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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 1: The changing nature of business-ngo relations
close this folderConclusions: The Characteristics of Collaboration
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreconditions
View the documentInteractive Processes
View the documentOutcomes and Consequences


Researchers such as Donna Wood and Barbara Gray (1991) argue for a comprehensive theory of collaboration. However, it should be remembered that “partnerships are highly contextually specific... [and] must be developed within the political and organizational culture of specific localities” (Stewart and Snape, 1996:5). The more specific area of business-NGO partnerships for sustainable development embodies a wide range of industrial sectors, NGO types, geographical contexts, political cultures and organizational forms. Given this diversity, it seems unlikely that any one model of collaboration would be an adequate, let alone appropriate, analytical tool. Instead we offer some general characteristics of business-NGO collaboration, which, for the most part, appear to be shared by all three case studies. These characteristics are presented as preconditions for interactive processes and outcomes.


It is important to understand the factors that give rise to partnerships, namely the preconditions that motivate organizations to seek out partners or to accept offers to collaborate (Gray and Wood, 1991). These may include external and/or internal issues unique to one organization or shared by the partners. The specific origins of the formal partnerships and other collaborative forms of business-relations in each of the case studies are obviously unique. Below we offer a preliminary list of partnership preconditions that emerge from the case studies and other research. It is not exhaustive and should not be seen as a partnership formula. Relevant preconditions include the following:

· emergence of sustainable development as a new - albeit contested - global-local problem domain where both business and NGOs are relevant stakeholders;

· perceived and actual decline in the effectiveness of state regulation and global governance related to the enforcement of environmental and labour standards;

· acknowledgement on the part of NGOs of the increasing political and economic power of global corporations as agents of unsustainable development and as potentially positive agents of socio-economic and environmental change;

· proliferation of North-South “double standards” in corporate social and environmental policies and programmes;

· impact of different forms of sustained, often widespread NGO campaigning, including direct action, consumer awareness and information dissemination via new technologies, upon corporate reputation, market position and business responses to sustainable development;

· recognition by beleaguered companies of the growing power and legitimacy of NGOs as agents of social change and potential partners to help solve business problems;

· need for more inclusive and accountable models of society, governance, problem solving, standard setting, regulation, community development, etc.;

Interactive Processes

Another aspect of understanding the business-NGO partnership phenomenon is to consider the various interactive processes that take place as part of the development and implementation of such initiatives in different contexts. These may include interactions within the organizational boundaries of the partnership concerned, as well as external influences. The following list is not a definitive checklist for the business-NGO partnership process, but rather initial perceptions based upon the case studies and other relevant material.

Interactive processes include the following:

· capacity and willingness of partners to cope with the diverse perspectives and paradoxical goals from the outset and throughout the process;

· commitment of partners to principles of shared responsibility, mutual symbiosis and joint ownership;

· articulation of honest and realistic expectations by partners;

· development of a flexible structure consistent with the purpose and functioning of the partnership;

· organizational commitment of business partner(s) to change unsustainable practices through specific policies, concrete actions and ongoing support for the partnership;

· ability of NGO partner to maintain organizational independence and integrity;

· ongoing pressure from other NGOs and activists related to the problem domain;

· capability of business and NGO partner(s) to respond appropriately to such ongoing pressure;

· capacity to broaden partnership scope and participation in some cases to include relevant UN and governmental agencies (e.g., Pakistan);

· ongoing tensions between businesses and NGOs about the potentials and limits of partnership in different geographical, political, social and cultural contexts.

Outcomes and Consequences

A third general way of understanding business-NGO partnership is to consider their outcomes and consequences. Gray and Wood suggest that partnership outcomes can be identified by considering “whether problems were solved... whose problems were solved... whether shared norms were achieved” and whether the partnership survived (1991:18). Another way of reviewing partnerships would be to consider some of the wider implications of closer and more collaborative business-NGO relationships. Given that most of the examples cited are still evolving and the newness of this specific area of study, the following list of partnership outcomes offers a tentative picture of an emerging phenomenon:

· partnering NGOs are gaining greater credibility as important resources for both business and society;

· some partnering businesses are being recognized for their more proactive approaches to social and environmental matters;

· other NGO and consumer pressure on partnering businesses and/or industry sectors does not necessarily end and is often maintained;

· shared norms are emerging around the general idea of sustainable development although it remains a contested and controversial problem domain;

· many specific problem areas addressed by business-NGO partnerships remain complex and multi-faceted, and therefore require ongoing dialogue and negotiation in order to identify medium- and long-term solutions.

Seen from a wider perspective, business-NGO partnerships constitute part of a changing global political and economic context which is giving rise to new models of corporate accountability and stakeholder engagement. This context is characterized by a number of international developments including the globalization of business, trade and finance; advances in communications technologies; and a growth in the number of NGOs and the scope of their activities. Many would argue that this context also includes unacceptable yet deepening levels of environmental degradation and human poverty. The perceived and actual decline in the role of the state in the face of globalization raises additional concerns about governance and regulatory gaps nationally and globally. We should remember that stories of NGO-driven corporate environmentalism are fresh straws of hope in a rotten haystack of unaccountable and irresponsible global capitalism. The unsustainable reality for billions of people on Earth today nonetheless compels us to grasp at these straws, as potential catalysts for more sustainable and equitable world futures. This is our reason for venturing a new theory of corporate environmentalism based upon civil regulation.