Me and my corporation: A tale of interest and impact

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You may have noticed the facelift Coke underwent this holiday season. For the first time ever, Coca-Cola changed the colour of its cans, from red to white. The exceptional transformation stems from a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund — a relationship dating back to 2007 focused on supporting conservation efforts — and a holiday campaign called Arctic Home.

Designed to protect the polar bears in the Arctic (hence the white hue), the multifaceted campaign has Coca-Cola matching individual donations up to $1 million until March 2012. Considering the iconic role of the polar bear in Coca-Cola marketing over the past 100 years, the partnership seems a logical step for Coke. "It was long overdue in my opinion," echoes Pete Ewins, WWF-Canada's resident polar bear expert.

Synergy aside, corporate partnerships come with their fair share of complexities, questions and concerns. But, as a growing number of nonprofits choose to bed with the private sector, obviously benefits abound as well. So how does the sector find the right balance in its marriage with corporate Canada?

Tracking its rise

For the past 18 years, Ewins has been developing WWF's Arctic program in Canada, a job that involves finding partners who can help elevate awareness and funding. Coca-Cola is a no-brainer in its ability to excel on both grounds but Ewins admits he and the WWF had to face certain realities when deciding to partner with them and other corporations. A former civil servant who once believed government to be the major force of change, he claims times have changed.

Business as usual gets you elected, Ewins explains, but in the corporate world it's not good enough. Companies wanting to fulfill consumers' changing appetites need to adopt different priorities. "When your brand reputation as a company is all-important and people start asking tough questions, you have to pay attention," he says. Corporate social responsibility, community relations, good PR, however you define it, companies are doing it in spades to meet those demands. "The transformation is under way and we're encouraging it."

What's more, governments simply don't have enough funds. And considering the significant work WWF has to do — and the costs involved — partnering with those who can help in their conservation efforts is key. Hello corporate Canada.

Boons vs benefits

Of course, these partnerships involve risk. For one thing, not everyone is a fan of corporate engagement. Specifically, some WWF donors take issue with Coca-Cola's reputation in parts of the world. "We lose a few members," Ewins offers. "It's inevitable." But experts always assess net benefits overall, he explains. And, in this case, it's evident they far outweigh any downsides.

That type of benefit-risk assessment is common practice for a growing number of nonprofits deliberating their own partnership models. Take Dans La Rue, a Montreal-based organization with the mission of helping homeless youth. "The number of corporate partnerships [we take on] seem to be getting bigger in terms of impact," says Dorothy Massimo, director of development and communications.

For example, they've been receiving generous support from Virgin Unite — the philanthropic arm of Virgin Mobile. And a recent partnership with Aeroplan for the company's employee day saw 300 employees participate in a range of activities geared at supporting street youth, including sandwich making, street fundraising and a sleep-out in a parking lot in downtown Montreal. Employees raised more than $33,000 over the two-day event, with Aeroplan matching that total.

While money is nice, the benefits of corporate relationships go beyond dollars, says Massimo. Even if the event sensitized 75% of the employees that took part, the ripple effect — they'll talk to friends and family about what they experienced — has huge potential. "It's really about the growing impact of sensitizing people to the plight of the homeless because that's our job."

Nonetheless, as with WWF, partnerships are still met at times with cynicism and disapproval. "What you hope and pray for is donors call to tell you so you can have a conversation," Massimo explains. "It doesn't mean you will have convinced them but at least you can talk to them and say, 'We're not selling our soul to the devil; we're putting a lot of stuff in place to protect our youth'." If they're still angry after that, she adds, you have to accept that you can't make everyone happy all the time.

Making up for shortfall

Most importantly, you need to look at the bigger picture, she says. With government making up only seven percent of the organization's budget (54% coming from individuals/estates), the 18% from corporations is far from chump change. Some would say it's vital, in fact.

For Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Canada (BBBS), the argument is stronger still. On a national level, 60% of the organization's revenue stems from corporations. It wasn't always this way, says president and CEO, Bruce MacDonald but, about eight years ago, the nonprofit had some decisions to make. It needed to find new revenue streams if it wanted to grow and corporations were a big part of the answer.

All you have to do is look at the numbers to see the worthy results. In 1995, the organization was serving approximately 9,500 kids per year; now more than 33,000 are benefitting from their services. "Part of that is directly related to the fact that corporations have helped us grow," he says. "Most companies would give a lot for a tripling of their bottom line."

The partners are many, each offering unique value. CIBC provides Youthvision Scholarships, for instance, and a 15-plus-year partnership with MasterCard supports in-school mentorship programs, operational activities and volunteer training programs, among others.

Long-term benefit

Corporate partners have allowed the organization to expand their services, increase the number of children in their mentoring programs and enhance their brand. As a 98-year-old organization trying to remain fresh and vibrant, the impact is significant. "In some cases, having an opportunity to have exposure and alignment with vibrant and dynamic brands is a way to ensure Canadians know we're here."

"Sometimes it's about talent and expertise," he adds. "Charities need to keep pace with a fast-changing world so brain power is important." To wit, BBBS is researching the possibility of launching a social enterprise and they've turned to corporate partners for assistance. "They're helping us do market research, business planning; volunteers are stepping forward to give us time and energy."

In response to those who claim BBBS is selling out, MacDonald disagrees. "What we found is mutual interest," he says. Keep in mind corporations are populated by parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents. And let's not forget the ever-discerning consumers interested in healthy sustainable communities. "There's a great intersection for the charitable sector and corporate interest because consumers are demanding it and employees want it," he adds. It comes down to finding opportunities where interests align. "Hopefully it's a win-win relationship," he says.

Standards and procedures

To ensure effective alignment, nonprofits must perform due diligence before jumping in. For WWF-Canada that means having measureable targets that are credible and ambitious and partnering only with companies committed to a renewable energy-based economy. "We don't accept money from oil and gas," Ewins says to prove his point. "We're always trying to encourage progressive companies so others will follow." As opposed to selling out, he adds, "we're pushing a different type of agent of change."

BBBS makes sure there are contracts and measurable goals in place. The litmus test is whether the company is one you'd be proud to call a partner, offers MacDonald. "You have to have a common sense barometer." He adds that, as corporations grow and ownership levels expand, the question becomes how far due diligence extends. What's the obligation of a charity to brand x if, five steps away sits a conglomerate with questionable practices? "We're not sure of the answer of that yet," he acknowledges.

For Dans La Rue it comes down to what feels right — and what doesn't. "The important thing is to be prepared to walk away," says Massimo, something that comes easy when dealing with youth whose privacy and confidentiality need to be protected foremost. She relates how her organization's morals were tested earlier when a company's marketing team wanted to brand their youth vans with a corporate logo. The organization stood strong. "You need to know your boundaries and be clear on them," she says. "If you fall flat on your face with one, you'll quickly learn what to do the next time."

Always understand that the corporation has its job to do and you have your own, she adds, offering some advice she learned recently at a fundraising conference. Go into all relationships with your eyes wide open, understanding this is not philanthropy per se. Companies want to do good, or at least know it's in their best interest to, and organizations can provide guidance. Bottom line: you're both in it for something so make the best of it.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at:

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