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The Intersection of Profit and Purpose

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Keefe Harrison

While society has historically relied on government and nonprofits to create solutions for our largest challenges like hunger, social injustice, and climate change, our current administration appears to have stepped back from this role. With a reduction in a federal funding for major social issues, nonprofits need to look elsewhere for the capital required to further their mission. To whom should nonprofits turn for support? Corporate America.

Nonprofits are Vehicles for Change

Across industry lines, companies are setting bold sustainability goals and now recognize that they need action partners to help them reach their goals. When nonprofits are able to showcase their ability to provide measurable impacts delivered by subject matter experts, they are well positioned to receive corporate support. Increasingly, companies are seeing that nonprofits are not non-business, but instead can be very nimble change agents. Whereas companies deliver return to their investors, business-minded nonprofits deliver action. Through these partnerships, companies can help nonprofits lessen their funding gaps, thereby expanding efforts to solve our nation’s most pressing social and environmental issues, creating positive impacts in society as a whole.

In 2016, corporations donated nearly $19 billion to nonprofit organizations in the U.S. alone, underscoring the massive opportunity for corporate-nonprofit partnerships to tackle the most urgent matters that are afflicting our country. In order for this movement to grow, nonprofit organizations need to ensure they speak as businesses do, preparing for transparency in both financial management and measurement of impacts. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, so putting clear parameters around staff roles and impacts, organizational vision, and deliverable timelines allows nonprofits to be bolder in asking for support from our country’s business leaders. It is not uncommon for some businesses to hold nonprofits to different standards as their for-profit counterparts.

Responsible Business is Good Business

Nonprofit partnerships make strategic sense for businesses. Companies are better able to reach their corporate social responsibility and sustainability goals, attract and retain talent, increase employee engagement and productivity, improve customer loyalty, and gain the trust of new consumers. And, being associated with a cause has proven to give a boost to sales. In fact, Project ROI found that corporate responsibility has the potential to grow revenue by 20 percent. The payoffs of being a conscious business are attracting more and more corporations each year, which is evident in the rise of B Corporation certifications and the growth of groups such as Conscious Capitalism.

Funding the work of nonprofits allows corporations to leverage their capital in a more meaningful way. Nonprofits have the experience necessary to ensure clear impacts are made, and, when well managed, they are often nimble and well connected in their field, able to stretch a corporation’s dollars further. 

Major Brands Tackle Recycling

As CEO of The Recycling Partnership, my team and I have the opportunity to work alongside major more than 30 U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, Target, P&G, Heineken, PepsiCo, and others to make a sizable impact on recycling in more than 500 cities and towns across the nation. The movement to improve our country’s recycling efforts is a stellar case study that highlights how coalitions of companies, the public sector, and a results-driven nonprofit can work together toward to better the planet. Our funding partners, many of them competitors, all of them industry leaders, understand that making positive environmental change is one that they are better at together than apart. By engaging in pre-competitive collaboration, they can leverage their contributions to meet their sustainability goals more effectively than going alone. 

The results of these on-the-ground projects are remarkable: 164,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases have been diverted, nearly 400 million gallons of water have been conserved, and two trillion BTUs of energy have been saved each year since 2015. And, it must be noted that these results would not have been achievable without the support of our corporate funders. Corporate funding is facilitating large-scale change, one community at a time.

But it was not always this way. In 2014, we had only six funding partners, one staff member, and after a decade of work, we had impacted just 30 communities. It was measurable change, but we wanted more. By retooling our model to take a sharper business approach, focusing not just on a singular community constraint but instead on the constraints of the system that could be activated in many communities at once, we were able to create a business proposition that better appealed to corporate partners and helped us catapult our mission into broader action. In less than four years we have gone from six funding partners to more than 32, one staff member to 16 and a handful of contracted firms, increased our revenue five-fold, upped our impact by more than 30 times per dollar, and it is still going. 

How to Achieve Success

It is clear that partnerships merging private and nonprofit entities have the power to produce great change, but what makes a successful partnership? First, it is up to the nonprofit to be rock solid in its mission. When engaging with strong partners wielding large dollars, it pays to be clear in approach, transparent in reporting, and clear about when and how member desires do or do not outweigh the mission of the organizations. Trade associations are member-driven. Strong nonprofits are mission-driven, providing results their members need. 

Then, the nonprofits and corporations must ensure there is an obvious connection between their goals. If the partnership is lacking an authentic, natural fit, it is unlikely that success will be achieved, leaving both parties feeling disappointed. Once an alignment between the organizations is noted, a shared vision of success must be agreed upon. Communication between the partners, as well as with the public, should be transparent and honest.

It is undeniable that business has the power to solve society’s most pressing problems. We should applaud those at the forefront of this movement. With so much at stake, nonprofit organizations can no longer be shy in asking for funding from business leaders. As the saying goes, you get half of what you ask, and none of what you don’t.


Keefe Harrison is CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit transforming recycling in cities and towns across the United States. For a full list of funding partners, visit www.recyclingpartnership.org.

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