Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to conceptualise the extent to which partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are a necessity for successful efforts of businesses in the area of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Design/methodology/approach – The main findings are based on an analysis of existing literature on NGO typologies and strategies for CSR and illustrated with examples from the Dutch National Research Program on CSR. Findings – Based on three different strategies towards CSR, the suggestion is that NGOs tend to become involved in partnerships with companies that have an interest in postponing concrete results, while partnerships with companies that have the potential for the biggest contribution to the ambitions of NGOs have the highest risk of diminishing NGO-legitimacy. Research limitations/implications – This is a conceptual paper. Suggestions are given to test the hypotheses put forward as well as the actual results associated with each of the strategies towards corporate social responsibility. Practical implications – Whatever strategy a company opts for, managers should be aware that every strategy has a reverse side. Being aware of the weak spots of one's own strategy is important to anticipate claims associated with one of the other strategies. Originality/value – Theory in the field of CSR emphasises the necessity to involve NGOs in embedding social issues in the strategies and day-to-day operations of organisations. This paper proves that this emphasis is not always justified and presents arguments when certain forms of NGO involvement are required.