Focusing on shared value: The changing nature of nonprofit and business partnerships

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It wasn’t that long ago that nonprofits and charities had the corner on doing social good, and their relation to businesses simply revolved around asking them for money. In the last few years, however, the relationship between nonprofits and businesses has undergone a radical change.

Early this fall, Volunteer Canada and the newly formed Canadian Institute for Business and Community are offering a two-day forum at Carleton University in Ottawa on business and community collaboration to address the changing relationship between business and the nonprofit sector.

NOTE: As of publication, space is still available at the September 9-10 Business and Community and Engagement Forum. To register or for more information, please go to

In advance of this forum, we wanted to explore the models, tools and practices now being used to promote new private-nonprofit partnerships, community engagement and employer-supported volunteering.

The changing face of business

By definition, a for-profit company is focused on making money for its stakeholders, but increasingly businesses are recognizing that driving up revenues is only part of the bottom line and that there are distinct business advantages to developing a sense of social mission. Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter coined the term shared value to describe the importance of a social mission in a company’s priorities. He says, “Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success.”

Shari Austin, vice president of corporate citizenship with RBC and executive director of the RBC Foundation, identifies three business advantages to employer-supported volunteering: it develops a corporate culture that contributes to employee engagement and productivity; it offers skill development; and it enhances the company’s brand and reputation in the community.

The 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Study found “a powerful link between frequent participation in workplace volunteer activities and several measures of employee engagement that, in turn, contribute to employees’ perceptions of positive corporate culture.” Employees involved in workplace-supported volunteering are more engaged in and are prouder to be associated with their company.

In terms of skill development, Cathy Brothers, CEO of Capacity Canada suggests, “Through community leadership, an employee will have more opportunities to lead committees, make presentations, network more broadly, become more skilled in areas of strategic planning and understand big picture finances and where resources come from, resolve conflict and participate in groups – all skills that are valuable in workplaces.” Austin notes that RBC managers often formally suggest volunteer opportunities to staff that will help them build skills.

Brothers cautions against skepticism about the corporate sector's  motivation in partnering with nonprofits, saying, “If businesses make more money by building social capital, everyone benefits. Charities thrive in healthy economies. If businesses want to measure the economic impact of their partnership, that is valid and we all benefit.”

The human dimension of business

Jocelyne Daw of JS Daw & Associates, whose organization works with leading business and nonprofit organizations to design social strategies and partnerships, sees a shared value approach as the way of the future. “Companies are made up of people, and people have strong values. The next generation doesn’t want to check their values at the door.”

Paula Speevak-Sladowski, director, programs, policy and applied research, of Volunteer Canada, adds, “Individuals no longer expect to work for the same company for 30 years. Instead they see themselves more as free agents and consider positions as stepping stones within their career. With that shift, companies need to work harder and differently to attract and retain top talent.” Where at one time people might have been attracted by companies with fitness centres and daycares in the workplace, today’s top talent seeks an employer whose values align with their own. “Companies recognize that employees want the opportunity to be a whole self at work,” says Speevak-Sladowski.

Another factor in attracting top employees is the community in which the employees will live. Potential employees consider schools, health care, social services, arts and sports opportunities when deciding whether to move to work in a particular area. This is another motivating factor that leads businesses to support the nonprofit organizations that build their local community.

What nonprofits bring to the table

Another aspect in the changing relationship between the nonprofit and business sector is the recognition from business leaders of the increased professionalism of nonprofits.

As Brothers says, “Nonprofit staff are highly skilled professionals with expertise in their area of focus. They have a breadth of education and experience in dealing with complex social problems.”

Daw adds, “Community organizations have great information, credibility and connection. Nonprofits have a strong sense of social purpose and they can build a community around that.”

Building a partnership

The people and companies that nonprofits have traditionally called donors can also be considered investors who, as Brothers says, want to see that their investment is having an impact on the community.

Daw suggests this indicates a shift in attitude from just accumulating as many partners as possible to instead finding people and businesses who bring value and credibility to what the organization is trying to achieve, and together co-create something. She says it is vital for both nonprofits and businesses to be crystal clear about their purpose, mission, vision and values — their brand — so that they can more narrowly focus both their activities and the partnerships they seek out. She points to Bell’s Let’s Talk mental health campaign as a particularly good example of a company that has made a strategic partnership that fits well within its brand.

Nonprofits also need to change their thinking around their relationship with funding sources and funders themselves. More specifically, they may need to embrace a more collaborative approach to getting the resources they need. This can mean, as Daw suggests, working closely with other nonprofits to share space, staff or other resources. It can also mean, according to Speevak-Sladowski, working with business partners whose human resources director might help with a hiring process, or who might involve nonprofit staff in their staff training. It can even mean a donation of laptops or office space.

Capacity Canada began out of a focus group comprised of Waterloo, Ontario-based nonprofit leaders who examined what would help their agencies become stronger. Nonprofit leaders consistently identified three priorities: board development and training; mentoring and coaching for EDs; and training in solid business practices. Among Capacity Canada’s programs today is the highly successful MatchBoard program which matches Manulife employees to local nonprofit boards, as well as providing governance training, individual coaching and a matching service, all in-house at Manulife. Brothers notes there is a lot of room for other companies to encourage their staff to get involved in nonprofit boards (and in other volunteer roles).

Employer-supported volunteering

Relationships between nonprofits and businesses can also be volunteer- or event-based. In 2010, five million employed Canadians received some kind support from their workplaces to volunteer in the community.

“We decide at a corporate level what our primary causes are but we also support employee interests,” says Austin. RBC donates to each organization at which an RBC employee volunteers more than 40 hours in a year or at which a team of six or more RBC employees volunteers three or more hours together. They also support employees who participate in charity walks or similar events. Addtionally, the company facilitates volunteer opportunities in connection with events that support their corporate causes, such as their annual RBC Blue Water Day where 21,000 RBC employees in 24 countries volunteer, some on company time, in support of fresh water initiatives.

A fantastic example of an organization making the most of employer-supported volunteering is Soup Sisters, an organization that supports women’s shelters and youth in crisis across the country by bringing community partners together to make soup. Volunteers are called Soup Sisters and Broth Brothers, and while they can be individuals, often the soup-making evenings are corporate team-building events. As Soup Sisters founder Sharon Hapton says, “Our mission fits on many levels with corporate mandates for social responsibility. The kitchen camaraderie allows for a volunteer team to stay together as a team and that is extremely important. What’s great about our event is that participants learn about the issues surrounding domestic abuse, they make soup together and at the end, they sit down and enjoy a simple meal together.”

Soup Sisters also makes a tangible, meaningful and quantifiable difference: “We know we decrease operating costs of shelters by 18-20%. That’s the volume of soup we’re creating. We make enough soup in one night to last an entire month. We are also very sustainable on behalf of shelters because our monthly soup-making sessions are booked so far in advance.”

Participants also learn skills from a chef at the events and together they prepare and package hundreds of litres of soup for donation. Hapton notes, “When corporations make monetary donations, it’s absolutely necessary but the results are not necessarily felt directly by the very recipient that is being supported. One reason people are so happy at our events is that they all come with the same simple thing in mind: to be part of something and to help out tangibly within a manageable time frame.”

Not all volunteer opportunities can be done in a day - many require an ongoing commitment. And companies are stepping up to the plate with longer volunteer projects. For instance, oil company Cenovus Energy has a long-term employee mentoring program with youth in a youth justice program. Many other companies across the country are exploring the rewarding benefits of a long-term partnership.

While seeing businesses as partners is perhaps a new approach to many nonprofits, it is exciting to recognize that many of today’s business professionals care deeply about social and environmental causes and are committed to working with the nonprofit sector as partners in making a difference. They want more than to give money — they want to be part of a solution. And with an increased focus and understanding of the full range of benefits that a corporate partnership can bring, the nonprofit sector stands to gain immensely from this shift.

Relationship advice for nonprofits and businesses

  • The initiative can start from either the nonprofit or the business partner. Volunteer centres are a great resource for bringing together businesses and nonprofits.
  • Research each company’s corporate citizenship or philosophic priorities to determine whether you are a match.
  • Offer a range of opportunities. Some employees may want an ongoing consistent relationship (board position) while others may want a one-time opportunity.
  • People want to give time and talent, not just money. Think of intelligent and mature ways to help people get involved.
  • View people investing in your organization as partners in a reciprocal relationship. Have conversations with them about how they would like to be involved. Don’t assume you know.
  • Be open if the expectations of a company are not realistic or feasible. Many nonprofits avoid saying no for fear of losing a partner but telling them up front avoids disappointment in the end. Have the confidence to negotiate and find common ground.
  • Learn about each other’s realities and break down misconceptions.
  • Follow up after any interaction with a corporate partner with a thank you and a report on the success of the initiative if possible. Ask if there was more you could do better. Shockingly, a reported 60% of people who give gifts to a nonprofit never receive a thank you.
  • Seek resources: Volunteer Canada plans to release video of its September forum and will be launching a primer on nonprofit-corporate relationships at the forum; Partnership Brokers Association and Partnering Initiative offer practical tools on partnerships.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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