Accommodating the corporate perspective

Delwin A Roy

In the past few years, it has become fashionable to try to interest corporations in cooperating with other sectors. To some extent, the corporate sector has come forward in trying to initiate joint efforts, but the main impetus has come largely from organizations such as the World Bank, major private foundations (mostly in the US), the NGO community, and private ‘brokering’ member organizations such as the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum (UK) and Business for Social Responsibility (US).

Corporate interest in partnering is more focused on the large private foundations, brokers and multilateral development funding organizations than it is on NGOs. For their part, the multilateral and independent funders are intent on having the corporations adopt partnerships that are consistent with their respective interpretations of appropriate community and national development priorities. Interestingly, what binds these two somewhat distinct emphases together is corporations’ sense that they don’t really know how to undertake effective community investment projects. Benefits to all will accrue if companies work with organizations that have significant long-term experience which they are willing to share with the corporate community.

One of the main potential benefits is the marshalling of far greater resources to treat deep-seated and pervasive problems such as education, substance abuse, child abuse and AIDS. Currently, these and other major problems are mostly dealt with in piecemeal fashion.

If partnering between the private and other sectors is to work, there are problems that have to be resolved:

  • Relying on partnerships based on corporations’ ‘lack of appropriate community investment knowledge and experience’ necessarily short-circuits the learning that the private sector needs in order to make it a more effective corporate citizen in all facets of the conduct of business.
  • A key concern of corporations is building their reputation through their CCI activities; name recognition is important. It is difficult for other funders to cater to this need. This might be overcome by building partnerships within the private sector, but community investment priorities seldom correspond across broad ranges of corporations.
  • It is by no means easy for corporations to buy into the existing agendas of other funders. Organizational cultures are vastly different. Corporations seek to invest in countries with large market opportunities, a well-trained workforce and a ‘hassle-free’ investment environment. Aid organizations and the large private foundations are interested in the ‘poorest of the poor’ population groups, communities and nations. Finding the middle ground here requires considerable ingenuity and innovation.
  • Companies tend to be ‘transaction’ orientated; other funders are more given to a partnering mentality. Negotiating effective collaborations necessarily depends on the articulation of new models of agreement and cooperation in the implementation of investment programmes and projects.

There can be no doubt that a greater degree of cooperation between the different sectors – private, independent, and public – is needed. Corporations may be overly prone to want to see (or, where their boards of directors are concerned, ‘have to’ see) what’s in it for them. Distasteful as this may be, accommodating the corporate perspective is nevertheless the most likely effective key to building new partnerships.

Delwin Roy is a consultant on strategies for global corporate community involvement. From 1985 until 1998 he was President and CEO, The Hitachi Foundation.

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