGOs and business play distinct roles in our society and each entity has access and influence in different conversations. A successful partnership leverages this in a coordinated way and recognizes that outcomes can be even more impactful.

In my experience over the last 14 years leading an NGO dedicated to forest conservation, some of the most powerful advocates for environmental change have been business executives and leaders within institutions that have significant purchasing influence. I’ve seen the impact of NGO-brand partnerships first hand in driving innovation through a company’s supply chain, as well as securing conservation beyond any individual NGO or brand’s reach or scope — a true testimony that the sum of the collective can be greater than its individual parts.

Partnering with the right NGO is not about adding a little “green cover”; it can change existing paradigms and help realize eco-solutions that dramatically change the status quo.

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