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Noah Marwil Headshot

Joint Ventures for Good

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There is a new type of international development effort that is changing everything we think about Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). It does not take the form of the large rigid contractor with seemingly limitless funding, but whose work is restricted by donor regulation and government bureaucracy. Nor is it the small non-profit driven by passion and purpose, but possessing few of the organizational skills to grow beyond its current capacity. It is the new breed of a friendly NGO whose non-competitive spirit to end poverty is complemented by its technical knowhow and business acumen.

These ventures pride themselves on the fact that, although they are not a corporation, it would not be so bad to act like one. To them, sound management, clever marketing, strong branding and clear vision are not a luxury reserved solely for Fortune 500s. They are innovative, responsive, flexible and hungry to gain a foothold in the domestic and international policy arenas, hoping to prove that their models are effective and their results tangible.

However, though they may strive for a corporate structure, they slink away from market domination. Whereas Apple's goal, for example, is to sell iPhones, not just cell phones, their goal is to eradicate poverty, no matter who does it, no matter how it gets done. There is no market share, only market outcome. They are willing to share responsibility in a space where individual success is overshadowed by overall impact. However, though they may mark the new epitome of organizational collaboration by sharing donor bases and lauding each other's victories, there is still more they can do to maximize the positive effects of their work on the ground.

Many international development efforts tend to approach developing world issues using a two-dimensional methodology that isolates individual sectors; an education organization builds schools, a water organization digs wells, and a malaria organization hands out bed nets. All are noble efforts and highly effective in their own right. But how do these isolated approaches work in a place like Burkina Faso, where water is scarce, incidence of malaria is high and less than 30% of the population is literate? Building a school doesn't improve education if malarial infection keeps students home in bed. Bed nets don't improve health if water borne disease or dehydration causes illness through drinking water, or lack thereof. And clean accessible water doesn't promote development if there is no school in which to educate young children. It is time for the new NGO to once again borrow from their friends in the corporate sector and begin to forge joint ventures... for good.

One off partnerships have been used by for-profit firms as a technique to complete strategies, provide services or products and create a myriad of opportunities that would not be possible alone. I'd like to highlight three examples of such successful corporate joint ventures, what strategy they used to create a competitive advantage and how, in my view, similar techniques can be used to strengthen the work of development organizations worldwide.

In 1992, the two auto giants, Ford and Mazda, teamed up to create AutoAlliance International, a shared manufacturing plant producing the Mazda 6 and Ford Mustang. Through shared space and accompanying tax breaks enjoyed by the site, both companies were able to decrease costs of overall production and raise profits.

Similarly, sharing offices, transportation, technology services and even financial and administrative staff will help development organizations to cut down on overhead and create a greater economy of scale. In the NGO world, this is particularly important, where most organizations are held to the unrealistic and often oppressive expectation of keeping overhead costs below 20% of annual revenue.

In 2005, Big Pharma firms, Novartis and Procter & Gamble, formed a joint venture to share research, development and market information to promote, sell and further develop Enablex®, a medication used to treat an overactive bladder. They were able to double the amount of consumer and medical data used to drive the development of their product as to conform to the wants and needs of their user.

When NGOs work at the community level, gathering information is crucial. Contextually significant data used to flesh out approaches and implementation techniques can take months, sometime years to acquire and is often times a costly process. Working together, NGOs can share best practices and lessons learned and, together, develop programming that corresponds to the local context in much more timely and economical fashion.

On the back end, working together can lighten the burden of Monitoring and Evaluation. Quantifying and qualifying results is becoming increasingly more important and failure to do so has often led to the downfall of organizations who may be doing good work but have no way of demonstrating their impact. By combining efforts, multiple development organizations would have the ability to collect various data points, pool information, share experiences and assist each other in the collection of this intelligence.

Finally, in 2001, Sony and Ericsson joined forces to strengthen their mobile telecommunication products and maximize sales. The latter with a wealth of experience in communications systems and the former in the vanguard of electronic technology development, they were able to combine different, yet complementary capabilities to achieve a common goal.

Easily the most important aspect of joint ventures for good is combining passion, expertise and impact, an effective technique towards optimizing results. No one organization can do everything on its own, nor should they. Focusing on too many interventions at once will ultimately dilute the potency of an organization's work and can lead to mission creep, the expansion of scope beyond capabilities.

On the other hand, if a specialized organization works alone in any one community, its progress is likely to be marred by interconnected problems that lie outside its remit. Building a school is not likely to improve education if the kids are too sick with malaria, nor if they are too busy helping their families fetch water from distant sources to attend class. Even if they get to school, the impact is reduced if they are too hungry or tired to concentrate on what is being taught.

I believe that there is another way -- coming together, under one united front, with shared direction and vision, that will allow many NGOs to utilize each other's expertise to strengthen their own programs and ultimately, their impact.

Now, picture the multi-variable scenario presented above, in Burkina Faso. Imagine what happens when an education, a water and a malaria organization enter a developing country together to address the three most relevant and essential problems facing the well being and development of a community. The final result of such a project would yield results that are greater than the sum of its parts. Unanticipated benefits would surface from the creation of a positive feedback loop, where one intervention would increase the output of another and vice versa. For example, children who are healthier are more likely to attend school. Circularly, children who attend school are most likely to practice healthy behaviors, like properly using bed nets or avoiding contaminated water points. In the end, as a population becomes healthier and more educated, we begin to see a rise in other indicators as well, such as the economy, the environment and even gender equality.

Combining school building, water projects and bed net distribution is just one of many permutations of interventions that support each other and bring to bear a series of unintended, interrelated benefits unachievable by any single organization. This is a call to action for the new guard of friendly NGOs, organizations like Malaria No More, Pencils of Promise, Room to Read, BRAC, Charity Water, Deworm the World and Community Enterprise Solutions, who pride themselves on their rigid business foundation and seek to make an impact outside of their own purview. There is an opportunity waiting at your doorstep. Come together and create a joint venture for good.