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How startups and NGOs can work together for stronger impact

Collaboration with startups opens up new pathways to impact for the third sector.

For large international NGOs, collaborating with startups offers opportunities to test and scale innovative solutions more quickly, and to adopt more sustainable operating models.

The current aid system is struggling, insufficient in capacity, and the traditional structures and institutions cannot fix the problems through scaling alone. There often is a preoccupation with growth, competition and market share, which is not driving structural adaptation and paradigm level innovation.

The people that work in the third sector individually want to do things differently, but they get caught up in the day-to-day management and they don’t have the capacity to think strategically. If you don’t look to the future, others will take over that are more adaptive, that can innovate more and quicker, but it is hard for third sector leaders to think about these things. They think about the future in the next couple of years, but not 10–15 years in the future.

Zoe Abrahamson, senior funding advisor at Bond

INGOs need to explore collaboration with diverse actors and different response formations if they want to build a more adaptive, less formulaic and more effective response capacity. A new report by Nesta and Save the Children, in partnership with Bond, explores the different ways INGOs can work with startups.

Models of startup collaboration for NGOs

Although startup collaboration is still far from widespread in the third sector, a growing number of organisations are experimenting with different models of startup engagement. These range from more light-touch types, such as the two-day Humanitarian Hackathon organised by the World Food Programme, to more long-term partnerships, such as the Social Innovation Accelerator, during which startups receive six months of support by French Red Cross experts.

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As we describe in our report, deciding which collaboration model is right for your organisation requires assessing the level of resources you are able to commit to the collaboration, your organisation’s collaborative maturity to work with startups, and most importantly, your collaborative objectives.

How startup collaboration can grow your impact

By analysing cases of startup collaboration, we identified four objectives the third sector aims to achieve when they engage with startups. They seek to increase their impact by:

  1. Supporting startups with similar missions and values. For example, Leonard Cheshire gives ad hoc advice to startups and organises awards for entrepreneurs with a disability to nurture a business ecosystem that is more inclusive of people with a disability.
  2. Rejuvenating internal mindsets, behaviours and methods. For example, after setting up a co-working space for tech startups, Friends of the Earth was able to improve its internal processes, by adopting startups’ approaches to project management, research and social impact monitoring.
  3. Solving internal/mission-oriented challenges more effectively by innovating together. For example, the UNICEF Innovation Fund helps tech startups from emerging markets develop and pilot open source technologies that UNICEF can scale to benefit children worldwide.
  4. Ensuring the long-term viability of the organisation. For example, by acquiring startups with different operating, revenue and impact models, Save the Children Australia can quickly adopt novel models while leveraging its resources to scale the startup.

How to get started

Although collaborations with startups have the potential to grow your impact, bringing them to fruition is not straightforward. Our research conducted with third sector innovation managers and startups identified many barriers – institutional, financial, legal, cultural – that can obstruct value creation in partnerships.

At the same time, the various cases of startup collaboration that we identified in the third sector illustrate that it can be done, when both partners come prepared and adjust their traditional ways of working.

Want to find out more? Download the report to

  • Understand whether working with startups is right for your organisation.
  • Evaluate and select suitable collaboration modes.
  • Identify the necessary steps to prepare for, design and carry out the collaboration – and the key challenges to anticipate.
  • Learn from the experience of other third sector organisations that have set up collaborations with startups.

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