Mercy Corps: Sustainable Innovation through Corporate Partnerships

Mercy Corps: Sustainable Innovation through Corporate Partnerships

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Mercy Corps was known for its gutsy approach to disasters. While other relief and development organizations were scrambling to plan a response, Mercy Corps would already be on the ground with aid and skilled field workers. In addition to performing emergency relief, the agency had also developed strong programs in economic development using a “community mobilization” approach that emphasized local control and sponsorship of projects. Although it was a relatively new player in the non-governmental organization (NGO) world, by the late 1990s Mercy Corps had developed a reputation as a nimble, decentralized organization that was not afraid to take risks.

There were many advantages to this decentralized structure. It meant that Mercy Corps was skilled at crafting innovative solutions to a diverse range of local problems. It meant that Mercy Corps was “field-driven” and able to respond quickly to changing conditions without getting approval for every decision from headquarters. It meant that Mercy Corps could intervene in the most remote and strife-torn regions, where other organizations might fear to go.

But several developments at the turn of the century revealed limitations to the status quo. A series of natural disasters and wars resulted in the organization's rapid expansion. As Mercy Corps was increasingly awarded multi-million-dollar government aid awards, it came to be seen less as a niche player and more as a major NGO in the same league as Care or Save the Children or World Vision. These changes were all to the good, but Mercy Corps was also wondering how to apply its creative, field-driven approach on a large scale.

At the same time, opportunities for new ways of doing relief and development work began to emerge. Prodded by the sobering realities of September 11th and the collapse of Enron, private companies began to expand their corporate social responsibility departments. In response to the disasters of the Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and other crises, corporations donated to Mercy Corps at unprecedented levels. And as markets and workforces became increasingly globalized, many corporations were on the lookout for ways to expand their businesses in developing countries.

A new form of private–non-profit collaboration, the corporate partnership, seemed to offer advantages to both sides. During the first several years of the new century, Mercy Corps began to seek ways to develop deeper relationships with private companies, and by 2007 it had formed several significant corporate partnerships. As it cultivated these new affiliations, Mercy Corps was also asking a number of questions. What kinds of partnerships were ideal? How deeply should Mercy Corps become engaged with a private enterprise? And how could it adjust its organizational structure to build corporate partnerships more effectively?

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