The art of corporate charity partnerships
The new-school approach to giving looks at building a cluster of causes to maximise engagement and impact. So, how do companies find their perfect partners?
For the past 20 years, businesses have been asking Jonathan Andrews the same question: how do we choose the right charity partner? Andrews acts as a matchmaking service for companies and charities. “It sounds obvious, but businesses need to start by being clear about their goals,” he says. “A lot of businesses miss out this first step because working with charities has been solely about giving.”
Corporate charity partnerships have evolved beyond businesses signing a giant cheque and posing for a photo opportunity. Many seek mutually beneficial arrangements with a handful of well-aligned organisations, which makes goal-setting a complex task.
Where, then, should they start? “Businesses need to define their purpose, and then they should ask themselves what they want to achieve,” says Andrews. “Is it about increasing employee engagement? Do they want to have a social impact? Do they want a long-term partner?”
Information and communications technology company Fujitsu has made its goals crystal clear. The company targets two-year partnerships with charities that are aligned with its core values. It aims to deploy both parties’ unique skills and knowledge to enhance the beneficiaries’ and its own employees' lives. “We’re passionate about tackling social issues within the communities that the business operates,” says the company’s head of corporate charity partnerships, Craig Hall. “It’s not a box-ticking exercise; it's a chance to make a real difference.”
How partnerships can help communities
Once businesses know what challenges they want to solve, it’s time to start building a giving portfolio to achieve those aims.
A multi-layered strategy can give companies scope to address both timely challenges and ongoing social inequalities more broadly, driving support when and where it’s needed. And consideration should be given to weighting support for national organisations against local good causes, where the impact is often more immediately measurable.
Marks and Spencer is an example of a major national retailer successfully integrating both approaches. Last winter, M&S focused its Christmas clothing and home campaign Gifts That Give to lend support across various social issues. The British retailer identified the overlap between its resources and the wider community’s needs in a process of ‘values matching’. Since 2015, more than 6,000 local good causes have benefited from M&S’s support. But the company balances this community-centred approach with a selection of national partnerships, recognising the significant role they can bring. Its partnership with Macmillan, for example, has raised more than £25m since 2010.
Building foundations for sustainability
It’s a similar story for Virgin Media O2. In 2021 it set up a Together Fund, worth £500,000, to support local charities and good causes as the nation emerged from the pandemic. Following a round of applications, 400 local causes were allocated a grant from the fund, with many recommendations coming from local employees who could offer accurate insight into the places and people who need help the most.
Virgin Media O2 also has an ongoing, three-year, £2m strategic partnership with the Good Things Foundation, one of the UK’s leading digital exclusion charities, which aims to improve people’s lives through digital. The foundation was the right fit to fulfil Virgin’s mission to reduce digital poverty via its national network of hyperlocal community groups that hold trust within communities.
Dana Haidan, Virgin Media O2’s chief sustainability officer, explains: “The partnership is perfectly aligned with what we do as a business and is directly connected to our purpose: to help get online and stay connected to the people and things they love. It’s also enabling us to offer targeted support to people in communities by offering free data via the National Databank – like a food bank but for free mobile data, texts and calls – and digital skills to people who need them across the UK.”
The relationship the brand has built with the Good Things Foundation also provides a template for other businesses in using charity partnerships to build a holistic, sustainable development strategy. Haidan continues: “It’s helping us to deliver the goals we have set out in our sustainability strategy, the Better Connections Plan, connecting 1 million digitally excluded people through free and affordable connectivity and services and improving the digital skills and confidence of 6 million people by the end of 2025.”
In 2023, corporate charity partnerships that are aligned with businesses’ core values and the role a company wants to play in society will be the focus. The future for collaborations that go on to deliver a useful legacy looks bright.
How younger generations are redefining corporate purpose
A new generation has entered the workforce, setting new expectations for employers. Will a company’s sense of social responsibility become a non-negotiable in the race to attract and retain talent?
Generation Z is entering the workforce with a different mindset from its predecessors. Not only have today’s graduates been raised in a digital world, making them far more tech-savvy than earlier cohorts, but their lives have also been shaped by constant disruption.
From government-imposed austerity programmes that have decimated community services to a global pandemic that was immediately followed by a fresh cost-of-living crisis, gen Z is entering the workforce with a stronger sense of social duty than many of their older peers. And with that, employers are being asked to raise their social responsibility game.
“Gen Z is far more connected and much more resilient because of the experiences they’ve had in early life that have changed how people feel about their communities,” says Zoe Colosimo, chief operating officer at Neighbourly, a platform that connects businesses with small charities and community causes. “They have ingrained values around diversity and inclusion, and are very aware of climate breakdown, human rights and social inequalities because they’re so connected through their digital networks.”
Giving locally builds trust
As a result, these values now feed into how young people vet potential employers. Companies need to have a clearly defined purpose to connect with this generation, according to Colosimo. While businesses know that consumers and employees are more inclined to support brands that display strong environmental, social and governance performance, scepticism around corporate altruism is rife. Often, the key for organisations to establish a purpose that people can get behind is to start by looking at how they can help the communities in which they operate.
An annual study by Neighbourly and YouGov shows that by investing in local communities and prioritising local charitable giving over national or international causes, companies can generate greater trust. About two-thirds of adults in the UK consistently say they are more trusting of a company which contributes to the community where they live and work.
“There is significant evidence that points to the fact that people prefer to shop with, spend money with, and favour brands that can prove they are purposeful and are contributing,” says Colosimo. “Our research shows that the extent to which businesses contribute locally is index-linked to how much we trust that business.”
For example, 63% of respondents in the most recent Neighbourly survey said they were more likely to trust a company that gave to a smaller local charity compared to 47% for a national charity. That figure drops to 31% for an international cause.
There’s evidence to suggest that engaging with local charities also boosts employee wellbeing. Colosimo explains: “It helps employees feel connected to their community because they’re able to nominate and volunteer for charities that are meaningful to them, and they can see they are making an impact.”
Make conscious contributions that genuinely help
There are also potential negative consequences for businesses that don’t take their social obligations seriously.
“Companies that aren’t able to show that they are acting in a purposeful way risk not being able to attract younger talent who want to work for businesses that can prove they’re doing the right thing,” says Colosimo. “It will also have an impact on talent retention. Companies have to make sure the business is a place where people feel proud to work.”
While it doesn’t matter if companies are giving support through donations or volunteering, what is important is that companies listen to their communities and are genuine in their motives.
“What is essential is that it’s needs-led. This isn't about throwing stuff into the community; this is saying to the community, ‘What do you need?’ and making sure that your contribution is driven by what is being asked for,” says Colosimo. “It is also about the employee having a voice and being able to nominate causes that they care about as opposed to the old top-down corporate CSR tick-box approach.”
‘Businesses cannot survive in societies that fail’
As focus on ESG changes perceptions about the importance of creating socially sustainable businesses, even among shareholders and investors, and as gen Z advance in their careers as the corporate leaders of tomorrow, how companies think about profits in the future may look very different from today.
“It will be about community for profit,” Colosimo continues. “Companies will see the economic benefit of building trust, and the way to build it is to collaborate in a way that gives back so that the community can be self-sustaining. The more you contribute, the more trust is generated, and many studies show that high-trust societies have much better economic outcomes.”
For companies that are just starting on this journey, Colosimo says it is important to recognise that not all charitable giving is equal.
“We’re not saying you should switch off your national charitable programmes. We’re saying businesses should think consciously about how they’re contributing. If you’re able to help build sustainable communities, your business can have a material benefit on the society that it operates in,” she says. “As former Unilever CEO Paul Polman said, ‘Businesses cannot survive in societies that fail.’ So if businesses can give back in a way that is meaningful and that helps sustain those communities, then it’s good for business.”
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