Reflections on Corporate Social Responsibility

In my role at Plant With Purpose, I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with a number of corporate partners who have very generously supported our work. (When I say “corporate” I have in mind here primarily family-owned business rather than publically traded companies.) We have had, and have, some incredible relationships with companies that have been a great blessing to our work, and a few that have been a bit more challenging. What makes for a healthy partnership between a charity and for-profit company? I’ve been thinking about that this week, and so with that in mind, here are my Six Keys to Healthy CSR Relationships: These relationships work great when there is…

  • A Great fit between companies’ values and that of the charity. This goes beyond the obvious things to avoid such as promoting tobacco, casinos, etc. For us as organization that promotes environmental restoration and sustainable agriculture, it means looking for companies that truly share these values. Some of the values we share with our partners include emphasizing organic products, economic justice, environmental sustainability, empowerment and fairness.
  • Reasonable expectation with regard to promotion. It’s great to celebrate the partnership and put the companies logo and contribution on the website and in the newsletter. But business should recognize that charities are not there to drive product sales. This might seem obvious, but…
  • Trust. This relates to values but goes a bit further and speaks of a willingness to take the partners interests into account when making decisions that will have PR implications for the partner. I once had a partner warn me about some unjustified negative press they were getting that they were concerned might reflect badly on us as a their charity partner. It turned out to be nothing, but I was really grateful that they were concerned and gave us a heads up about it.
  • Honesty about the real impact. Charities are always looking for ways to communicate, and dramatize, the impact of our donor’s gifts. It’s part of what we do to express gratitude and encourage deep and lasting partnerships. With corporate partners we are also coordinating that messaging with their marketing strategy and needs. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the messaging honestly reflects what the charity is able to accomplish with those funds. This need to balance simplicity of message with the reality that development is complex…
  • Corporate program expertise, if appropriate. We were once approached by a company that wanted to build a dam in a country where we work. And they knew how to build dams! But they had no idea how to translate that expertize into a foreign context. In the end, nothing got done, other than waste a lot of time that could have been spent securing funds in a more appropriate way. To give a more positive example, we have had some valuable agricultural training from U.S. experts- the difference was that they were not trying to include us in their money-making venture. If there is appropriate expertize, then that is a bonus to but don’t try too hard to translate a U.S. corporate model into the context of charity’s program.
  • A long-term relationship. It is much healthier for the charity to have consistent, long-term support rather than a big windfall or promises that are never fulfilled. This also gives both sides the opportunity to try different promotions and to test out the partnership. Ideally, both sides benefit and the missions of both the company and the charity are advanced.

This is the first time I’ve tried to write about this topic and I welcome your thoughts and feedback!


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