This article was first published in the June 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and corporates are very different beasts, but David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), says he is determined to break down the walls between the sectors. ‘We are moving from an age of corporate social responsibility into an age of corporate social results,’ he says. ‘The IRC wants to help businesses deliver those corporate social results. That means that it is a relationship and not a transaction.’ And he wants the accountancy profession to play its part. 

Miliband has led the New York-based agency since September 2013. He left UK politics after a career that included holding the post of foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010 in the last Labour administration. He became leader of the IRC after he lost out to his younger brother Ed in his bid to become Labour leader.

In his IRC role he wants the corporate world to play a full part in dealing with the biggest humanitarian issues on the planet. ‘Corporate partnership strategy has to be about the transfer of ideas, the transfer of experience, the exchange of people as well as the writing of cheques,’ he says. ‘We think we can develop a new phase of partnership.’

Miliband says the way in which NGOs and corporates see each other is maturing. ‘In a previous era there was hostility, then there were transactions, and now there are relationships and partnerships,’ he says. He cites the IRC’s partnership with US multinational GE, where there is a sharing of ideas, people and goals: ‘They have come to share our mission because they understand the work we do.’

Corporate contribution

It could be argued that the IRC needs little from the corporate sector. It is a substantial organisation in its own right, with 11,000 employees, many of whom are engaged in 30 of the most difficult places in the world to work – think Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan as well as states challenged by the refugee crisis such as Lebanon and Greece. ‘We’re running big supply chains and big IT systems, so that is why I think there is experience in the corporate sector that is valuable to us,’ says Miliband. ‘There are also development opportunities for private sector staff to gain experience working with us.’

Miliband says that as long as the IRC and its partners are ‘doing the right thing’, then there are only upsides; he says he takes it as a given that corporates are good citizens paying their correct share of tax, for instance. ‘We work in risky places, but that is not a risk to our corporate partners; rather, it is a measure of their commitment in trying to reach some of the most vulnerable people in the world,’ he says. ‘Getting healthcare, education, water and sanitation to Syrian refugees is the work of high moral purpose. It speaks well of our corporate sponsors that they want to do good for innocent victims of conflicts.’

Miliband describes sponsors’ involvement as a meeting of the practical and the philanthropic. For instance, the US restaurant chain Chipotle has offered jobs to hundreds of IRC refugees. ‘Companies can help us solve problems such as integrating refugees, and they demonstrate that they are part of the success of the modern world and they also want to help remedy its failings,’ he says.

Together with its sponsors, the IRC is moving into the front line, solving crises left or created by governments around the world. Miliband says: ‘We could wish there weren’t 20 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced, but there are. We can either stand away or engage. My message is, let’s engage.’

Security from trust

The message that Miliband is keen to convey to the accountancy world is that the IRC is an NGO that is serious about measurable outcomes, serious about having an evidence base to its work, and serious about achieving value for money. ‘Value for money is about efficiency and effectiveness,’ he says. ‘We are proud that 93 cents out of every dollar given to us goes to our programmes. We are bureaucracy-light and programme-heavy.’ That doesn’t mean that the IRC skimps on HR or security, though. ‘Partners need to know we take these seriously. But security comes from the trust of the local population, not from armed guards, even in dangerous places.’

Miliband says that the IRC is aware of the risk that pro bono work could lack quality. ‘Our best insurance for these partnerships is that there are real, measurable outcomes.’ And part of that measurement comes from the clients, the people that the IRC is helping. ‘We are finding ways such as customer satisfaction surveys, which are common in the advanced world, so why should they not be used on displaced people?’ The IRC is building experience and templates, and it is an area where corporates could add value.

As CEO of a US$700m organisation, Miliband is well aware of the weight of corporate governance responsibilities, including important fiduciary responsibilities. ‘We share the need for professionalism and integrity, which I see as the hallmark of the accountancy profession and which is equally important to us.’

Miliband recalls how, when he was in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in autumn 2015, he met a British accountant who said that his daughter had asked him what his profession was doing about the global refugee crisis. Miliband repeats that question, adding: ‘The NGO sector – including the IRC – could benefit from working with accountants wherever they are based. 

‘IRC values real partnerships, pro bono help and financial support. I would appeal to ACCA and its members for that help,’ he says. ‘Through ACCA it would be great for the IRC to break into the accountancy profession.’

Peter Williams, accountant and journalist