In recent decades, a rapprochement has occurred between former foes. Seeing the potential to accelerate social and environmental change, many non-governmental organisations and activists have moved from campaigning against companies to forming partnerships with them. Companies have also been tapping into the expertise of NGOs on social and environmental issues affecting their businesses. And now, business schools have started to do the same.

Much of the impetus behind the formation of these alliances has come from NGOs but, so far, few business schools have looked to the NGO sector to help them develop social and environmental content for their sustainability related programmes and electives.

“At business schools, we claim that we’re leading corporations but in fact we tend to follow them,” says Gregory Unruh, professor of global business and director of the Lincoln Centre for Ethics in Global Management at Thunderbird School of Global Management. “This is another example of that.”

This is not to say that business schools and NGOs have been avoiding each other – far from it. A wide range of academic relationships and informal alliances exists between the two.

In the 1990s for example, the World Resources Institute, a US environmental organisation, established the Business Environment Learning and Leadership initiative. Through the initiative, WRI works with business education programmes such as Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in the US to promote new strategies.

More recently, some schools have seen NGOs as partners in developing the social and environmental impact internships that are increasingly popular with students. University of Notre Dame Mendoza, Indiana, for example, gives students the opportunity to take up summer internships with NGOs working in Africa. Other schools work with Climate Corps, an internship programme run by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US environmental group. Climate Corps places students in companies to develop energy-efficiency strategies.

Meanwhile, Endeavor, a US-based non-profit that identifies and supports entrepreneurs in developing countries, selects students from top US business schools to work with some of the entrepreneurs in its programme.

Many schools invite NGO professionals to become board members, adjunct professors or guest speakers. And, of course, a growing number of NGO executives are embarking on MBA programmes.

Now, however, some schools are going further by working with NGOs in content development. And as with the EDF and Endeavor internship programmes, NGOs are often leading the charge. Oxfam, for example, is developing ethical trade workshops for MBA students in UK business schools.

The most prominent example of a business school/NGO partnership is that of University of Exeter Business School in the UK, which this September launches its One Planet MBA, a course it has developed with WWF, the global conservation organisation.

The programme includes segments covering traditional business disciplines but with a difference – the finance course looks at responsible investment and the marketing segment examines behavioural change.

“We want to run a green thread all the way through the course,” says Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, director of corporate relations at WWF. “So if you’re studying accounting, finance or marketing, it’s always through the lens of sustainability and the challenges we’re currently facing.”

The One Planet MBA will also tap WWF’s expertise in areas such as communication, climate change, water stress and other resource consumption issues. Individuals from WWF partner companies, including Coca-Cola and Lafarge, will be invited to talk to students about how they are applying sustainability to their business strategies.

Yet while in the corporate world, organisations such as EDF, Oxfam, Greenpeace and WWF are now advising on everything from conserving resources to tackling poverty through their procurement policies, many schools have yet to show the same enthusiasm for the partnership model.

“When it comes to this really broad-based approach, Exeter is the only business school we are aware of that has entered a partnership with a large NGO,” says Jonas Haertle, head of the Principles for Responsible Management Education, a UN Global Compact initiative.

This could be because, as was the case in the early days of corporate partnerships with NGOs, cultural barriers remain. “It’s pretty new for business schools to work with non-business partners and for NGOs, it’s a branding issue,” says Mr Haertle. “Both sides have to get to know each other and what the value is before this takes off.”

At the same time, as with any form of curriculum development, schools can find it hard to persuade faculty to change what they teach and how they teach it. Conducting research and developing intellectual content is often what motivates faculty, making it hard for them to turn to outside sources for curriculum development.

For this reason, says Judith Samuelson, executive director of Aspen Institute’s business and society programme, engaging faculty is critical. Any new approach to content development needs to fit into the existing teaching structure at an institution.

“And faculty are under a lot of pressure to teach a business framework and not just teach the issue du jour,” says Ms Samuelson. “There’s a certain science and art to doing this in a way that makes it resilient and both pushes the model, but also makes use of frameworks for teaching –and you really have to engage the faculty in that.”

To engage faculty in its One Planet MBA, Exeter is recruiting an expert in sustainability who has worked in the NGO sector to research environmental and social developments as they relate to each of the key traditional disciplines of the MBA programme.

“That individual’s role is to raise issues, to challenge faculty and introduce them to issues, companies and individuals in order to refresh the curriculum,” says Malcolm Kirkup, One Planet MBA programme director. “But it is a challenge and other schools …will face that difficulty, because it requires a different mindset.”

Prof Unruh points to another barrier to a business school/NGO partnership on curriculum development. “One of the limitations of working with NGOs is that they tend to be specialised. Some are experts on environmental sustainability but may not be as informed on human rights or corruption.”

For some schools, there may also be a concern about entering partnerships with organisations that have a strong campaigning agenda.

“One of the challenges as an academic institution is that it’s important one isn’t just presenting a line,” says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management in the UK.

“NGOs are a hugely rich source of knowledge, but collaborations between business schools and NGOs are healthy as long as one remembers that the responsibility of the academic partner is to make sure academic rigour is being maintained.”

However, as students continue to clamour for content on everything from microfinance to conservation of natural resources, schools are racing to beef up the sustainability element of their MBA programmes. Here, NGOs with their on-the-ground knowledge, scientific and social expertise and global networks could have much to offer schools.

“These kinds of partnerships do hold potential for business schools because the expertise often lies with these organisations,” says Mr Haertle. “We’ll probably see more in the years to come.”

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