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Lennaert Rooijakkers

18 maart 2022

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An effective partnership between a major corporation and an NGO: what does that look like? To answer that question, Vice Versa visited Randstad, which has been collaborating with development organisation VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) for the past seventeen years. Randstad top executive Jacques van den Broek and VSO director Erik Ackerman reveal the secrets of their success: ‘Sometimes, a partnership is like a marriage.’ 

Anyone drinking a cup of coffee at Randstad’s head office, located between Amsterdam and Diemen, sees a remarkable message printed on the cardboard cups: ‘Imagine what we can do together’. It is the slogan of the partnership between Randstad and VSO.

Jacques van den Broek, who will hand over the reins to his successor this  spring after leading the company for eight years, explains the thought behind this message. ‘We want to show that this kind of partnership is something we all contribute to’, he says, ‘instead of it being a pet project for a few people. The cup is also a good conversation starter. Many people here are unaware of our collaboration with VSO and the added value it can have for their personal and professional development. This helps to put it on the agenda and makes it easier to get people excited about it. If you don’t do that, no one will ask themselves if it can benefit their career in some way. As a company, you have to show how much you value the partnership. Otherwise, you might as well give it up altogether.’

Since 2004, Randstad and VSO have been working together on projects related to employment and income in a large number of African and Asian countries. These projects help young people, women and people with a disability in marginalised areas gain access to the employment market.

Randstad contributes both funding and volunteers to the project, helps VSO recruit suitable volunteers and provides access to technology and its company networks. Randstad employees who contribute to the VSO programmes (primarily staffing consultants, as well as some employment facilitators) share their knowledge and expertise within the projects and offer advice about recruitment and selection and ways to strengthen the organisation.

Jacques van den Broek (left) and Erik Ackerman

In the past seventeen years, more than three hundred employees spent anywhere from six weeks to nine months sharing their expertise – and enjoying an unforgettable experience in the process – as part of one of the VSO’s programmes. ‘The knowledge that Randstad brings to the table truly complements our own’, says VSO director Erik Ackerman. ‘It mostly has to do with what we call career guidance. How can you prepare for your future career, where do your opportunities lie, how can we analyse the employment market? It helps us better understand what the private sector in, say, Kenya or Tanzania need, so we can prepare young people for that.’

A long-term partnership like this, with the two parties combining their strengths all over the world, might lead one to believe that Randstad and VSO have been happily married for seventeen years. That quickly leads to question of what the secret behind their partnership’s success is. Van den Broek is eager to clear something up first. ‘Things did not go quite that well at first’, he freely admits. Why was that? Without hesitation, he continues: ‘VSO’s former management team was quite stubborn.   For example, it believed itself to be better able to select people for our joint programmes than we were. ‘I’ll admit that there are a couple of things that Randstad may not be that good at, but that is absolutely not one of them. The great thing about a partnership like this is that it can boost your effectiveness, as long as an NGO is willing to accept input from the world of business. That didn’t always go smoothly during the early years.’

There were other issues that plagued the partnership in its infancy, he recalls. Randstad employees were often assigned to projects that they could not necessarily contribute to, such as those designed to support local elections. Then there was the lack of continuity, which meant there was not always a successor available. This took the wind out of a project’s sails. ‘It happened all the time’, Van den Broek says. ‘It was all too random and disorganised. As a result, there were few people who could tell you just how valuable the projects really were.’

The executive believes all this could have easily led to the end of the partnership after a decade. Nevertheless, six years or so ago Randstad and VSO decided to give their collaboration a second chance. ‘The need to shake things up was stronger than the need to pull the plug’, Van den Broek says. ‘We therefore asked ourselves what our original intentions were. Training, coaching and helping people find work, that is what we do every single day at Randstad and that is what we had to focus on going forward.

‘In hindsight, I’m not sure if we would even be here today if we hadn’t taken action when we did. VSO’s management now also has a much more open attitude.’

Randstad employees at work in a VSO project on Zanzibar (Photo VSO)

What has concretely changed this past few years? According to Van den Broek and Ackerman, there is now a far greater focus on the impact that their partnership can have on creating employment opportunities for young people. While preparing for a new project, the added value that their partnership can offer is carefully considered, as are the knowledge and skills needed to make the project a success.

That sounds logical, but in the past this was done on location or usually (too) late. ‘As a development organisation, we have a tendency to hop from one programme to the next’, Ackerman says. That means VSO has had to adopt a new perspective. Especially in the last two years, we began looking at exactly how we can systematise the methods we employ in our programmes to help young people find work, so we do not have to reinvent the wheel every single time. Randstad certainly contributed to that.’

He gives an example of a programme in Tanzania that revolves around vocational training for marginalised youths. ‘Even before the start of the project, we clearly mapped out what was needed and where the opportunities on the employment market could be found. We established a career centre and began helping young people with their preparation to enter the employment market. They are taught how to present themselves, how to write a CV and how to prepare for a job interview. It was a success and we have since begun using the same approach elsewhere.’

Soon, those same lessons will be applied as part of a new project in Cambodia, where VSO and Randstad target poor fishing communities. ‘The work available in that region is far too limited’, Ackerman says. ‘Not everyone can become a fisherman and there are many labour migrants returning from Thailand, who also have to find new work. Together with Randstad, we are looking for ways to prepare young people, many of whom have no formal education, for other professions, perhaps in a sector that is not immediately obvious.’

Where do the opportunities lie over there? ‘There is a strong need for craftsmen with various technical skills. We also try to improve the youths’ digital skills, although “tech” is a major hurdle at the moment because the infrastructure is not good enough in all countries. Nevertheless, it is a very promising sector. In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, we have launched a new tech programme that is designed to help fifteen hundred young people find work.’

Van den Broek adds: ‘In our projects with VSO, we often saw people being trained for jobs in sectors where the supply already far outweighs the demand. We would then open up the discussion: this training programme is set up a certain way, but isn’t there something else we can do for these people, perhaps in IT? We always begin by looking at what the employment market needs and then sit down together to find the right solution.’

Ackerman believes that the current approach keeps both Randstad and VSO on their toes: ‘We want to realise economic growth in the areas we operate in, but we must also be mindful of social inequality and reach out to vulnerable demographics. That is exactly what this partnership is all about.’

An NGO should keep doing what it is best at, he emphasises, instead of suddenly changing its course just because it is working together with a corporation. The world of business will ultimately benefit from that as well, Ackerman believes. ‘Once there is more democratisation and if young people’s voices are being heard more clearly’, he says, ‘that will be good for the investment climate as well. This kind of partnership can be a real win-win situation for NGOs and businesses alike.’

According to Van den Broek, what helps is that Randstad and VSO share some fundamental similarities. ‘Every year, Randstad helps two million people find work; among them are many who need support in some way. To a certain extent, our goal is the same: we are both trying to improve people’s lives.’

There are also plenty of differences, he says with a smile: ‘Personally, I believe in getting to work, taking care of the problem at hand and once it has been solved, you’re done. Look at the problem of youths and employment in Africa, though: with this partnership, we have been able to help four to five thousand people build a better future for themselves. It is little more than a drop in the ocean. I have a tendency to think that we will never be able to solve this problem, but VSO has a different mindset. Working hard every day and keeping yourself motivated; I think that is really impressive.’

Ackerman: ‘Development organisations often do things thoroughly, although some might call it slow, while businesses are used to getting things done much faster. You have to know that about each other. Many partnerships revolve around projects with a lead time of just three or four years. We took a much longer path, but it helped us get to where we are today. Instead of only thinking about your own interests, you also have to ask yourself what you really want to achieve together and what results you want to be able to look back on with pride at the end of the year.’

Monica Masele (34) works behind the cash register in a Uturn supermarket in Tanzania. She received her training from Randstad and VSO

If it is up to Randstad and VSO, their partnership will be around for quite a while yet. How do you keep things innovative and effective? That needn’t be hard, says Van den Broek. ‘Get together every year and evaluate where you stand and how things are going. Sometimes, a partnership is like a marriage.’

Still: if Ackerman and Van den Broek could switch jobs for a day, wouldn’t they try to make a few changes in each other’s organisations? Not necessarily, they claim. Ackerman: ‘If I were to spend a day in Jacques’ shoes, I would visit a VSO project and utilise that knowledge of Randstad’s management for the good of the partnership. I would also think about how we can keep taking our projects to the next level over the next five years.’

Van den Broek: ‘I would certainly want to discuss the questions of what you can use your partners for and how we can improve our effectiveness. I believe there is more VSO can do to benefit from the knowledge that Randstad already possesses. During the corona crisis, we learned a whole lot about how to continue projects remotely. I would try to expand that structure. You have to keep looking for ways to improve your collaboration, because it is not always a given in a public-private partnership. Even after seventeen years, you have to keep each other’s eye on the ball.’

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