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How Nonprofits Are Endorsing Profit When It’s for a Good Cause

How Nonprofits Are Endorsing Profit When It’s for a Good Cause
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SPECIAL REPORT: Focus on Healthcare

TRUE talks with Anita Sharma, senior director of the millennium development goals initiatives at the United Nations Foundation, about why public-private partnerships may hold the key to tackling many global crises.

TRUE: Would you explain why you believe the model of public-private partnerships offers the best hope for addressing world problems?

Sharma: The UN Foundation has been engaged with public-private partnerships since our founding over 15 years ago. It recognizes that given the complexity of the problems we face, it is impossible for one actor to make substantial and sustainable progress in fixing them.Governments can’t do it alone; the UN can’t do it alone; nonprofits cannot do it alone. It really takes a village to achieve better health and development outcomes for the world.

For example, take the Every Woman Every Child initiative, which seeks to intervene early in pregnancies and help mothers and their children survive those dangerous first days of life for a baby. The reason that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon started Every Woman Every Child four years ago was because he recognized that there were a number of actors—governments, UN agencies, private sector foundations and nonprofits all trying to improve the lives of women and children in the developing world, but they weren’t working collectively and together. When you collaborate, when you share resources, you can be so much more effective than when you’re working in your own silos, when you’re working kind of off to the side.

So the UN Foundation has been tasked to take a very holistic look at the issues, and then we work to build partnerships with various players looking at the assets that each organization brings to bear and figuring out the most effective ways to utilize and mobilize them. Our partners are often companies with very different sets of stakeholders to answer to and responsibilities to fulfill.

The private sector has been engaged with emerging markets for many years, but their interests have been limited often to the resources they can use or if they do sell into the markets, they have been focused on only certain segments of the population. In terms of the base of the pyramid, what we call kind of the bottom billion, those hardest to reach, it has been challenging to make the business case to the private sector as to how they can profitably engage. So if companies wanted to work to help the poorest, to do the right thing, it often came in the form of corporate philanthropy.

There’s nothing wrong with corporate philanthropy. We welcome it, but at the UN Foundation, we really emphasize change, not charity.

When you really want to have lasting change, you need to go beyond the charitable contributions. You need to engage private sector. You need to harness their capacities to both innovate and utilize their reach. So when we enlist companies to work with us, we make the business case about why they should get involved, about the potential to, yes, make a profit. What we have found is that the really transformational partnerships only happen when we engage companies to utilize their core business, and bring all of their assets to bear. These are the partnerships that are going to make the biggest difference on the ground. These are the ones that are going to stay and be sustainable. And these are the ones really that are going to have the impact for the years to come.

TRUE: Can you provide some examples of how that works in the Every Woman Every Child initiative

Sharma: The UN Foundation works with about 300 partners in Every Woman Every Child. About 50 are from the private sector and they range from large multinationals like Johnson & Johnson and Merck to small local concerns in nations like India and Nigeria

The MAMA initiative is a great example of how we try to produce a situation that is simultaneously beneficial for the women and children who so desperately need the care and for the companies helping to provide it so that we can depend on them for the long haul. MAMA stands for Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, and it involves harnessing the power of telecom companies in places like South Africa, India and Bangladesh to get information and support to young mothers during pregnancy and in the critical days after birth.

In the developing world, we have discovered that people may not have access to toilets or clean water, but increasingly people — even from small villages have access to cell phones. So we decided to harness the power of these telecoms to make connections with mothers who needed information and help about pregnancy, birth and raising babies.

The MAMA initiative is built around collaboration among the UN Foundation, the U.S. State Department, and Johnson & Johnson through its baby center. It also involves the regional telecoms, which agreed to provide free text message for mothers-to-be about their pregnancy. The women can get information, and if they have questions, they can email or text and ask questions. That helps them make informed choices about their pregnancy and then potentially about their delivery and beyond. That encouraged sales of cell phones, and when women had access to cell phones, they used them for other reasons — for banking or to get information about their agriculture and crops and things like that. It has been a real win-win situation for both the telecoms, because more people started using their service and phones, and for the women who now had access to vital information.

Another example of a win-win partnership is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. This is totally a market-driven solution to a less publicized problem that causes death and illness throughout the developing world. We’ve been working on this project for several years, and it has involved the U.S. State Department, Dow Corning, Royal Dutch Shell, a number of donor countries like the U.K., NGOs, as well as the Indian government and governments of other developing nations.

Women in countries like India often prepare meals on open fires in small, contained areas without proper ventilation. They use such toxic materials as coal and manure to keep their fires going and many, along with their children end up breathing in these fumes leading to very serious respiratory illnesses and sometimes death. At the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstove, we sought to develop a market for safe cookstoves. This is not a charity; we’re not giving away these cookstoves. We are creating the demand for then. The stoves are then sold on the free market. Local enterprises have become involved and homegrown innovations are leading to the availability of a variety of models. So not only are we tackling a health problem but we are also aiding economic development.

TRUE: How will you determine success?

Sharma: Every Woman Every Child follows a roadmap, and that roadmap has identified different ways to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015. So success will be how well we are measuring toward that 16 million. One might also judge success by the types of partnerships that we create. We need to bring all of the relevant actors on board to create transformational and sustainable partnerships so that after 2015, after the millennium development goals, these partnerships live on.

For me personally, I also want to see how well we address some of the newer challenges, such as our recent actions around newborns and the health and wellbeing of adolescent girls, which have been two neglected areas for women’s and children’s health. That will be the test of whether we have really built sustainable business models that can stand the test of time.

For more info on the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, read an article by FleishmanHillard’s Kris Balderston, who led the public-private partnership effort for the U.S. State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton.

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About the author

Anita Sharma is the senior director for the millennial goals initiative at the United Nations Foundation. She currently oversees communications and advocacy around Every Women Every Child, an effort launched by the UN to improve the health and wellbeing of women and children in the developing world.

Previously, Sharma was the North American coordinator for the United Nations Millennium Campaign where she led advocacy and outreach efforts to end poverty by 2015 and support the millennium development goals. Her career has spanned a range of development, humanitarian response and conflict prevention efforts by such organizations as the Center for American Progress, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.

The UN Foundation was created in 1998 with a $1 billion donation from media mogul Ted Turner. Besides its focus on improving the lives of women and children around the planet, the group also works in support of UN campaigns on climate change, alternative energy, population control, access to technology and sustainable development.