How MSF's approach to partnerships allows it to save even more lives

How MSF's approach to partnerships allows it to save even more lives

Adam Bryan | 4 September 2019

Partnering with businesses and suppliers is absolutely key for MSF to deliver its humanitarian work, finds Adam Bryan, Director of Partnerships and Innovation at the IoF, following his interview with the charity’s Head of Fundraising, James Kliffen, at the IoF Suppliers Forum.

If we want to solve the world’s problems – from climate change, to plastic pollution, health, poverty and inequality – we can’t do it alone. Whether we are talking locally or more globally, we need people, organisations, businesses and government bodies to work together and collaborate if we ever want to have a lasting and genuine impact on the globe.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing James Kliffen, Head of Fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières, at the IoF’s Suppliers Forum where we discussed the aid charity’s approach to partnerships.

MSF are very clear on their mission – working hard to spend the maximum amount of donations on their medical projects, and delivering relief in conflict zones, disasters and epidemics. They’re also very clear on who they will not accept gifts from, but they do acknowledge the importance of partnerships.

James told the roomful of suppliers in attendance that he likes to work with external groups as they are often the ones with the relevant expertise. He sees partnerships and relationships at all levels across the entire organisations as being paramount to MSF’s success. James acknowledges that they’re needed to help push MSF further and support areas where they have lighter resources. As Plato said way back when: “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Successful partnerships

The first initiative discussed was the Missing Maps project, a collaborative initiative which was developed with Accenture and Google. The project uses thousands of volunteers to map parts of the world most vulnerable to humanitarian crises; with the overarching point of the project being that it enables epidemiology and outbreak response when epidemics take place. This is because outbreaks can only be controlled if we know where people are from.

The project’s focus was on mission – fundraising wasn’t mentioned. Accenture and Google used their people and their technology to solve a problem. Through this the corporate teams were engaged, they had fun, and they achieved something monumental – lives saves in the communities that have been mapped.

Missing Maps enables employees to act to help people using their laptops, in parts of the world that they physically cannot reach. That engagement is then the start of a relationship, created because they have shared MSF’s field mission with people in companies, and by doing vital work.

Companies like Google and Accenture have highly skilled employees who are incredibly effective at mapping. This is Citizen Science in action. The longer term relationships that Missing Maps creates are made possible by the very real value that Missing Maps delivers in the field.

Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative

Working with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) is another area where MSF broke new ground with its partnerships. MSF are clear that they won’t accept gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but they will work with them to help achieve a positive outcome. He said there are market-failures in operation that mean that drugs that could be used to help people in difficult and life-threatening circumstances are often not developed, and this partnership aims to make as many of these available to those that need them most.

He said that DNDi enables promising medicines to be taken through the stages of development, where there is not a commercial market that would pay for that development. Through these partnerships, pharmaceutical companies have opened their research databases to enable this to take place.

One of James’ overarching points during the interview was that ‘people are people’, which may seem a little over simplified but it is key. Smart people in big companies will want to make a difference and the important thing to do is to find the individuals that will be willing to work with you.

He said that MSF may not like entirely agree with how markets behave but that shouldn’t stop them engaging with them if they will help to achieve the ultimate end goal. For example, with DNDi the breakthrough came with understanding how to effectively collaborate with companies.

But this relationship-focussed approach though shouldn’t end with donors and possible partners. MSF will treat its suppliers as if they are major donors.

James is very clear in his belief that charities will gain hugely in their learning from companies. He says a key point is asking a company “what is it that you would most like charities to know, based on your experiences and expertise?”. Being humble in a charities approach to businesses and suppliers is important, by recognising that as charities we can gain so much from the knowledge and help of others.

He says that this doesn’t in any way mean compromising our ethics, and companies can equally can gain from our experiences and expertise (such as through the Missing Maps example). Charities can benefit by motivating companies to genuinely share their mission and work. The end result, James says, is genuine two-way relationships between people, based on mutual respect and understanding.

My key takeaway from my interview with James was that by taking a relationship-focused approach in everything they do, James and the MSF have shown that you never know when your next impactful partnership will be and where it will take you.

Adam Bryan is Director of Partnerships and Innovation at the Institute of Fundraising.

This blog is a summary of an interview conducted and written by Adam Bryan at the IoF Suppliers Forum event earlier this year. The next Suppliers Forum event will be taking place on Thursday 26 September 2019.



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