Optimizing nonprofit-business partnerships

When the three pillars come together to share their knowledge, assets and skills, the intentional collision of ideas that occurs can lead to transformational change. In recent years, we have seen a growing number businesses act as a force for good and a strong collaboration partner for nonprofits. Businesses are shifting towards considering their social and environmental impacts not just their financial impact. With consumer trends shifting towards sustainability, businesses that are values driven and operate in an economically, socially and environmentally conscious manner are finding success.

Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to engage the business community in many ways. While we have had many positive experiences working with members of the business community, partnerships are never without their challenges. Keep reading to find out what we learned and the best practices we developed along the way.

Pillar Community Innovation Awards

The Pillar Community Innovation Awards started in 2006 and was one of our first programs that embedded the notion of the three pillars coming together to make our community brighter. From the outset, we included business as those who could be recognized for their efforts in making our community brighter and better. The program and categories were co-created with various community leaders and include Innovation, Leadership, Impact, Collaboration, and more recently, Community Choice. The awards now gather more than 1000 attendees and receive close to $100,000 in support from sponsors, many of them businesses. The growth of the awards can be partially attributed to adding corporate tables as an option to purchase. This event has become a premier networking and storytelling event in our community.

Relationship with the London Chamber of Commerce

Our journey of collaborating with business started in our early days. When we were starting out, we modeled our organization after the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. We initially wanted our name to be the London Chamber of Voluntary Organizations and approached the London Chamber of Commerce about this decision. The Chamber pointed out that this could cause confusion about our mandates. This initial conversation would soon transform into a strong working relationship.

With the economic recession in 2008, the community requested more support around cross-sector collaboration and social enterprise. As we brought together the business community to explore and dig deeper in these areas, the Chamber was one of our key partners. We worked together on the Social Enterprise Advisory Committee and again on our Prince’s Seeing is Believing initiative as part of the Collaborating for Community Impact Program. The Prince’s Seeing is Believing initiative had business leaders tour local social enterprises and connect to those with lived experience of mental health challenges. Business leaders were then engaged to consider how they could play a role in addressing mental health as a barrier to employment. 

As the Chamber became more engaged with our work around social enterprise, they reached out about partnering on their new Corporate Social Responsibility Award for the London Business Achievement Awards. We had the opportunity to develop the selection criteria and lead the selection process. This partnership started in 2013 and continues today. In 2017, and again in 2018, we partnered on two highly engaging workshops about Corporate Social Responsibility where we explored why and how to embed CSR in a business and how to become catalysts for change.

Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities

When we started the Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities project in 2010 with the communities of Ottawa and Sarnia and the Ivey Business School, we initially thought we would only support nonprofits. We had many young social entrepreneurs approaching us from post-secondary organizations and we recognized that there was no one size fits all legal structure for a social enterprise and we needed to engage with our legal partners to provide supports as emerging social enterprises were determining their legal structure. 

This was a major turning point because Pillar opened up its social enterprise coaching and supports to both nonprofits and for-profits. This is when we recognized the need to support social enterprises based on their impact and not their specific legal structure. Further, we reached out to local businesses and the entrepreneurship ecosystem including Leap Junction at Fanshawe College, London Economic Development Corporation, Small Business Centre, TechAlliance, Propel Entrepreneurship Western University and UnLondon as key partners in supporting social enterprises to create a sustainable community. We also created the London BizGrid as a tool for entrepreneurs to navigate and find the business supports they need.

Social Enterprise Southwest

Pillar has recognized that to offer the most effective social enterprise support, we needed to embed our work into the entrepreneurship ecosystem in London and Southwestern Ontario. The resources and supports offered by economic development centres, small business centres, regional innovation centres and campus link accelerators are vital to augment our social enterprise coaching and supports.

Today, the three pillars – government, business and nonprofit – are blurring in pursuit of social and economic impact. Positioning your organization within a dynamic cross-sector network expands your capacity for learning and achieving positive change in your community.

In 2017, we expanded this work we had prototyped in London and area and replicated it across Southwestern Ontario to infuse social enterprise into communities and entrepreneurship support organizations. In collaboration with EpiCentre at University of Windsor, Huron Small Business Enterprise Centre, Waterloo Region Small Business Centre and Innovate Niagara, we created Social Enterprise Southwest. This partnership offered education, coaching and connections to investors for enterprises interested in achieving social or environmental outcomes and maximizing revenue. 

Shift to the Middle 

As we delved deeper into the world of social enterprise, we developed a model called “Shift to the Middle”. This continuum captured our theory of change of having nonprofits and charities become more enterprising and sustainable and for profit businesses embedding social impact into their DNA. Traditionally, nonprofits and businesses have worked in silos in our communities. Businesses use private resources to create private benefit for their customers who see value in products and services. Nonprofits use public resources to solve community challenges. As consumers become more aware and nonprofits become more innovative, society is shifting away from this traditional nonprofit/for-profit divide.  

We believe that it is important to encourage both businesses and nonprofits to “Shift To The Middle”. By recognizing that sustainable nonprofits use business principles and they can leverage business thinking and resources, like accessing private resources, nonprofits can better solve community challenges. By thinking about their social and environmental impact, businesses can create value for the entire community. While “Shifting to the Middle” may not be possible or the right decision for all organizations, the tools of business are playing a greater role in addressing community challenges and changing the way nonprofits and businesses operate.

Keys to effective collaboration with business

With both our experience of engaging business in our work at Pillar and connecting our members and network to business to create a more engaged, inclusive and vibrant community, here is what we have learned about effective collaboration.

  1. Develop a foundation of trust – Build trust from the outset and nurture this often through honest communication.
  2. Establish a common vision – Find the alignment, shared values and common thread of connection.
  3. Seek opportunities for synergy – Leverage the skills, assets, and talents of your partners to amplify the impact of your programs and services. 
  4. Nurture long-term relationships – Provide opportunities for meaningful engagement that is beyond a one time interaction.
  5. Seek alignment in partnerships – Explore how the partnership will benefit the reputation and credibility of both the nonprofit and business.
  6. Foster reciprocal relationships – Create the opportunities for shared learning between the nonprofit and business and recognize that both bring value to the partnership.
  7. Get real – Make sure that the partnership is serving the nonprofit, often nonprofits feel they cannot say no because it may impact funding or the relationship. Be honest and be sure the partnership meets the needs of the community and the organization.
  8. Measure impact – Create a communications strategy to evaluate and measure the impact of the partnership and pivot as needed.