Business/NGO partnerships: Six key lessons from Oxfam America

Chris Jochnick
I put five questions to Chris Jochnick, director, private sector department at Oxfam America. Here’s what he had to say in response.

1) What are you guys, corporate campaigner or collaborator/partner? Do some folks get confused?

Oxfam straddles the divide between campaigner and collaborator, and yes – this can be confusing. But we consider it to be the most effective way to engage with the private sector.

Companies will often pose major threats to the communities we support and need public shaming or pressure; but companies are also part of the solution, and we have to be able to work with them too. The trick is figuring out which approach makes sense under what circumstances.

We are pragmatic about that. We don’t have any permanent friends or enemies – just conflicting or aligning interests.

We have campaigned against partners (Unilever and Coca Cola for example in our current Behind the Brands campaign) and have collaborated with prior targets. We are very open about this, and take pains to maintain good relations with a company’s leaders, even in the midst of campaigning.

2) What are the key lessons you've learned about working with and engaging with, the private sector?

In no particular order:

1. Gaps in culture and trust between NGOs and companies are profound and many potential easy wins fail on a simple inability to communicate

2. Companies are not monolithic – they are run by personalities, with discoverable interests – key to influencing them, is the ability to understand and shift incentives

3. Even at the height of campaigning, there is little gained and much risked from gratuitous offense (e.g. personal attacks), and little risked and much gained through personal relations (information, influence etc)

4. Playing an honest insider/outsider (campaign/collaborator) role is tough to hold and requires strong institutional buy-in. The ease and temptation of more purist approaches – anti-corporate or non-discriminating partner -- are strong.

5. Not enough is asked of influential companies/investors – there is much they could (and would) do with a little more nudging/vision.

6. Multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships between companies and advocacy-minded NGOs will often fail because companies do not feel enough pressure to change. Advocates should be wary of entering into such collaborations.

3) What about corporate funding? How does Oxfam deal with that?

Oxfam will take corporate funding selectively, but we have fairly rigorous screens in place around issues like reputation and independence.

As a general rule, we won’t take gifts from companies (even those with spotless records) in any industry that is subject to active Oxfam campaigning, companies with a business model that hurts the poor (e.g. tobacco, weapons) and companies with problematic reputations (e.g. those subject to high profile campaigns).

The temptation to bend these rules is always there, but Oxfam ties to grassroots groups, prioritization of advocacy, and appreciation of the value of our reputation keeps us honest. Corporate funding has never represented a significant part of our budget.

4) Are NGOs such as Oxfam “accountable” enough?

It depends on who’s asking and why. It can be a pretext to attack NGOs -- many repressive governments are closing down civil society space with unfounded accusations against NGOs. Companies can stir that pot making it tougher for NGOs.

At the same time, NGOs are influential and owe accountability to communities they affect, as well as donors and other actors. Much of that accountability already exists but there are gaps and the field needs to get tighter in general – at least in part to make it more difficult for the bad-faithed skeptics to impugn and undermine the field.

5) You like the idea of a business and human rights fund, but think it may need to go further on the NGO side, how?

I come at this problem from an activist perspective. Companies have good reason to fund and seek partnerships with credible NGOs. The challenge is on the demand side, i.e. how can these available corporate funds be shielded sufficiently to make them attractive to “watchdogs”. There are ways a fund could be structured and managed to ensure its independence. I explored some of that here.

Readers may also be interested in this piece: Business and Human Rights - Time for a Global Fund 

And here's a good short book you should read on the topic.
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