What a brilliant idea! Robert Goodwin, co-founder of Executives Without Borders, has suggested that every corporation adopt a nonprofit, providing IT, marketing and logistical support, as well additional business expertise that could help nonprofits do better at delivering their mission. He sees this as a win-win situation, noting that:
“Companies that integrate altruistic activities into their core business model will have the competitive advantage that comes with delivering a social profit: They will retain employees, recruit top talent, and build better community relations and a stronger brand. When those responsible companies succeed, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility will become just good business.”
Mr. Goodwin is absolutely right: this has all the potential of a win-win situation. But, I confess that the hairs on the back of my neck get hyperactive any time I hear suggestions that smack of for-profits riding in on a white horse to save the poor, backward, inefficient, clueless nonprofit. Saving is not what most nonprofits need from the business community, as that far too often comes with condescension and a holier-than-thou, we-know-it-all attitude. And if there are people out there who hadn’t already realized that the for-profit world does not walk on water, does not know all the answers—or even all the questions to be asking–the current economic situation should have made this perfectly clear.
What nonprofits could use from for-profits is access to their back-office supports, as Goodwin suggests, from technology to marketing to space, as for-profits generally invest a lot more (actually, most nonprofits would probably describe that investment as excessive) in these areas, whereas nonprofits under invest. In return, for-profits might learn how to achieve their same ends with a little less excess, thereby trimming their bottom line and increasing their profit. Nonprofits could also benefit from having discussions with colleagues who have a different—though not necessarily better–perspective and approach to getting things done. These discussions, to be of value, must be conversations amongst equals, with all coming to the table open to listening to and learning from the other and bringing willingness to working together. In return, for-profits will come to understand that nonprofits are businesses, too, driven by mission rather than profit, and may have ways of doing business that can be of benefit to them. (Actually, I see this light go on quite frequently in the nonprofit management class I teach in La Salle’s MBA program, as up and coming and established executives realize that the way their corporation has been operating may not be producing the best work environment, rewarding employees in a way to maximize commitment, communicating with their markets as effectively as they should, etc.)
So, let me take Mr. Goodwin’s brilliant idea and spin it a little. Really what we need isn’t for-profits adopting nonprofits, but for-profits and nonprofits engaging in symbiotic relationships that allow each partner in the relationship to benefit from the strengths of the other in order to achieve the best for both. If and when this happens, we have more than mere altruistic activities leading to a competitive edge for companies; we have whole communities that have enhanced the quality of life for all of their members.