Businesses can improve their social and environmental performance and find new market opportunities through partnerships with nonprofit groups, or NGOs. The knowledge, expertise and capabilities of NGOs and corporations are distinct and may be complementary; together, NGOs and companies can often accomplish more than they could alone. But misunderstandings and other obstacles can prevent partnerships from reaching their potential.
Swiss Re and Oxfam: Achieving Results
Swiss Re, a leading global insurance company, was approached in 2007 by international development NGO Oxfam. Oxfam wanted Ethiopian farmers to have insurance against risks to their crops from climate change; no such insurance product was currently available and Swiss Re had the expertise necessary to develop it. Swiss Re, too, saw potential benefits in the collaboration. Swiss Re’s experience was primarily in wealthy countries, but it was interested in expanding its market to developing countries and had a strong organizational commitment to addressing climate change. Swiss Re valued Oxfam’s long-time presence in Ethiopia and its deep understanding of the country’s environment and culture.
In both organizations, the partnership had to overcome internal resistance. The project was novel and working with an organization from a different sector was unusual. At Oxfam, the project leader recalled, “Several influential and powerful colleagues speculated with open hostility about what Swiss Re’s real motives must be." Strong leadership allowed the project to go forward. At Oxfam, the project champion was respected by other employees and the project had backing from executive leadership. At Swiss Re, the project had strong champions who involved business as well philanthropic units, linking the project clearly to business strategy.
The two organizations began by working on a pilot project in one village in Ethiopia. They gradually developed confidence in each other and their approach to the issue, and continually explored ways that the collaboration could best suit the two organizations’ needs. A 2010 discussion between Oxfam and Swiss Re leaders on how the project connected to food security, another priority issue for Swiss Re, was “the moment that the light went on” and opportunities for expansion became clear. Five years after beginning their collaboration, Swiss Re and Oxfam are currently working together on projects in Ethiopia and three other countries in West Africa.
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