When business and purpose align: existing at the intersection of profit and purpose

“If you want to develop a good relationship with a corporate, sometimes you just have to create an opportunity that works for them, even if it doesn’t really do much for you.”

“I know a charity that has a single wall that different corporate groups regularly come to paint over.”  

I’m at a breakfast conference about CSR and how businesses can work with charities to make social impact, whilst simultaneously making their employees feel more fulfilled and ‘purposeful’. I’m not hearing the above statements for the first time, so I’m not surprised by them. But I am still disappointed. In the conversation between nonprofits and corporates, there always seems to be a clear and unchallenged power dynamic, wherein the corporate has the goods and the nonprofit must, like an award-winning contortionist, bend itself to fit the corporate’s needs and wants.

And to some extent it’s true - there are things that big corporate companies have that smaller charities, social enterprises and community groups do not - namely money and people-power. But I believe the same is true in reverse - that charities, social enterprises and community groups have huge amounts that large corporate organisations do not, and that they should be confident in that too.

This is, of course, not a new or radical thought. I have heard great examples of large companies partnering with nonprofits on national campaigns; from Network Rail and Samaritans working to reduce suicides on train tracks, to Autistica and Deutsche Bank collaborating to get more young people with autism into banking. Both of these are examples of corporates relying on the knowledge and insight of charities to deliver work with great social impact and real business benefits to the corportates: fewer suicides leads to fewer train disruptions and happier drivers, whilst supporting some of the 77% unemployed autistic adults into work enables them to contribute their unique skill sets to currently non-neurodiverse workplaces. But these collaborations take huge amounts of time, money and resources and often take on a life of their own outside of the core work of the charity or business.

Most corporates today will talk openly about their commitment to CSR, acknowledging that good volunteering, fundraising and community engagement opportunities help them to attract and retain their workforce by making them feel more fulfilled and ‘purposeful’, as well as giving their employees wider and more diverse insights and experiences, particularly if they are interacting with a range of customers or clients in the work that they do.    

So why are nonprofit organisations still being asked if large groups can come along for a day to paint walls, pick up litter or ‘join in’? Why does criticality so often go out of the window when we are thinking about employee volunteering or CSR?

I am convinced that the truly fulfilling, mutually beneficial, impactful, insightful and rewarding stuff takes time and is simply not as effective when done at large scale. A commitment to ‘doing good CSR’ is, in my opinion, a commitment to meeting the charities, social enterprises or community groups that you want to support half way and being open to the idea that you won’t be able to involve your entire company at once (or you will be able to, but that it will basically be an away day with the possibility of some small scale social impact at the end - take a litter picking day, for example, or the painting/tidying of a communal area of a community centre). Not only is deeper, more thoughtful engagement significantly more beneficial to the charities and the individuals/communities they are fighting for and with, but the effect on the business will be infinitely greater too, because we can all tell when the work we are doing has real impact - we get more meaningful insights, we learn more, we feel more fulfilled and grateful and we are more likely to continue engaging with the cause (and the business) in the future. In other words, the company wins, the charity wins and the individual wins.

I speak from the perspective of a small social enterprise looking to make genuine impact in the lives of women seeking asylum in the UK whilst offering a truly valuable and fulfilling learning experience for women from business and organisations, private, public and third sector alike. We have crafted a mentoring programme which has maximum impact on both sides, taking responsibility off the shoulders of the CSR manager (or equivalent) by training and supporting all of our mentors (their employees) ourselves. Yet we still come up against the challenge of large organisations wanting to involve the maximum number of employees, usually for a relatively short amount of time.

I believe it’s time to start envisioning a type of charity-corporate partnership where both sides are looked at as equal partners, where we acknowledge that genuinely mutual impact takes time and energy, and where we start thinking beyond wall painting to look more critically at how we are building and maintaining these relationships.