Q+A: Innovation and sustainability crucial for successful social enterprise partnerships – IKEA Foundation CEO

by Magda Mis | @magdalenamis1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 19 February 2014 15:53 GMT

A Bangladeshi evacuee bathes at a UNHCR refugee camp near the border crossing of Ras Jdir, Tunisia, March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

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When big companies partner with aid agencies, improving the way the agencies think and operate is worth much more than just giving them money, the head of the IKEA Foundation says

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When big companies partner with social enterprise, the main benefit of such cooperation seems to be obvious: a financial boost from a big brother can quickly advance the smaller protégé’s growth.

But is the financial aspect the core of such partnerships? And is partnership more beneficial than just giving money and moving on to the next big-grant project, satisfying corporate bureaucrats who need to tick a box for Corporate Social Responsibility?

Lastly, as social innovation has now begun to create waves in the humanitarian world, what benefits can this kind of cooperation bring for aid organizations such as the UNHCR?

Earlier this month furniture retailer IKEA partnered with the UN refugee agency to bring solar lamps to refugee camps. During the campaign, which is set to run for two months, for every LED light purchased in its stores IKEA will donate one euro to the UNHCR to spend on solar lighting for refugees.

 Thomson Reuters Foundation talked to Per Heggenes, CEO of IKEA Foundation, about the benefits of socially-driven partnerships at the launch of the campaign in London.

Q: Is it more effective for corporations to partner with organizations like the UNHCR to meet their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) targets rather than just to give money?

A: I think the most effective thing we do (…) is helping UNHCR think differently about how they approach different challenges, how they drive innovation, how they think as a business, how they look for ways to find smarter ways of doing things better and less costly (…)

I think that’s more efficient in a sense, that if we help them change the way they think and the way they operate, that is probably worth much more than the money we would give them. (…)

The value that we contribute is a combination of the partnership, the experience, the business approach and the money that we invest initially.

It’s very important that you don’t go into … investments in livelihoods for example, where you provide a lot of gifts so that it keeps going as long as we are there with the money, and as soon as we are out it dies because it is not financially sustainable. That doesn’t help anyone, that actually creates damage.

Q: How do you see CSR evolving in the future?

 A: The way I think it will develop is that it will move from being something that is done ‘on the side’ (for the companies) to look good to something that is much more integrated with the business.

If you look at IKEA it (already exists): social responsibility or sustainability is not something that happens in a department, it is the way they think about the business. (…)

Q: Will sustainability and social responsibility become conditions for companies to succeed in the future?

A: I think it will be a huge competitive advantage at least. It might take a long time before it is a condition, but it will be very important. You will have a hard time hiring the right people into your business if you can’t demonstrate that you are a socially responsible company.

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