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Trends to Watch: Non-Profit and Business Partnerships

By Erdin Beshimov

After seeing anti-globalization protests on TV one would probably think that the business and nonprofit worlds are in a zero-sum game, right?

Not so long ago the business and nonprofit sectors stood at
    arms length from each other and were even seen as polar
    opposites whose agendas conflicted. Businesses paid scant
    attention to the nonprofit world, while nonprofits returned the
    favor by painting business as the cause of many of the world's

Today, however, looking at it from a zero-sum lens would fail to describe the complex and mutually-enhancing links that have developed between the business and nonprofit worlds over the past few years.  Businesses today are exhibiting broad receptivity to the socioeconomic agendas of nonprofit organizations.  In their turn, nonprofits are putting greater trust in the message of social responsibility emanating from the business world.  We are beginning to see the emergence of real and lasting alliances that bring extensive resources to the promotion of critical agendas around the world. 

A critical observer may note that businesses voice socially-friendly messages only to market themselves and that they do little more than simply write occasional checks to nonprofits.  In a similar vein, strapped for cash and endlessly competing for limited funds, nonprofits are desperate to get the financial backing of businesses.  As a result, they often become mere distributors of corporate charity rather than dynamic and independent agents of change. 

Entering the Age of Alliances, a 2001book by Harvard Business School professor James Austin, would suggest that this skeptical view is at best inaccurate.  Collaboration between business and nonprofit sectors today is moving away from its solely philanthropic nature and is growing in depth and strategic importance. 

Businesses and nonprofits today are exhibiting patterns of genuine collaboration, especially in areas where their interests intersect.  A good example here is the alliance between the National Science Resources Center and Hewlett Packard.  The center is a nonprofit organization established by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences to improve the teaching of science in secondary education.  HP, a leading manufacturer of digital equipment, has an undisputed interest in the strength of science education in schools.  This intersection of interests in the area of science education led to an effective partnership.  HP helps the center with technical advice on curriculum design and teacher training.  In addition, it gets its scientists actively involved in science education in their local schools. 

A similar partnership exists between the College Fund (UNCF), the largest minority educational assistance organization in the U.S., and Merck, a leading global pharmaceutical company.  In 1995, the UNCF and Merck launched a joint science internships program.  which assigns mentors and gives assignments to minority students at Merck research facilities.  The UNCF connects Merck with high achieving minority students with an interest in chemistry and biology.  In turn Merck provides these students with excellent opportunities for further learning and research by assigning them mentors and exposing to scientific projects.   

These two examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and nonprofit and business partnerships are likely to grow in number and depth in the future.  This is good news for both businesses and nonprofits.  Nonprofits will have greater opportunity to leverage the business world's extensive resources to address their causes, while businesses will develop a stronger image of good citizenship. 


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