Intel-OLPC split, a cause for concern?

Rare rift between cause-related partners proves that such arrangements can meet a bitter end

The abundance of for-profit/nonprofit relationships forged in recent months has created strong bonds between entities committed to philanthropy. However, there are always exceptions.

On January 3, Intel announced that it had severed ties with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), its partner since July. While Intel has merely said that the two groups had "philosophical" differences about how best to provide inexpensive laptops to third-world markets, OLPC has been vocal about its anger.

"We at OLPC have been disappointed that Intel did not deliver on any of the promises they made when they joined," reads a statement. "Despite OLPC's best efforts to work things out with Intel and several warnings that their behavior was untenable, it is clear that Intel's heart has never been in working collaboratively as part of OLPC."

"[They did] not live up to their agreement...," says Jackie Lustig, SVP of W2 Racepoint Public Relations, the organization's pro-bono PR agency.

Intel joined the OLPC board of directors in July 2007 and pledged to contribute $18 million to the group, despite the two having a strained history.

The current rift is due to the OLPC's XO computer coming with a processor produced by Intel competitor Advanced Micro Devices. Intel has a low-cost computer of its own, the Classmate PC, which can be considered a XO competitor. Intel was not available for comment at press time.

Even with the high number of corporate/nonprofit partnerships in existence, it's rare to hear such a public discussion about a relationship gone sour. Still, the possibility for another falling out is there, and when nonprofits and corporations part ways bitterly, it can have negative consequences for both sides.

"Everyone needs to realize that you go into [these relationships] with a commitment, but that goals and objectives might change," says Kathy Rogers, VP of cause initiatives and integrated marketing at the American Heart Association.

Rogers stresses keeping the lines of communication open. Even when "mission-aligned" organizations come together, there are ways to resolve any overlap or conflict.

"You may have duplicative services or offerings," notes Rogers. "You have to talk about what assets you're going to use at each organization."

"Every nonprofit should be looking at being diversified with their partners," adds Rogers. "[A split] impacts the nonprofit. It impacts their resources, their ability to market through their partners... You need to be out there looking for opportunities."

The coverage of OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte's acrimony could make finding a replacement partner difficult, however.

"It's unusual for NGOs to be as public as OLPC has been because it sends signals to other would-be corporate partners that this result can happen to them," says Kristian Darigan, VP at Cone.

Coverage of the situation has implied that Intel may have shown greater interest in selling its laptop than in benefiting the cause. But Intel has stressed its support of the larger CSR issue, which Darigan feels could ultimately protect its reputation.

"[Intel has] been transparent in discussing the facts of the case and being immediately forthcoming with information when asked about why they chose to invest and again why they chose to sever," she explains.

While this bitterly severed relationship appears to be an anomaly that could have been avoided, cause-related partnerships show no signs of abating, so the potential for future problems is present.

"There's a level of sophistication among most large NGOs," notes Darigan. "They have ways of working with corporate partners that are up-front. [But as] corporations get more involved with NGOs, there's a chance that... you might see a severing of ties making the news."

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