Bridging Sectors for Impact: A Blueprint for Corporate-NGO Partnerships

As corporates take more responsibility for people and planet, and NGOs grow ever more professional in tackling these issues, the significance of cross-sector partnerships is rising. This article explores key principles for fostering successful corporate-NGO collaborations, drawing insights from the Beiersdorf AG's impactful "Empowering Girls" program.

The Need For Cross-Sector Partnerships

Current developments highlight the importance and inter-dependence of cross-sector corporate-NGO partnerships. NGOs tackle an ever-widening field of challenges caused and exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, climate change, as well as by ongoing conflicts such as the war in Ukraine. At the same time corporates are increasingly expected to act as good corporate citizens and can only do so with the strategic knowledge and field network of NGOs. The British C&E Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer 2023 finds: more than 84 percent of NGOs and 86 percent of corporate representatives expect cross-sectoral partnerships to become more, or much more, important over the next three years. Accordingly, investment in partnerships from corporates and non-profits is expected to increase over the next three years (C&E Advisory 2023).

But these kinds of partnerships are by no means easy. The question arises: Which guiding principles should inform successful partnerships between corporates and NGOs? A meta- evaluation of the initial phase of “Empowering Girls” program by the Beiersdorf AG delivered very valuable insights in this regard. The “Empowering Girls” program by Beiersdorf has been implemented in cooperation with CARE and Plan International. As part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beiersdorf funded 10 projects in 9 countries in Africa and Latin America from 2020 to 2023. The focus of all projects was on supporting girls and young women by achieving equal access to education, adequate healthcare systems, economic resilience, and protection from sexual and gender-based violence. The evaluation found that the ambitions to improve pandemic-related disadvantages of girls and women were largely achieved. In good part this was due to a very effective collaboration between Beiersdorf and the NGOs.

Benefits & Risks of Cross-Sector Partnerships

Managed well, such partnerships allow corporates to become much more knowledgeable in the field of action, while NGOs gain more reliable corporate partner organizations. However, NGOs and corporates have inherently different cultures, incentive systems and ways of working, that can easily clash. To avoid this and create a win-win situation for all, we found that the following principles are important to take into consideration.

Guiding Principles For Corporates To Develop High-Quality Partnerships

Building successful corporate-NGO partnerships takes time and investment. According to our analysis, the following principles should ideally guide the process:


  •  The Selection of NGO Partners Must Be Strategic: The “Empowering Girls” Program has clearly shown that significant impact in a short time was only possible because CARE and Plan International were already established in the targeted themes and countries. This cannot be built up quickly. A good strategic fit is needed from the start.
  • Good Partnerships Require Investments: Partnerships should be planned for the long term, with investments of time and resources to achieve shared values, common goals, and ultimately greater impact. It needs a deep understanding of each other’s functional logic and needs as well as transparent communication – including, when things go wrong.
  • The Understanding of Impact Must Be Shared: A large corporate needs precise numbers on the activities conducted (outputs) in a program for its audited reporting. For NGOs, these are labor-intensive to provide and not as informative as outcome data on the achieved impact. The latter, however, are often more qualitative and need to be translated for the corporate.
  • Trust is Important: There needs to be trust from the corporate in the NGO, which has greater topic-related expertise, and vice versa from the NGO in the reliability and flexibility of the corporate. Nevertheless, there should be regular candid reflection sessions where goals and actual progress are compared, and measures adjusted if necessary.
  • Responsibly Handling the End of a Partnership: Most social transformations are complex and long-term. Therefore, a potential end of the partnership should be announced early, so that the NGO can timely bring other partners on board.

Insights by Project Partners

Our project partners share their insights into their “Empowering Girls” partnership and how to create an effective collaboration.

How do the learnings from the “Empowering Girls” partnership with Plan International and CARE inform future social commitments?

Christiane Hölscher, Head of Social Impact Strategy and Partnerships, Beiersdorf AG: “From my perspective, the following points are central to a successful partnership: developing common partnership & project targets, conveying the functional logic of the respective organization, ensuring transparent communication, also and especially on critical issues, establishing a clear governance structure. These learnings will be critical for future social commitments at Beiersdorf.”

Which two guiding principles do you consider most important when you work with a corporate?

Angela Bergel, Director of Corporate Partnerships, Plan International: “At the end of the day, it is always about the good interaction of all the guiding principles, including clear expectation management. A good alignment of the strategic objectives (2) of both parties, as well as the resulting impact analysis in terms of their possibilities but also their clear limits (5), are key elements for the establishment of a successful partnership on an equal footing, that aims at achieving the greatest possible impact for children and young adults.”

How do you benefit from collaborating with a company compared to a foundation or a public body?

Bettina Ernst, Manager Corporate Partnership, CARE: “Corporates have a deep understanding of agile projects and necessary adaptions to changed circumstances. By funding project support and implementation costs as well, their budget secures quality and impact measurements, staff, and overhead costs. Corporates are familiar with the setup of pilots which enables CARE to support innovative and new ideas scaling up after piloting.”

How do you expect corporate-NGO partnerships to change over the next years?

Angela Bergel, Director of Corporate Partnerships, Plan International: “Especially long-term partnerships are changing from purely philanthropic collaborations to strategic, impact-driven partnerships. As they become more embedded in corporate strategies, NGOs will (have to) shift their focus on corporate partnerships from a communicative focus to providing effective evidence of impact. At the same time, it is increasingly important but also challenging to balance the benefits and costs of data collection that meets the needs of both parties.”

Bettina Ernst, Manager Corporate Partnership, CARE: “CARE’s partnership team works closely with corporates to develop mutually beneficial partnerships.  In the next years there will be more joint planning that includes identifying and developing impact programs, solving supply-chain issues, creating compelling marketing initiatives, providing exposure and thought leadership opportunities, and offering meaningful employee volunteering and engagement.”

Christiane Hölscher, Head of Social Impact Strategy and Partnerships, Beiersdorf AG: “The traditional division of roles between corporates as ‚donors‘ and NGOs as ‚project managers‘ will dissolve. Corporates will demand more and more say in the design of projects and the achievement of project goals to meet the rising reporting expectations on the one hand and to be able to make maximum use of the partnership and joint projects for their business on the other. NGOs will increasingly insist on long-term funding security to ensure the complex management of projects and the achievement of mid- to long-term impact targets. The existing roles and responsibilities within a partnership must be reconsidered and adapted to a partnership at the same eye-level with a clear commitment to common goals.”

What We Learned From The Meta-Evaluation

Positive and lasting change depends on the quality of the corporate-NGO relationship. As shown above, the importance of these long-term partnerships continues to grow. Hence, both corporates and NGOs need to adapt their strategies, expectations and resources towards one another. Not only to leverage each other’s strengths but to create impactful action – as partners.

Christiane Hölscher, Head of Social Impact Strategy and Partnerships, Beiersdorf AG
Angela Bergel, Director of Corporate Partnerships, Plan International
Bettina Ernst, Manager Corporate Partnership, CARE

Sources & Recommended Readings

Beiersdorf AG (2024): Empowering Girls Dossier. Last access June 2024.

C&E Advisory (2023): Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer 2023. Last access June 2024.

Network for Business Sustainability (2020): Partnering with NGOs: The 4 Keys to Success. Last access June 2024.

Stanford Social Innovation Review (2018): Realizing the SDGs Through Transformational Corporate-NGO Partnerships. Last access June 2024.

The Partnering Initiative (2024): The SDG Partnership Guidebook. Last access June 2024.

Wider Sense (2024): Corporate Citizenship. Transforming from an outsider to a centre of competence in sustainable companies . Last access June 2024.