CSR Needs Empathy for Successful Partnerships

For years corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives have been applauded, criticized, and debated. Between headlines like “When Corporations Fail at Doing Good” and “Is Responsible Capitalism a Farce?”, one insight has become abundantly clear: CSR initiatives are often a necessary part of business, but those with the potential to make a difference are easier discussed than delivered.

This is especially true for companies supporting social services in complex environments that are new to them. On the one hand, companies have a great deal to offer the social sector: financial resources, human resources, managerial experience, technical expertise. And, for most companies, there is little choice—consumersemployeesinvestors, and even governments are all demanding CSR initiatives.

But when companies enter the social sector, there are many challenges to overcome. Many companies are most interested in numbers and marketing, showing little effort to discover added value—social or environmental benefits—beyond profits. Even when companies have genuine intentions, they may invest millions of dollars in CSR initiatives but take on a role that may not be appropriate for the project’s local context. Many companies are simply unaccustomed to contributing to and measuring the success of social service projects.

The reality is that the social sector is not a private company playing field.

The reality is that the social sector is not a private company playing field. In the design of an effective CSR program, the donor and implementer need to identify an appropriate way to apply corporate skills to on-the-ground realities. This is especially true of companies whose products and expertise, if properly channeled through a CSR initiative, can make discernable improvements to public health in some of the poorest communities.

So what makes some initiatives more effective than others, and what factors should be considered in the design of CSR programs?

Corporate-NGO partnerships allow donors and implementers to fill knowledge, access, or expertise gaps; be it knowledge of local landscapes, access to funds, or relationships with local institutions. But the unique skill sets and mandates of NGOs and corporations are married to the organizational structures those skills have demanded. With such different backgrounds and expertise, companies and NGOs face the daunting task of understanding each other’s widely different operating contexts and program expectations, and learning how to make them function together.

NGOs and companies are in need of work practices and mechanisms that facilitate deeper understanding of each other’s needs and the needs of those served. Empathy can help ground these practices—and related interactions—in a more nuanced understanding of the perspectives, contexts, constraints, and histories that inform each side’s organizational structures, operations, and communications.

The process of integrating empathy into projects can be described as operationalizing empathy. Operationalizing empathy in partnerships between NGOs and corporations has the potential to ensure effective application of company resources in social service projects.

To operationalize empathy effectively, NGOs and companies would do well to remember that partnerships do not exist in a vacuum. Corporate donors should be aware that they are likely one of multiple public and private donors that an NGO is working with simultaneously and learn to tailor demands to the NGO’s available resources. Microsoft, for example, fully expects to be one of many donors on a given project, deliberately ensuring the NGO takes the lead in drawing support from other funders. Similarly, implementing NGOs need to be aware that many CSR projects hold a secondary citizen status within companies; those in charge are often forced to defend the value of a given initiative—far from an easy task in the business world.


Partners solely considering their own perspective run the risk of limiting partnership success by overlooking the expertise and constraints of each other and related actors.


Partners operationalizing empathy gain direct knowledge of each other, beneficiaries, corporate stakeholders, and implementing partners, resulting in a productive and successful partnership.


Marks & Spencer and Oxfam have achieved a partnership that is often upheld as an example of collaboration based on knowledge sharing and mutual, defined goals in their clothes recycling campaigns. The partnership is well-aligned with Marks & Spencer’s business objectives and supported by strong communications campaigns. But mission-aligned pairings like this are still exceptions.

Those working in the space of corporate-NGO partnerships recognize a need to deepen understanding between partners. Groups like the mHealth Alliance have found success fostering understanding among organizations from private, public, and NGO spaces. Through working groups, summits, and knowledge sharing, organizations can identify areas where their perspectives align—a base of collaborative action. CiYuan Corporate-NGO Partnership Development also facilitates cross-sector collaboration through roundtables and consultancy services to enhance philanthropic endeavors in China.

These are strong starts, but in order to ensure successful partnerships we need to go one step further. We need to explore the context and motivations behind NGO and corporate behaviors and identify where these motivations align.

Achieving collaborative outcomes remains difficult, because what you see depends on your vantage point. And few vantage points are as far apart as those of a massive conglomerate and a 10-person NGO. But by beginning to understand and contextualize each side, we can begin to make funder and implementer vantage points mutually accessible to build foundations for long-term, effective partnerships.

Futher reading.