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Intermediary Mechanisms in Humanitarian Collaboration

Abstract: This article is based on the findings of a research study and report on the role of 15 intermediary mechanisms- ‘platforms’[1]– and how they promote and foster private sector collaboration for disasters and humanitarian action[2].  The research was conducted by the Humanitarian Futures Programme, King’s College London, with support provided by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. Through in-depth interviews as well as desk-based research, the study sought to understand the origins, role, and the various activities undertaken by platforms and how they measure their impact.

How Intermediary Mechanisms Broker Private Sector-Humanitarian Collaboration

Increasingly, policy-makers and planners are inclined to look to the “private sector”[3] as a source for assuming a range of activities that traditionally have been the responsibility of governments, donors, multi-laterals, and international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There are clear benefits for the private sector to engage in crisis contexts. For example, on the part of the humanitarian sector it allows them to tap into the private sector’s know-how in such things as logistics, supply chains and communications expertise as well as its capabilities in strategic thinking and innovation.  Benefits for the private sector include being able to access and test out new markets, expand their brand, enhance their visibility, and share their core competencies.

However, there are also challenges and risks to engagement, as detailed in table 1 below.

 Table 1: Barriers to effective private sector engagement in development and humanitarian action*
Information and understanding
  • Much of the private sector is not familiar with the structures and institutions within the humanitarian sector and thus struggles in negotiating the complex environment.§  Perceived differences in motives and drivers for engagement in humanitarian action.
  • Lack of common language and terminology.
  • Lack of understanding among private sector of the principles and standards that the humanitarian sector seeks to abide by.
  • Lack of clarity and understanding about competencies and entry points for the private sector’s engagement, and areas where the private sector has considerable expertise and added value.
  • Concerns about sharing proprietary information.
  • Lack of information of how the risks of working together are understood and managed.
  • Lack of evidence of impact of humanitarian-private sector collaboration.
Cultural differences
  • Differences in how the private sector and humanitarian sectors measure success assess impact and their approach to accountability and visibility.
  • Suspicion and distrust of motivations of the private sector.
  • Perception of humanitarians as lacking effectiveness or aspiring to impractical outcomes.
  • Lack of mutual understanding and trust.
Capacity and resources
  • Difference in timescales (e.g. duration of involvement or interest), operating methods (e.g. success measures, accountability), and decision making processes (e.g. different legal entity models, organisational cultures).
  • Barriers of scale as partnerships are often small scale and ad hoc rather than strategic.
  • Transaction costs, in terms of time and resources, required to build collaboration.
  • Imbalance between time and resources that can be committed by humanitarian organisations and private sector counterparts.
  • External factors, such as economic downturns and changes in leadership, can jeopardise arrangements.
  • Challenges of cooperation between ‘traditional’ humanitarian actors and  ‘new’ actors.
  • Lack of common models and processes for collaboration.

* Compiled from various sources: Wassenhove 2006, Thomas and Fritz 2006, Raish et al 2007, Shamir 2004, Utting 2000, Lukas 2002, Binder and Witte 2007, IBLF/ Harvard n.d., Nelson and Prescott 2005, Bridges et al 2010, Wassenhove et al 2006, Kent and Burke 2011.

One of the ways that practitioners and analysts have proposed to address some of the challenges to private sector engagement in humanitarian action is through ‘platforms’ – intermediary mechanisms that exist to facilitate the systematic involvement of the private sector in disasters and humanitarian action.[4] This demand for better facilities to support more effective private sector engagement echoes across the disaster management spectrum. However, little has been written on how intermediary mechanisms develop and are managed, and how they can support private sector engagement across the full spectrum of humanitarian action, now and in the future.

Because information about platforms is not readily available, the study was conceived to provide a starting point to better understand what they do, the different types of models and forms they currently take, and their perceived added value and impact. In the absence of any commonly accepted definition for platforms, a wide range of concepts are included under the umbrella of ‘platform’, including networks, strategic alliances, consortiums and partnerships.  The key defining features of a platform are that it is a multi-faceted entity that exists to promote and support engagement:

  • Enhance the capacity of the private sector to contribute to humanitarian action;
  • Promote business continuity/reduce private sector vulnerability to crises
  • Support greater effectiveness of humanitarian organisations
  • Enable broad, multi-stakeholder collaboration beyond private sector and humanitarian organisations.


How do platforms help broker private sector – humanitarian collaboration in practice?

The study identified nine core services[5] offered by platforms, one of which focused on matching and brokering services which broadly include:

Matching / brokering
  • Consulting with stakeholders to understand their needs, expectations and challenges
  • Developing understanding in advance of making a pre-partnership agreementProviding information on organisations
  • Verification/screening/due diligence
  • Linking and connecting organisations
  • Referral beyond platform
  • Review and evaluation of matching processes
  • Supporting alliance/ partnership formation
  • Distributing funds or identifying where funds should go


Further analysis on the matching and brokering role that platforms play suggests there are three ways that platforms facilitate private sector engagement in humanitarian action:  [1] the provision of matching services towards improved philanthropy; [2] facilitating partnerships and projects based on sharing core competencies for improving humanitarian action; and [3] brokering and facilitating collaboration for more ‘systemic’ or transformative change within the wider humanitarian system.


Platforms working in this role primarily provide tailored services to match humanitarian need with private sector supply with respect to the donation of money or goods and services in times of disasters. For example, companies may have goods to offer but lack a good idea of who might need them and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) may face difficulties in accepting these types of items as goods have a much narrower usage than cash so it is harder to find an appropriate recipient. Brokering between the private sector and humanitarian organisations can help ensure that available goods get to where they are needed.

Platform’s services may include organisational screening and vetting, linking together donors and recipients, researching and providing information on organisations, providing guidance to the private sector and humanitarian actors on what makes a successful donor and recipient relationship, and in some cases, distributing funds and monitoring the performance of the relationship. As well as acting as a clearinghouse to match donors and recipients, some platforms themselves act as the neutral mechanism for the transfer of funds, with donations being made by the private sector directly to the platform, which then disperses them to humanitarian partners. The platform may or may not follow-up with reports on usage of the funds or in-kind donations.

Using core competencies and skills

Platforms working in this role support the private sector to contribute its core competencies and skills in a systematic manner so as to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian action. This can take the form of the private sector delivering humanitarian services or working in partnership with humanitarian agencies to complement its capacity.  The collaboration may be through a one-to-one partnership or call for several NGOs to come together to engage with one or more private sector actors to address a specific operational challenge, e.g. to create a common technology platform for disaster response, set common standards for the donation of medical supplies or partnering with the private sector for the delivery of cash-based relief assistance using mobile phone technology and debit cards.

Here, the overall role of the platforms is to help build a shared understanding of the specific technical or operational need, build shared purpose, and help ensure the best allocation or pooling of the capacities and resources of humanitarian and private sector members to meet those needs.

To carry out this role, a wide range of activities can be undertaken by the platform, including supporting joint problem solving on operational challenges for which the private sector platform members have expertise and competencies, including identifying and developing different partnership options.  Platforms may support ways that the private sector can more effectively collaborate and use their skills in a humanitarian context, for example through delivering (or outsourcing to humanitarian training providers). They may provide briefings and training to the private sector on the humanitarian system, the realities of humanitarian operations, and how to effectively leverage staff volunteering capacity. Some platforms also provide capacity development support to its members in partnering skills.  Others help with partnership review and evaluation and aiding internal and external communications on performance and impact.

Transforming humanitarian action

In the role of supporting transformative change, platforms focus on addressing the limitations and gaps that hinder the ability of the broader humanitarian system to anticipate and respond effectively to the increasingly complex crises challenges they face. Illustrative problems could include developing a national framework to link disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and community resilience, or brokering the development of a global set of norms to incorporate the expertise and capabilities of new humanitarian actors (military, private sector, diaspora) into the international humanitarian architecture.

At this end of the spectrum the platform’s brokering role is designed to help build collective action and changes in the way humanitarian action is conceived and delivered. The change is generally conceived and led by what are referred to in the international development sector as ‘coalitions of the willing’,  based on cross-sector collaboration which, depending on the challenge and the context, may bring together actors from development and humanitarian organisations, civil society, government, the scientific community, and the multi-company sector actors.  LEAD and the UN Global Compact (2011) identify four required characteristics for transformative partnerships which were used in the study to help define what platforms would do to facilitate transformative action:  [1] address a systems issue, [2] leverage the core competencies of all partners, [3] involve an appropriate set of stakeholders and [4] ensure capacity to achieve lasting impact.

Currently, what platforms look like in practice to facilitate transformative humanitarian change is less clear than for the other two categories. However, some of the specific activities a platform may provide, as identified in the study as well as in other materials, include support to organise and facilitate multi-level dialogue fora on ‘systemic’ themes and issues, locating collaborators, helping actors to identify their leveragable assets, standard setting for how the collaboration will work, experimenting with and evaluating new forms of collaboration and consensus building across non-traditional partners, brokering innovation, process consultation, brokering leadership engagement, capacity development for collaboration, reviewing, documenting and disseminating best practices.[6]

Across the three roles, the platform needs to be perceived as a neutral, transparent and trusted third party, with the ability to work on all sides of the collaboration. Characteristics expressed by study participants to be fundamental to the platform’s effectiveness included having a passion for what you do, having a culture of ‘going the extra mile’ –not just delivering on what is expected, being able to operate independently of the agenda of any one member, and able to bridge the cultural gulf between humanitarian agencies and the private sector.

The impact and evidence of platforms’ success

How do the platforms define and measure their impact?  All the platforms recognised the importance of assessing the impact of their work but reported they did not have systematic and clearly articulated ways of doing this.  A number of challenges were noted to achieving this, including the difficulty in judging the intangible benefits of relationship-building, attributing impact on collaborative ventures and separating and assessing impact at multiple levels involving the platform itself, member organisations and that of affected communities.

This raises two concerns. Does the lack of attention by the platforms to define and demonstrate the impact of their services constrain their members’ ability to assess their own impact in terms of improved humanitarian outcomes?  And, what impact might the lack of evidence of platforms’ work have on their ability to attract new members or to make a case for continued support from existing members or donors?  Having a better impact evidence base would also go a long way in informing how collaboration for humanitarian action is changing and how the private sector’s role and engagement is evolving.

On the success side, a perceived added-value of platforms is that they help address crisis challenges that individual organisations or one-on-one partnerships are unable to overcome alone.  Platforms provide a clear access point for the private sector to engage in humanitarian action. They help overcome common challenges to engagement by providing a safe space for dialogue, reducing competition, developing enhanced partnering capacity, and helping members present a united voice.

Finally, the research team found no common source where information on platforms could be found nor any initiatives designed to facilitate exchange between platforms. Consequently, there is not a good body of knowledge on the role of intermediary mechanisms or on how the private sector can contribute to humanitarian action.  Such initiatives could go a long way in supporting the development of an evidence base on platforms’ impact and how collaboration is enhancing humanitarian effectiveness in a rapidly changing crisis landscape.  Towards that end, the research team will be conducting a webinar with participants from the study to facilitate cross-platform exchange of good practices with respect to how they are addressing common barriers and challenges for measuring impact.


Platforms clearly have an important role to play in fostering collaboration and helping the humanitarian sector ensure it has the capacity to address the complex challenges it faces, both today and tomorrow.

Whilst a small study, the “Platforms for Private Sector-Humanitarian Collaboration” study is the first open investigation into the operations of platforms that facilitate private sector engagement in humanitarian action. The study acts as a basis for broader debate beyond the original scope of this research.  Further, the findings can serve as the basis for developing a forward looking research agenda and knowledge base on humanitarian –private sector platforms and be the basis for developing a capacity development strategy designed to support platforms more broadly to address the gaps and challenges that they face.

The authors welcome comments on the article and would be interested to hear from the broader brokering community, both those from within the humanitarian sector and those working in other sectors, on their views and experience of working with intermediary organizations.

The authors

Joanne Burke Joanne Burke
Joanne is a PBA Accredited partnership broker.  Her career has focused on international development and humanitarian action, working with the U.S. Government, the United Nations and with international non-governmental organizations. She served for ten years with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) as the regional representative for the South Pacific and the manager of OFDA’s Global Disaster Management Training Programme.  For the United Nations, working with the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, she led the redesign of the UN Disaster Management Training Programme (UN DMTP) to be an inter-agency initiative of UNDP, UN ISDR and UNOCHA focused on capacity development for disaster risk reduction –CADRI.   She currently works with the Humanitarian Futures Programme, King’s College London as their Partnership Manager.

Lucy PearsonLucy Pearson
Lucy is the Programme Officer at the Humanitarian Futures Programme, Kings College London. Her research currently focuses on the changing role of the private sector and other “non-traditional” actors in humanitarian action. She has worked in a number of NGOs and research agencies, with prior research spanning the better application of science for disaster risk reduction in Africa, the resilience of vulnerable groups to heatwaves in Europe, and the impact of disasters on gender relations in Asia. She previously worked at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre on safer development planning and implementation, with a focus on mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into development processes in countries across South and South East Asia.

[1] Platforms included in the study: The Aidmatrix Foundation, USA; Business for Peace Alliance (BPA) Sri Lanka; Business in the Community (BITC) UK; CiYuan, China; Corporate Network for Disaster Response (CNDR) Philippines; Disaster Management Alliance (DMA) Latin America, USA; Disaster Resource Network (DRN) India; Fleet Forum, Switzerland; Global Hand, Hong Kong; Kenyans for Kenya (K4K), Kenya; NetHope, USA; Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT) Fiji; Pacific Platform for Disaster Risk Management, Fiji; Partnerships for Quality Medical Donations (PQMD) USA; US Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Centre (BCLC) USA; World Economic Forum Logistics Emergency Team (LET) Switzerland.

[2] Humanitarian action refers not only to relief operations but also to a wide spectrum of activities from prevention and disaster risk reduction through to preparedness, response, recovery, reconstruction and development.

[3] The term private sector refers to that part of the economy that is owned and controlled by individuals and organisations through private ownership.  The term includes state owned enterprises under state capitalism.

[4] In the absence of any commonly accepted definition for platforms, the term platform was used as an overarching concept that refers to any type of mechanisms that aims to facilitate the engagement of the private sector in humanitarian action.  The study found a great deal of ambiguity and overlap in many of the related collaboration concepts used to refer to platforms including network, strategic alliance, consortium and partnerships, online platforms.

[5] Services included: advocacy, capacity development for private sector and humanitarian partners, information sharing/dissemination, innovation, matching/brokering, policy/standards, project implementation, relationship building (online and face-to-face) and thought leadership.

[6]  Drawn from: CSR Initiative: The Role of the Private Sector in Expanding Economic Opportunity through Collaboration Action:  A Leadership Dialogue –Harvard University, October 2007, p. 8 and Austin, J. The Collaboration Challenge (2000), Harvard Business School, p. 59-60 and

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