With international travel off the table this year, I spent my summer holiday wandering lakes, woods and countryside in Victoria instead. It took me back to my childhood, exploring the ancient nooks and crannies of Epping Forest in the UK. What a delight to see an article in my weekend paper (yes, I still love old-fashioned print) about the complex networks and partnerships that exist in old-growth forests. Scientists have called it the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. It was a perfect reminder of how the best corporate-community partnerships operate and why some never make it past infancy.
It’s all one ecosystem
In an old growth forest, the trees, plants and fungi form underground partnerships that are intricately connected. Just as in human society, we all have an impact on our community and our needs are interdependent. Corporates and non-profit make speak a slightly different language but are equally part of the same ecosystem. Creating partnerships that improve the ecosystem we all inhabit will be more valuable and more impactful long term than prioritising the needs of one type of organisation over the other.
Reciprocity ensures that everyone thrives
Researchers have found that every tree in the forest is linked. They share carbon, water, nutrients and other resources with each other, with the oldest and biggest frequently sending ore to help the youngest and smallest. The youngest reciprocate when older trees are struggling. In partnerships it’s too easy to think of corporates as the giant redwoods and keep tapping them for resources to support your non-profit. NGOs need to consider what they’ve got to offer in return and how that will not just meet short term need in difficult economic times, but nurture and strengthen the connections for the future. The strongest partnerships will mimic the generosity, reciprocity and constant negotiation that helps the forest to thrive.
The less connected ones struggle to survive
Seedlings planted in isolation from the forest’s lifelines of support are less likely to survive than their networked counterparts. Think of the big challenges your NGO is trying to address; homelessness, poverty, inequality, injustice and more. You may make some early progress by yourself, but your sapling won’t make it to old growth giant if you’re not connected. You need to seek out the corporate partners that are best connected to your values, mission and ambitions and you’ll grow faster and further than you can alone. Find the connections that are going to nourish both organisations and you’ll transform the forest at the same time.
Competition doesn’t mean greater progress
Taking a Darwinian view, you’d think that each tree competes for resources to ensure its own survival. But the forest isn’t a pitched battle, it’s a place for sophisticated negotiation, communication and collaboration. Corporate-community partnerships are not a competition for dominance or kudos, they are a collaborative effort to find new ways of creating social progress. The best partnerships are a win-win-win for corporate, NGO and the community.
The next time you find yourself deep in the tranquillity of a forest, think of the millions of sophisticated exchanges, negotiations ad communications that are being conducted under your feet. If you’d like human society to live as richly as an old-growth forest then make sure your partnerships are just as connected, reciprocal and mutually invested.
*For nature lovers, read the full article here.