Joining forces: business and non-profits

How can non-profits best engage businesses in their social change efforts?

This was the topic of a recent tele-seminar from Tamarack, part of a monthly series of nation-wide conference calls on topics in community engagement. Entitled “Engaging the Business Sector in Social Efforts,” the seminar featured John Weiser and Garry Loewen, both experts and published authors in this field of business-non-profit collaboration.

What does it mean to collaborate with business?

The Drucker Institute has defined three levels of nonprofit/business collaboration:

  1. Philanthropy: simple cash or in-kind donations
  2. Transactional relationships: still one-way giving, but beyond writing a cheque. For example, branches of a hotel chain “adopt” a local shelter, donating surplus beds, linens etc, but also having its cooks teach cooking, its accountants teach accounting, etc.
  3. Integrative collaboration: a two-way relationship that serve the interests of both parties. For example, State Farm Insurance was unable to sell insurance in certain communities due to high risk. When it worked with community organizations to address the contributing factors, both it and the community benefited.

Garry Loewen

Why should nonprofits collaborate with business?

  • Nonprofits can tap businesses’ resources, skills and scale to effect more change. For example, Coca-Cola has developed sophisticated and expensive means of supplying markets in Africa. Nonprofits were able to use this infrastructure to deliver condoms for HIV/AIDS campaigns.

Why should businesses collaborate with nonprofits?

  • Businesses are beginning to recognize the market drivers for collaborations with nonprofits. In cases such as State Farm, the benefits are direct and short-term. Others are beginning to appreciate the economic value of safe, stable communities (as markets or workforces, for example), but these are relatively poorly understood.
  • Businesses cite their values and a conviction of moral responsibility as a strong motivation
  • Businesses want to share expertise that will ensure that public resources are better used. Conversely, businesses need nonprofits’ relationships and the aggregating role they serve in the community.

John Weiser

The seminar gave a good sense of the conditions that make for productive business-nonprofit collaborations. A key driver of this trend is cultural: businesses recognizing an enlightened self-interest that shares common ground with nonprofits, and vice versa. As attitudes and languages begin to converge, we’re left to wonder how business-nonprofit collaborations will evolve, and what limitations will emerge. Or, in an idyllic future, could we see the categories of business and nonprofit dissolve into one another? But that is the subject of another blog post…

Chris Evans

Chris joined MaRS from McMaster University for the summer. He worked in the social entrepreneurship program. See more…