Can businesses and charities work together for mutual benefit?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

Can Corporate Social Responsibility be taken to a new level beyond employee volunteering and leadership development: is it possible for businesses to innovate with charities for mutual benefit, creating new products and services?

The short answer is ‘Yes!’. Scope worked with BT to produce a communications device for wheelchairs; Breast Cancer Awareness worked with M&S to design bras for women who have had mastectomies; Network Rail and the Samaritans have partnered up to reduce suicides on rail lines; and several banks have worked with charities for disabled people to design customer services training and products and services for deaf and or learning disabled people. What is exciting about all these examples is that the parties created something together that neither could have created alone.

Co-creating in this way is not unique but nor is it commonplace. What is stopping more charities and businesses working in this way?

1. Imagination– Supporting employee volunteering or encouraging staff to do a sponsored event for a chosen charity is an easy concept to grasp. But it takes an imaginative leap to consider collaborating for mutual benefit. It involves finding a good fit with the values and visions of both organisations and identifying a problem that resonates for them. Imagination needs to extend to both sides seeing the value in the skills and experience that charities have.

2. Assumptions– Holding false assumptions hinders innovation.  I challenge charities to overcome their scepticism of business motivations: increasingly businesses take their contribution to society very seriously, and not just because they can see the value of doing so in attracting customers and retaining staff.  And I challenge businesses not to assume that the relationship is all one way: whilst having someone else to raise your money for you is always welcome, the examples above illustrate just how invaluable a charity can be in creating new products and services.

3. Trust– It is not uncommon for businesses to offer their staff as volunteers but on the business’s terms. Whilst well meant, they are not always what the charity needs at the time. Many businesses offer business support for charities, but can come unstuck through failing to understand how charities are structured or grasp the complexity of the environment in which they operate. Bad experiences of such support lead to mistrust of offers.

4. Language – businesses and charities work in very different ways with wildly differing success criteria and a whole different language. Most of the collaborations mentioned above involve some of the very biggest UK charities: they perhaps are better able to understand each others’ languages.  Most UK charities (over 50%) have an income of less than £10,000 and do not talk about KPIs, strategic objectives, tangible deliverables and value propositions. Part of the challenge of collaborating is having the patience to listen to each other and understand.

Those that have overcome these barriers have reaped the benefits. Businesses engaging in this strategic, creative and innovative CSR gain increased motivation and engagement of employees, meet strategic objectives and improve their standing with customers. Meanwhile the charities get a better deal for their beneficiaries,  a wider understanding of their cause, and new income streams through selling their skills in to the business world for purposes that support their mission.

With patience, openenness, passion and commitment, charities and businesses can innovate together for mutual benefit and surprise each other. There are few win-win situations in life, but surely such collaborations offer that potential.

If you have access to the FT there is a great case study on Oxfam and Swis Re partnering to produce innovative crop insurance here

For more thoughts on innovation visit the NCVO Innovation Pages

See Olof’s blog on Creating Value through Voluntary and Private Sector Partnerships looking at a succesful collaboration between Ernst and Young and UnLtd

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