Approaching CSR seriously: what not-for-profits and corporates should be mindful of before they partner

By far the biggest mistake made by not-for-profits when considering a CSR partnership is underestimating the amount of time and energy they need to allocate to a particular relationship in order for it to work. They are all too often taken by the ‘lure’ of the promise of funds from corporates. Too often they see a corporate as not much more than a ‘bank’. The moral rather than business tinge they routinely attempt to introduce into negotiations often ends up being a path to failure. Not-for-profits tend to moralise the relationship by suggesting (directly or subtly) that corporates ‘should’ give money as corporate citizens. There’s a lot here that is wrong, not least the fact that successful collaboration across sectors has to be based on the utmost mutual respect.

On the other hand, the most common mistake corporates make is underestimating the importance of the ‘culture’ of not-for-profits; and understanding this is often the most critical factor for a successful working relationship. Culture in respect to organisational management has not recovered from its heyday in the 1980s, but it is as important today as ever.  In fact when it comes to not-for-profits, culture is the focal asset they cherish, precisely because the motivation for profit is simply not as strong as in the commercial sector. Culture has a major influence on the not-for-profit workforce and it impacts on how capable they are in partnering with the commercial sector or a government body.

There are other things that both sides need to be aware of when considering approaching a potential partner. For instance, a commercial company is inclined to think that CSR starts with how much money they ‘can afford to give out’, while not-for-profits think that CSR starts and works well when you have a great cause to promote.  

The above are two sides of the same problem: focusing on how much money could be exchanged under the CSR umbrella. Both often ignore the fact that benefit can only be gained when the business end of each partner organisation is well structured. Instead of thinking like a start-up looking for an investor, not-for-profit enterprises should operate as mature organisations that put effort into building quality relationships that will form the bedrock of the future.  

Start-ups seek investors and they both want a return on investment.  That is perfectly understandable. However, ROI is harder to calculate when the ‘investment’ is helping people in need. 



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