It would be difficult to return to a time when businesses donated to charities because it was the right thing to do.
Today, corporate giving and employee volunteer programs are mostly marketing partnerships. They’re intended to be mutually beneficial for the business and the nonprofit. But anecdotal evidence is showing businesses want more from charities and nonprofits are receiving less. In some cases, time spent negotiating and supporting partnerships reduces time and resources designated for achieving the nonprofit’s mission. Many nonprofits leverage the ability to provide visibility to business as a competitive advantage against other charities for donations.
What happened to giving without expecting anything in return?
“If expecting something in return is your reason for giving, you are really not giving—you’re swapping,” wrote David Cottrell in his book, “Monday Morning Mentoring: Ten Lessons to Guide You Up the Ladder.”
Swapping isn’t a sustainable, long-term strategy for nonprofits. It’s the nature of business to continually maximize its profit by negotiating for more value from the swap. Nonprofits often can’t or won’t ask for more because of the fear of losing the relationship.
And there’s plenty of nonprofits ready to take over a partnership when another charity loses that relationship. Smaller charities are often at a competitive disadvantage when a large nonprofit offers a business more media exposure or visibility. So the larger nonprofit wins, spends more of the donation on staff to support the partnership, and the small charity suffers.
Businesses quickly identify a scarcity mentality in many charitable organizations. Companies capitalize on the opportunity to push the nonprofit and maximize the return on investment—ROI.
How did we get to the point where ROI is mentioned frequently in conversations about partnerships with nonprofits and charities?
Many smart and resourceful fundraisers helped the nonprofit sector grow and make outstanding contributions to improve our society and the world in the last century. Somewhere in recent history, a nonprofit fundraising executive probably observed revenue rolling in from a corporate sponsorship benefitting a for-profit venture and thought the model could be replicated.
Today, there are articles throughout business literature and many agencies dedicated to perpetuating the swap between businesses and nonprofits.
Deanna Killackey, senior vice president at JSH&A Communications (@), wrote the post, “Corporate Sponsorship Perspectives: 5 Tips for Selecting the Right Charity Partner,” on Oct. 20, 2015, on the Bulldog Reporter website. She urges a business to review its values as seeks a nonprofit partner. She recommends finding out where the businesses’ stakeholders are donating.
(Altruism probably isn’t a priority when the sales force need the company to donate to their best customer’s favorite charity.)
Killackey also writes about the business seeking to understand the charitable giving of employees. An employee’s engagement with the business should increase if it witnesses the company making a heartfelt and true donation or interaction with a charity.
But employees are smart enough to understand a swap. But if the business is going to engage in swapping with a charity dedicated to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, do you think the employee won’t see this relationship as purely transactional in nature and not genuinely charitable? And if they treat the charity like that, how will they treat employees?
“A strong, ongoing partnership has the power to make a sustainable, long-term impact,” Killackey writes. “What’s more, it allows brands to build a stronger story for media that demonstrates how the tradition of giving underpins the values of the company.”
A small and growing industry is supporting the swap. A one-hour webinar, “10 Benefits Only Nonprofits Can Offer For-Profits in a Partnership,” is available from Amy Devita, founder and chief executive officer of Third Sector Today (@), and Bruce Burtch, (@) known as the father of cause marketing. He provides a free 229-page book (PDF), “Win-Win for the Greater Good.”
“And as we strengthen businesses through such partnerships we are also strengthening their nonprofit partners, and most importantly, the people in serious need that are served by nonprofit organizations,” according to Burtch’s website page inviting people to join a LinkedIn group dedicated to partnerships.
It’s not the mission or purpose of nonprofits to directly help strengthen businesses through partnerships. Companies often reap the benefits of charitable work when the needs of an employee are met through a social service agency or training program. But these outcomes are the result of a strong nonprofit and rarely linked to a partnership.
Can we change?
It’s naive to think we could return to the days of giving without expecting anything in return. But leaders in both the business and nonprofit sectors can do some small part in stopping the swapping found in the current ROI culture.
The teachings of Pope Francis might provide the best clarity and perspective on this issue.
“Today gratuitousness is often not part of daily life where everything is bought and sold,” Pope Francis said on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, in 2014. “Everything is calculated and measured. Almsgiving helps us to experience giving freely, which leads to freedom from the obsession of possessing, from the fear of losing what we have, from the sadness of one who does not wish to share his wealth with others.”
His remarks during a visit to the homeless shelter, Dono Di Maria, in the first weeks of his papacy provide even better perspective.
“We must recover the whole sense of gift, of gratuitousness, of solidarity,” he said. “Rampant capitalism has taught the logic of profit at all costs, of giving to get, of exploitation without looking at the person… and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing! This Home is a place that teaches charity, a ‘school’ of charity, which instructs me to go encounter every person, not for profit, but for love.”
Who’s with me? And who thinks the idea is far beyond anything we could begin to change?
Dialogue is often the first step on a journey toward improvement.