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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

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

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
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
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

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.