Cocreating Business's New Social Compact

For successful collaboration between NGOs and corporations, flexibility, transparency, and trust must be employed to satisfy local needs

The Idea in Brief

Executives and social activists working together? It's true: after decades of mutual distrust, corporations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are collaborating to combat poverty around the world. Their weapon? Innovative local businesses such as self-help savings and loan groups and construction enterprises.

Why this move from adversaries to partners? Corporations and NGOs realize they need each other to achieve their respective goals in developing countries: Companies require NGOs' local knowledge and community-based marketing techniques to set up successful enterprises. NGOs need the business discipline corporations bring to their operations.

Collaboration can enhance a company's reputation and open doors to new markets—while accelerating poverty's eradication. But to win these gains, Brugmann and Prahalad say, managers from both sides must understand the risks in working together. When managers address these challenges by applying potent principles, they create far greater value—for all players—than their individual efforts could produce.

The Idea in Practice

How can corporations and NGOs partner successfully? Consider these principles, illustrated by energy company BP's development of a fuel-efficient stove for poor consumers in rural India.

Satisfy Local Needs

Working with the Indian Institute of Science, BP developed a portable stove that could use liquefied petroleum gas or biomass as fuel. Consumers could thus switch fuels based on their income, fuel availability, and cooking styles. And by burning biomass efficiently, the stove would eliminate the smoke that causes respiratory illnesses in India.

Build Trust

BP conducted market research with three Indian NGOs interested in distributing the stoves. Together the groups then defined a shared strategic intent and a set of working principles. They built trust through relationships established between key individuals. Trust deepened when BP made a long-term contractual commitment to the project, and when the groups jointly evaluated the stove's design as well as returns and risks for everyone involved.

Be Flexible

The NGOs wanted to protect their credibility and goodwill with villagers, so BP had to make some accommodations. For instance, it agreed that the women the NGOs recruited as local sales agents would be the first to receive cash generated by the business. That way, villagers could recover their working capital investment.

The NGOs also proved flexible. For example, BP wouldn't compromise on safety standards for the stoves or violate its own standards of business ethics. So NGOs agreed to follow BP's health and safety policies, such as requiring that employees use seat belts while driving around.

Be Transparent

BP and the NGOs shared their internal economics with each other so they could understand the choices each faced in terms of distribution costs, consumer service options, growth rates, and breakeven points. During this process, BP revealed business data it would not normally share with distributors. The transparency further built trust between the two sides. For example, the NGOs agreed to assume a great deal of the credit risks and legal liabilities for sales and distribution agents in the villages. They would not have done so unless they felt confident in BP's integrity.

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