Change has a way of sneaking up on you before you realise it. Last weekend I cleaned out a big cupboard and found in its deep recesses an antique gem: a Sony Walkman. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it was the height of fashion, kickstarting a whole new era of walking for exercise. Sony thought they owned the market- until 2001 when Apple launched the iPod. The irony was that Sony possessed all of the technology, content and skills to build their own version of the iPod, but Apple’s genius was to put them all together in one product. The Walkman went from rooster to feather duster in rapid time.
Corporate partnerships have evolved over the years and the change has only accelerated with COVID. Here’s a provocative thought- what if corporates stop being your partners and start being competitors?
For many years corporates were seen as donors- simply larger and more lucrative versions of individual major donors. Then they evolved to become sponsors, with a commercial interest in working with you. Now we typically talk of corporates as partners, collaborators in a bigger social impact journey. But like the iPod, technology is enabling a different corporate approach.
When the war in Ukraine started, Airbnb used its global platform to offer accommodation for over 100,000 refugees. It was a fine demonstration of their social values and a great way to leverage their strengths. However, what happened next was more interesting. People started booking accommodation in Ukrainian cities, not because they like a holiday in warzones, but as a means to get financial support to local people struggling to survive. Within 48 hours over 61,000 nights had been booked in Ukraine.
Similarly, PayPal is using its giant technology platform to support donations and payments directly to people in Ukraine, in addition to gathering donations to the main aid organisations.
Closer to home Woolworths is piloting a new scheme with The Bread and Butter Project, giving employment opportunities to refugees in a ‘bread bar’ inside the store. A big corporate partnering with a social enterprise business to create meaningful employment, rather than just donating to a charity.
I don’t imagine that charities will be out of business any time soon, but corporates are clearly looking for new ways to leverage their skills, strengths, assets and networks to do good. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer research shows that corporates are clearly viewed as the most competent institution globally. The world expects corporates to take the lead on big societal issues, and fill the gaps left by government inaction. So don’t be surprised that some of them are doing stuff that hasn’t traditionally been the remit of the corporate sector.
If your charity wants to avoid the Sony Walkman trap, you’ll need to think differently about partnering with corporates. Non-profits have a major advantage in their level of trust within the community. Edelman research consistently shows that non-profits are seen as the most ethical and trusted institutions. To make a compelling case for a corporate partner you’ll need to combine trust and goodwill with your strongest assets, such as your expertise, audiences or impact. Show them that they couldn’t get the same result without you. Take the time to understand their challenges and offer solutions. Build meaningful relationships that enable you to create innovations together.
Is this the end of charity? Probably not. But it’s the start of a new opportunity for corporate partnerships – if you’re ready to embrace a bold new future.