Civil Society and Business Leaders: Forging a Needed Partnership

by Kehinde Togun   September 9, 2016

Business leaders and leaders of civil society organizations (CSOs) generally speak different languages and often find it difficult to connect. This is despite the fact that both sides realize the other’s value— companies need the skills and knowledge that CSOs offer while civil society wants to operate with more business acumen and wants to offer its services to the private sector.

With this dynamic, PartnersGlobal is always keen to convene leaders from these two sectors. In June, with funding from the Ford Foundation, we held two training sessions for civil society in Nigeria and Senegal to learn how to diversify their sources of funding—a key component of this was having discussions between business leaders and CSO representatives on how the two sectors can benefit from each other.

In the lead up to the event, our West Africa affiliates, Partners West Africa — Senegal and Partners West Africa — Nigeria explored the opportunities and challenges of social entrepreneurship in both countries and then conducted a survey of 45 civil society organizations who could benefit from a training on diversifying funding streams. Based on these two preparatory activities we had a pretty good sense of whom to invite as well as the content that would be most relevant. In both countries the program entailed: a business panel, CSOs sharing their own experiences of sourcing fee for services, pitch simulations to various private enterprises, and then a presentation that provided concrete advice on diversifying income sources.

The private sector representatives—including Eiffage and Ciments du Sahel in Senegal—shared their insights with CSOs on what they were actually looking for when contracting for services. Some of the themes included the need for civil society to be polished in their pitches to prospective clients, being clear about their niche and skills, and demonstrating their potential impact. The private sector folks were eager to engage with civil society organizations to understand their perspectives and explore opportunities to cooperate beyond traditional corporate social responsibility. They valued the great insights and local connections that CSOs had, and they were looking for CSO leaders’ support in engaging with key stakeholders. For the business leaders who were present, CSOs provided a unique voice to understanding the environment in which their businesses operate.

The CSOs for their part, discussed their challenges from previous experiences trying to engage the private sector. The common ones were: the inability of their staff to manage donor projects while also trying to expand into selling their services for additional revenue; not knowing where and how to begin the process of pitching companies; not knowing how to price their services; and being unsure of the legal landscape for generating profit.

At the conclusion of both sessions, we provided resources for CSO participants on how to prepare for soliciting fees for services and we invited them to complete an organizational readiness assessment. We are now providing tailored assistance to them as they create plans for their organization’s income diversification. The most active CSOs and the ones that successfully create fee-for-service plans will be invited to a networking event with the private sector towards the end of the year. All of them are also being added to an online community in each country where we will share resources with them as well as create a platform for ongoing dialogue and discussion.

As we continue collaborating with both sectors, we are conscious that for civil society groups to succeed, they cannot rely solely on donor funds. They need to understand “corporate speak” and adapt to the needs of the private sector. We are excited that the private sector realizes the value of the nonprofit sector and we will continue to bridge the gap between these two sectors.