The shifting sands of charities partnering with business

Businesses and charities have been in a relationship for years. Decades even. The established picture is of businesses supporting charities. This relationship is conducted by CSR teams, through ‘charity of the year’ schemes. The picture is well recognised. It features staff votes, fundraising exercises, and staff volunteering. This is a rosy picture indeed. It is to be welcomed. It is well intentioned, and many charities deliver great services and achieve a broader reach because of it.

At Catch22, the organisation I work for that provides services to help people in tough situations turn their lives around, we have experience of this type of support and we appreciate that it suits both the supported charity and the sponsoring company to conduct. But, it just doesn’t really work for us any more.

There are various reasons why. We haven’t often ‘won’ the competitions to benefit from corporate support. We haven’t developed the fundraising infrastructure to be able to meet the demands of the partnerships. And in the cold light of day, when we’ve assessed the fit of these partnerships with our own mission, we’ve found it hard to really align them. So we’ve pulled back from trying to win them.

In the few years since we’ve done that a funny thing has happened. Since we’ve taken resources away from trying become a business' ‘charity of the year’, and put it into driving forward a purer focus on our core mission, we’ve found that we’ve been the subject of increased attention from business.

The businesses that have approached us have several characteristics in common, in their CSR programmes at least. They’ve all been trying to ‘reimagine’ their CSR programmes. Align them to their own core business goals. Conduct the ‘next generation’ of corporate responsibility. The language has changed. Gone are the days of ‘painting fences’ and ‘beauty parades’. In are the practices of ‘leveraging the corporate supply chain’ and of ‘working in partnership’.

This is not something that’s just happening at Catch22. It reflects a journey that the CSR industry is on, across the board. We find this renewed attention works best when viewed as a journey that we are both on, and that we are both keen to take and learn from together. It’s not perfect and it’s not easy, but our recent experiences of partnerships with several large professional services and financial institutions have been all the more rewarding for both parties as a result.

Now we view corporate support as a way to put in place and nourish sustainable ‘social business’ programmes that supplement and amplify our existing core mission. Rather than setting up one, two or three year projects that run out of steam at the end of that period, we’re pump priming innovative solutions to social issues that we can scale up and use to pull in public service contract income that give them their own lifeblood.

We’re still on this journey. The current snapshot of best practice to us seems to be corporates selecting supply chains of charities to work together to deliver unified corporate responsibility objectives as defined by the companies themselves. Where these objectives match our own goals this is an exciting place to be. It’s sometimes messy and dysfunctional trying to get these off the ground and delivering, but it feels at least that it’s working better for both parties.

I think that we’ve got to this place because we’re agnostic about sector. We believe that we try only to be part of the solution, more so than fitting any sector specific limitations. Achieving social good should not be the sole privilege of the charity sector. Often big business is capable of (and succeeds well at) delivering even greater social benefit than the voluntary sector, even without any CSR programme. This is not because we think business should be more humane or adopt charity values per se. And it’s not because we’re trying to sacrifice our own values to be more ‘business like’. Those two pictures are distorted; a grotesque simplification. But it does indeed feel that the overlap is one of ‘social business’, a place where missions are aligned, sustainability is king and both parties are always learning.

There’ll always be a place for traditional CSR. And that’s a good thing. But as we travel through reimagined CSR, and a focus on core mission and sustainability for the charity we have some exciting times ahead. We see a future where both businesses and charities can break free of the features that traditionally constrict what corporate sponsorship can achieve.

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