Money doesn’t talk

Magnifying glass for Benjamin Franklin on hundred US dollars bill

When skills and expertise are more valuable than cash

As NGOs ramp up their fundraising campaigns, foundations and governments continue to be pressured to commit larger amounts of money than they are willing or able to give.

We’ve all heard the pleas:

“If only we had X amount of money, Y problem could be solved:

$1 could feed a child for a week

$22,000 dollars could buy an x-ray machine

$35 billion will help 160 million people in 56 countries

$330 billion would end world hunger by 2030, apparently. 

Is that it? A giant wedge of cash? I doubt it.  

Some problems are so big that they cannot be solved by throwing money at them or solved in more effective ways. This seems at once both obvious, and a bitter pill to swallow. There is no such silver bullet.

For a long time we have been fed the line that while money doesn’t bring happiness, it can – at least in large quantities – solve problems. But the COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges that governments and NGOs had never considered and were woefully unprepared to address. 

They were blindsided despite all the theoretical pandemic preparedness after SARS. What was particularly scary was that no amount of money could have fixed the problem immediately. Instead, it was time, insight, research, logistics, people-power and collaboration that were needed.

When it became clear that the second wave of COVID-19 spreading across India in late March 2021 was putting intense pressure on the country’s health system, UNICEF began shipping in essential supplies. 

The people most seriously ill with COVID-19 infections needed oxygen. UNICEF had procured oxygen concentrators – portable devices that generate oxygen from ambient air. But how to get them to those most in need, mainly in small hospitals in remote rural areas of West Bengal? 

The UPS Foundation has been around since 1951, and as of August 2021, the company is worth $168.32 billion. But on this occasion, it was their specific set of skills and extensive experience in outdoor delivery in emergencies. Getting things from A to B in difficult situations was far more valuable than any cash donation. 

What use is an oxygen concentrator and cash hundreds of miles away from a person struggling to breathe?

UPS is one of the members of the Logistics Emergency Teams (LET), a brilliant example of public-private partnering done well. Three more of the world’s largest global logistics and transportation companies: Agility, Maersk, and DP World, work through the partnership and with the United Nations World Food Programme, to provide pro bono support to the humanitarian sector during responses to large-scale natural disasters.

While it is important for companies to think about skills, expertise or resources they have to offer in a partnership, it’s necessary to first ask what is needed. Needs and solutions may not be obvious from the start, and it takes time and in-depth conversations to identify these. 

After years of supporting Télécoms Sans Frontières with financial contributions, The Vodafone Foundation asked “You’re the number one organisation in the world specialising in emergency telecommunications, we’re a big telecoms company. How can we help you more than by just supplying cash?”

As Programme Manager Oisin Walton explains, what TSF really needed was a mobile network for use in emergencies. The emergency technology NGO largely relied on satellite communications, which can suffer or malfunction during natural disasters from the effects of rain and atmospheric disturbances. A reliable, pop-up mobile network would help them to connect aid agencies to work together collaboratively and reunite victims with their loved ones. 

Partnering with Huawei and TSF, the Vodafone Foundation came up with the Instant Network Programme, which can be deployed to provide instant WIFI via a portable 3G network that packs into three 32-kilogram boxes for rapid deployment on commercial flights.

This pioneering technology has provided life-saving assistance in over 20 missions around the world, empowered tens of thousands of people, and enabled 3 million telephone calls. 

“Being able to communicate via a mobile network is one of the most valuable pieces of aid today, level with food, but not quite up there with water, which is essential” says Walton.

The partnership leveraged the power of the two companies, Vodafone and Huawei, with TSF’s expertise in the emergency aid sector. Through the combination of cash, jointly developed technology and the people-power of Vodafone employees acting as volunteers trained by TSF, they solved a problem that neither partner could have tackled alone.

While it may be simpler to write a big cheque – photo opportunities for the CSR sections of websites are becoming less appealing – and companies have so much more to offer. 

So, think about what your organisation has to offer. What unique skills, core competencies and expertise could you bring to a partnership with an NGO or aid agency that they might be lacking? 

Many of us have a tendency to undervalue what we can do. But your company may be a leader in its sector, and you may be an expert in your niche. That could turn out to be more valuable than any amount of dough.

Evie Breese profile picture
Evie Breese
Editor & Writer | Website
Evie writes and produces Impact17's monthly newsletter, delivering news, events, opinions and opportunities about the world of partnering to your inbox.
With a background in social policy research at The Institute for Employment Studies, Evie made the transition into copywriting, comms and journalism via an MA in Journalism from Goldsmiths, University of London.
She is passionate about cutting through the bumf to write meaningfully and empathetically about some of the greatest social and environmental challenges we are facing, and has written for the IFRC, Oxfam and The Independent.

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