This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

I’m really pleased to welcome my new friend J. who blogs at Tales from the Hood for a first guest post here on ShotgunShack!

J. gives us Lesson 6 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.


If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 6:  Win-win or forced marriage?

For those of you whose job it is to raise support of different kinds for your organization from for-profit corporations, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that probably the hardest part of your job is getting your very own colleagues over in the programs department to support you. I’m guessing that you’re more than just a little bit frustrated by the push-back and the foot-dragging and the nit-picky nay-saying over what probably seem like obvious “win-win” ideas to you.

So let me give you a heads up. Here are a few things that you should know about aid-worker culture while you attempt to persuade us to work with you as you go about your job of working with corporations to gain their support for your employer’s programs, whether through cash grants or gift-in-kind (GIK).

That don’t impress me much… We don’t really care who you sat next to at what roundtable and what Fortune 500 corporation they’re the CFO of. We’re not interested in hearing the long history of your schmoozing so-and-so. It doesn’t impress us to know that your “contact” plays golf on Tuesdays with the President…

Yeah, yeah, we understand that these things are important in your world and that schmoozing is an important skill. We don’t want to disrespect the hard work you’ve done cultivating relationships with your potential donors. But often it feels as if you’re coming to us with the expectation that your schmoozing is what will make our decisions about which opportunities to pursue and which to leave on the table. However, you should know that from our perspective the thing that matters most and that should trump all other considerations is:  what is good for participants in our programs in the field?

And so, when you come to talk to us about corporate opportunity X that you’ve been schmoozing and wining and dining and playing golf over, what we really want to know right up front from you is: what is on offer and under what conditions? From our perspective it begins and ends there.

Forced marriages. Similarly, it’s a huge turn-off when somewhere near the beginning of your pitch to us is the issue that “this relationship is hugely important.” Maybe if we agree to take a grant to do this kind of lame project, this corporate donor will “trust” us and work more with us in the future on projects that are better. Maybe this is a very high profile corporate donor and having them on our organizations’ corporate CV will make our employer look very good. Maybe the amount of money or value of GIK on offer is so large that the executive team really wants to find a way to say “yes.”

We’re not naïve. We understand that these are very real considerations and that give-and-take is just a part of how the real world works. But when these kinds of issues – rather than what is good for the communities where we work – drive decisions, it makes us feel dirty. When the importance of a relationship with corporation X in the US or Europe takes priority over what’s good for the field, it makes us feel like we’re being married off without consent so that you can collect the dowry and get in good with the big boys.

Changing “game-changing.” We can smell a sales-job a mile away. Particularly when you say something like, “this is potentially game-changing.” Once you utter those words, we know you’re talking smack. Why? Because in our view the real “game” of relief and development work is out in the field, where the rubber meets the road, in the communities where we work. Unless you can convince us that you have credentials in that sphere, you don’t know the game well enough to play, let alone change it.

Two hearts livin’ in two different worlds… Simple, but important. Many of you earned your street cred in the for-profit corporate world by persuading people to go along with your ideas. Maybe in sales. Many of us earned our street by going into impoverished, depressed, sometimes terrible places where it was our job to listen to local people, to analyze problems, to consider operational contingencies, and to consider ideas from as many angles as possible before undertaking them. A lot of what we do even amongst ourselves will often feel like so much picking apart of ideas, semantic hair-splitting, fretting about what might go wrong. Remember, for every Business Roundtable or AMCHAM meeting that you attend, we also attend a coordination meeting in the field or a technical working group. For every corporate grant win that you get to feel proud of in your world, we potentially have to endure glowering looks of colleagues in other agencies or host government counterparts for having sold out.

In short, your win is sometimes our loss. What’s more, a win between corporation X and NGO Y in a developed country can mean a distinct loss on the ground in poor communities. We’re not trying to be difficult. But until the people we work with on the ground in communities finally have a seat at the table, it is our job to do all we can to keep those losses from happening.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

7 responses to “This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

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