Social Impact, Table For One?

Relationships between companies and nonprofits are being redefined. Companies are turning traditional approaches to philanthropy on their heads, moving beyond financial contributions to bring business strategies, expertise and resources to the table. While this has unlocked new ways to address societal challenges, it has also shifted the role nonprofits play. Where nonprofits once drove the vision and development of social impact initiatives informed by on-the-ground needs, they are now often times playing more of a supporting role. As the lines between delivering social impact in the private and nonprofit sectors continue to blur, more and more companies are going it alone or shaking up how they partner with nonprofits.

Consider recent examples of companies leading the design and execution of social impact commitments without support from a nonprofit partner: Panera Cares Cafes address food insecurity in the U.S., while the American Express #PassionProject aims to enable and inspire people to pursue their passions – kicked-off by charity:water founder Scott Harrison – through monthly grants. Other efforts – including Tide Loads of Hope and IKEA's* temporary shelters for refugees – do collaborate with a nonprofit implementation partner, but program design sits squarely with the corporation.

These shifting dynamics are also changing the way companies present their partners when telling their social impact stories. The much buzzed-about Target* and FEED USA collaboration employs incredibly savvy storytelling for its new line that helps provide meals to families across America. The partnership's causevertisements impress with simple, clever storytelling about Kate who needs plates and Mike who likes bikes. The spots not only provide clear social math around how many meals each product will deliver – for example, one shirt is equivalent to 16 meals – but also highlight the ripple effect of those individual purchases. This cause coalition is a flawless expression of the Target brand – but places just a limited focus on the program's impact partner, Feeding America.

With these changing dynamics, will we see more companies continue to challenge traditional approaches to nonprofit partnerships? Some consumers may not care who is actually implementing the social change, as long as they can feel good about supporting brands that focus on creating positive social impact. But change is opportunity. The shifting tide challenges nonprofits to re-shape their partnership stories to stay relevant in this new equation. Nonprofit organizations bring benefits that companies simply can't provide on their own – including credibility, hard-won knowledge of their beneficiaries, relationships cultivated over time and the ability to demonstrate measurable social impact.

Now is the time for nonprofits to reconsider how they partner with companies – and make sure they offer something that can't be duplicated. If you understand the needs of your corporate partners and help craft programs that thrust them into center stage, you can ensure there is still a role for your organization long into the future, even if you have to share the spotlight. For now, we'll be on the lookout for more companies following suit at the social impact table for one.

-Melissa Cilley, Senior Account Supervisor, Social Impact

*Target and IKEA are Cone Communications clients, but Cone did not work on these collaborations.


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