Covid-19 forces brands to ‘step up’ with strategic approach to societal issues

Brands are taking a more strategic and holistic approach to social and environmental issues, putting pressure on NGOs not to focus on one issue to the exclusion of everything else.

Brands are better than non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at tackling environmental, social and governance issues in a holistic manner, according to a new report.

The C&E Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer 2020 found that the approach taken by NGOs to address such issues is often reactive and fragmented, rather than strategic and holistic. This is different to brands which, on the whole, work across a broader range of issues.

“It is in part because non-profits exist to address social issues and environmental issues, and they are deeply embedded in that, whether it’s poverty or cancer,” explains C&E Advisory CEO, Manny Amadi. “That’s their reason for being. They do that very deeply, but on a vertical level.”

The study surveyed 110 leading UK-based and international companies, and NGOs, engaged in corporate-NGO partnerships to assesses the motivations, drivers, barriers, enablers, role models, trends and forecasts for corporate–NGO partnering.

Over a third (37%) of NGOs and around a quarter (26%) of corporate brands state that either their own non-profit organisations, or NGO partners, do not have a holistic environmental, social and governance (ESG) plan or framework in place.

In fact, just over a third of corporates (35%) and NGOs (37%) believe their charities or non-profit partners have holistic ESG plans in place. A further 39% of corporates and 27% of NGO respondents are uncertain of their non-profit partners’ or charities’ status on this issue.

The pandemic was a moment of truth for brands in terms of the narrative they shared about being purpose-led.

Manny Amadi, C&E Advisory

The research found that while NGOs were often deeply tackling one core issue, many were failing in other areas. For example, one large poverty action charity had a high carbon footprint from flying out to its different organisations across the world. Another printed fundraising T-shirts sourced from a factory paying workers well below the living wage.

Not only do these missteps threaten to tarnish the reputation of NGOs, but they also need to be wary of being outshone by corporate companies who are able to deliver across a range of issues.

“The danger is as consumers we actually don’t care where good comes from. We want brands, government and non-profits to do good and our leaders to do good no matter where that comes from,” says Amadi. “There’s a risk for non-profits if they don’t tackle this issue they might put themselves at risk reputationally or otherwise.”

Why corporate-NGO partnerships are now as much about knowledge as cash

This gap has only been accelerated by Covid-19 as brands have had to prove their purpose in a time of crisis.

“The pandemic was a moment of truth for brands in terms of the narrative they shared about being purpose-led. They have stepped up and they’ve stepped up because of the pressure from different stakeholders,” Amadi explains.

Coronavirus has not dampened the importance of NGO and corporate partnerships, with the overwhelming majority of practitioners from both sides expecting partnerships between companies and NGOs to become even more important over the coming three years.

More NGOs (98%) anticipate this growing rise in the importance of cross-sector partnering than their corporate counterparts, but nearly nine out of 10 (87%) of corporates expect partnerships between the sectors will play a ‘more’ or ‘much more’ important role over the next three years.

Most admired partnerships

This year the Boots UK and Macmillan Cancer Support partnership once again topped the list of most admired partnerships, according to the Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer.

The campaign, which aims to ensure people affected by cancer in the UK have access to the best information and support in their local community, has been voted the most admired partnership for the second year in a row. One area this partnership has succeeded in is adapting online as a result of Covid-19, moving from the high-street to the digital world.

Each year, the barometer looks at which partnerships are deemed to be the most exemplary. Barometer survey respondents are anonymously asked which other corporate-NGO partnerships they particularly admire and why that is.

In second place, the partnership between Tesco and WWF has the bold aim of halving the environmental footprint of the average UK shopping basket. Meanwhile, Tesco’s ‘Little Helps for Healthier Living’ partnership with the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK secured third place in the poll.

Amadi explains that the leading partnerships are all long-term, strategic collaborations. “The top three have very much been strategic partnerships, with the partners being committed for a period of time, five years typically. They are focused on problem solving, in which they bring their assets together.”