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It has 5,700 employees, operates in 100 countries and works with governments and regulators, while keeping a beady eye on its image and reputation from its
neutrally located headquarters.

Welcome to the World Wildlife Fund, one of the world’s best known and most active non-governmental organisations. Just down the road along Lake Geneva is the International Committee of the Red Cross, with 13,000 staff in 80 countries and a SFr1.3bn ($1.36bn) annual budget.

Both train with IMD, the Swiss business school better known for providing executive education to multinationals than the NGOs that are often their fiercest foes.

Yet the WWF and the ICRC share many of the organisational and leadership challenges of big companies. They must build management skills, develop leadership and run complex multi-country networks while remaining acute to corporate governance.

“There are a lot of specificities. But there’s also a lot we can learn from other organisations,” admits Teo Iordache, WWF’s head of people and organisational development. “The whole NGO sector is learning and professionalising as donors and stakeholders demand greater transparency and accountability.”

WWF turned to IMD in 2007, joining the school’s Corporate Learning Network – a programme that now includes 125 companies – while also commissioning a custom-built scheme for senior staff called “Leading at the Top”. The ICRC, best known for working in crisis or war zones, such as the shell-pocked cities of Syria, only joined the CLN last January. Claude Voillat, its economic adviser, says: “Traditionally, we work with politicians and ministers, the armed forces, police and possibly churches.

“But I reckoned we should be exposed more to the private sector, otherwise our network is incomplete. Our organisation is not . . . expected to do this and I saw the partnership with IMD as an opportunity to change this mindset.”

The CLN offers access to IMD thinking via the internet. There are also regular events from smaller meetings around the world to bigger full-day setpieces on the Lausanne campus.

“One of the NGOs’ main drivers is to send a signal to executives in their own organisations that there is great value in personal development,” says Paul Hunter, CLN director.

“But I’d say the prime reason is to interact with different types of organisation. That offers exposure to different opinions, possibly complementary – but also possibly divergent and even conflicting – all of which can be very valuable.”

With its custom-made programme, WWF has gone even further. The contents have been “sharpened up” each year, but the objectives remain the same, explains John Weeks, IMD’s professor of leadership and organisational behaviour.

“Each of its [WWF’s] constituent countries is a separate legal entity. That gives the group greater credibility by being seen as native. But a lot of what it wants to achieve comes through co-ordinate global initiatives. They don’t want to change their structure, because they like it. But they do want to operate as “One WWF” when necessary.”

A regular feature of WWF’s “Leading at the Top” programme is focused accordingly on organisational issues, such as maintaining the agility and credibility of a loose confederation, while reaping the benefits of speaking in unison.

The WWF’s structure and challenges are similar to groups in the business world, notes Prof Weeks.

The case studies that feature in WWF’s programme regularly involve looking at big companies: Nestlé, the Swiss foods group that takes pride in its decentralised, but effective, structure, has been an obvious candidate of the annual two and a half day programme, held either at IMD or off-site near WWF’s headquarters, with up to 70 WWF country leaders attending.

The WWF is an enthusiastic proponent of business education. Last year it launched the One Planet MBA in partnership with Exeter Business School in the UK, the first business degree created jointly by a business school and an NGO and WWF-France is working with Audencia Nantes School of Management in France.

The two NGOs and IMD have few reservations about how their partnerships have developed. While the WWF and the ICRC have gained exposure to management best practice, skill building and insight into some of the companies they confront, IMD has a better understanding of organisations that can be significant for its mainstream corporate clients.

“If we had more NGOs in the CLN, it would be to everybody’s benefit,” adds Prof Hunter.

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