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How to generate shared value

Originally published: April 2017. | Last reviewed: April 2018.

The age of corporate social responsibility — when a company might be satisfied with employing a corporate social responsibility manager and publishing some highlights every so often — is on its way out. Rather than seeing social impact as an add-on, the most progressive CEOs consider responsibility to people and planet as core to their business strategy.

For such firms, working with nonprofits is no longer a case of handing over the cash and snapping a few media-friendly photos. Rather, they're looking for deeper involvement that generates shared value or growth-value partnerships.

What companies want from a partnership

That shift is good news for nonprofits, who can benefit significantly from the expertise, in-kind support and high-profile brand leverage that a committed corporate partner can bring. But what do businesses themselves want — and expect — from a charity partnership? And what does this mean for how you approach them?

1. Positive branding

For most nonprofits, how you're seen by outsiders matters. A positive image is just as important for businesses — who perhaps face a bigger battle: only 37 percent of people now trust business leaders, according to Edelman's latest annual trust survey, a drop of 12 percent from 2016. C&E's Corporate NGO Partnerships Barometer 2016 found that more than 90 percent of U.K. companies surveyed partnered with NGOs primarily because of the potential benefits for their brand or corporate reputation.

What this means for nonprofits: Even if potential partners aren't only after the perfect PR opportunity, it's likely a major incentive — just as it may be for your organization. (Similarly, each side will be wary of entering into partnerships that could cause reputational damage and may need reassurance that this isn't a risk.) Be open about what each of you expects in terms of visibility, and use early discussions to explore ideas for generating the kind of exposure each partner needs.

2. New ideas and networks

Companies are also becoming more aware of the value NGOs can bring in terms of new ideas and new networks: 68 percent of companies polled by C&E said innovation and access to people and contacts were a reason for partnering. And business leaders understand that to be successful, it's best to learn from a wide range of perspectives. Danish biomedical firm Novozymes aims to learn and grow by working with partners who are specifically not like them and who, therefore, introduce them to new industries and sectors of the population. For example, they partner with schools in Brazil and with textile companies in India.

What this means for nonprofits: Don't underestimate the value you can offer in the form of people, connections, ideas and experience. Remember to highlight these in early discussions with potential partners.

3. Something distinctive or unique

Companies often want to be part of a social action that's creative, original and eye-catching. The unusual idea of getting people to knit tiny hats for Innocent's smoothie bottles back in 2003, for example, has become a yearly fundraising campaign, generating nearly £2 million to date for Age UK.

What this means for nonprofits: Don't assume the best option is to imitate other successful partnerships. Offer an open mind. While fresh ideas are welcome, creating something together will appeal to those corporates looking for something deeper than just sponsorship. "It is much harder to get such corporates on board with a fully developed campaign than it is to engage them to work together in shaping it," advises Michelle Halse, director and founder of partnership brokers Living Collaborations. "Ask partners about their innovation processes — see if you can use them together to design something new."

4. A match that advances their interests

There's no point in going too creative if joining up doesn't make good business sense. While many partners will talk publicly about the importance of shared values, in reality it's common interests or objectives that seal the deal. Coca Cola and WWF may seem unlikely bedfellows, but both want to ensure a sustainable supply of clean water. They've been working together since 2007.

What this means for nonprofits: Understanding the other side's interests is essential. Don't assume you already know; ask questions rather than pitching specific ideas. What are their strategic priorities? Where are they hoping to grow? What is their customer feedback telling them? What risks are they trying to manage? Be prepared to share your interests, too. Openness is an important first step to uncovering partnering opportunities.

5. Social responsibility that makes good business sense

Business leaders increasingly see socially and environmentally responsible business as an investment, helping to attract talent and increasing appeal among customers. More than 90 percent of U.S. millennials say they'd switch brands to one associated with a cause, according to Cone Communications, and some studies have also found that companies that have adopted sustainability policies financially outperform those that have not.

This movement from corporate social responsibility to enlightened self-interest — doing the right thing, but doing it because it's beneficial to all — is catching on globally. More than 9,000 companies worldwide have signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary commitment to act responsibly on human rights, anti-corruption, environment and labor, as well as to report on their efforts.

What this means for nonprofits: Businesses have a part to play in tackling major social challenges — and not just with funding, but through their products, services, expertise and innovation. Tap into this momentum by seeking potential partners who are looking to step into this role, and convey how your organization's work fits into the puzzle, too.

6. Staff engagement

It's not only consumers who have high expectations of companies. Employees increasingly want to work for a company that gives them a chance to use their skills and experience for social good. Partnerships that involve staff at different levels allow employers to meet those expectations, while exposing employees to new challenges and boosting professional development. More than 75 percent of companies said they consider staff engagement when deciding which partner to work with, according to research by For Momentum.

What this means for nonprofits: Could a team of company employees get involved as volunteers for a day? Could they design and run their own fundraising challenge? Could one or two of them provide pro bono support over several months, helping you with IT, human resources or strategy? How could you work together on an ongoing basis, in a way that helps achieve both business and nonprofit goals?

7. Measurable impact

Just like nonprofits, corporates want to know they're having an impact, and to be able to demonstrate the outcomes of a partnership — to their board, their shareholders, their customers and fans, and their employees. Data showing that the partnership made a difference was a top priority for corporates in their nonprofit partnerships, according to For Momentum.

What this means for nonprofits: Show a potential partner that you have a proven track record in delivering results. Impact measurement can be a minefield, but nonprofits able to go beyond outputs and look at lives changed can bring significant value to a partnership, Halse says. After all, such analysis may be unfamiliar territory to businesses. "It's also important to determine together what success looks like," Halse says. "Don't assume the partner's idea of impact is the same as yours."

What companies want from a partner

Companies want to work with a nonprofit that demonstrates:

  • Commitment. A nonprofit's attitude to a partnership is "very important" to companies, say the experts at Remarkable Partnerships. "They want a partner who will go the extra mile and shows tenacity to deliver results. They also want the charity to be committed to overcoming any obstacles in their partnership."
  • Professionalism. Businesspeople may be wary of the notorious inefficiency in the nonprofit sector, so they'll want to see that your organization is efficient and responsive.
  • Rigor. Potential partners want to know you don't present a reputational risk. That means you need to be beyond reproach in terms of financial management, governance and so on. A clean bill of health from your auditor and any sector memberships or licenses that demonstrate credibility may also be useful.
  • Understanding of the private sector. Previous corporate partnerships will help. If this is your first, highlight relevant experience of senior staff members or board members.

A final word

Just as no nonprofit leader would sign off a new partnership that's not going to advance their mission in some way, nor will private sector CEOs commit if they're not convinced of the benefits to their business. That could be one or more of the factors above (or, indeed, something else) — so approach potential partners by listening first. It's only by really understanding what they want that you can secure a partnership that works.

And if building relationships feels time-consuming, don't lose heart. Partnerships are a long-term — but worthwhile — investment. Half of the businesses surveyed by C&E in 2016 said they expect their investment in cross-sector partnerships to increase over the next three years. For nonprofits, developing partnership skills, including a better understanding of what businesses want, is likely to pay off.

This article was produced with input from Michelle Halse, founder and director at Living Collaborations, a U.K.-based organization that brokers cross-sector partnerships and helps improve partnering and collaboration skills.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.