An Unusual Partnership: Corporations and Non-Profits Work Together to Solve Public Health Issues
Today’s economic climate creates a challenging environment for non-profits who have traditionally been funded by independent contributors or community foundations. Therefore, non-profits have had to find alternate ways to fund their missions. Corporate partnerships and coalitions are increasingly the answer. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding actually went up 10.6% in 2010 despite the economic climate. In fact, 55% of corporations engaged in one or more social impact campaigns. After identifying a cause, more than 90% of firms identified specific business-related goals with their philanthropic event signifying that corporations are taking these programs seriously. (The Giving Institute)
Competition for funding has become fierce, forcing non-profits to distinguish themselves by showing quantifiable results. Business minds rejoice, as it’s a well-known fact we all love metrics. However, it presents a significant challenge for public health non-profits to demonstrate results in a short timeframe. Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention. These initiatives can take over 5 years to demonstrate results.
William Novelli, Professor at McDonough School of Business Georgetown University and co-founder of PR firm Porter Novelli, says “There is an inherent tension between public health organizations and corporations. They aren’t perfect unions, but private companies bring a lot to the table such as resources, focus on the consumer, and accountability.”
Our research indicated that because of the long timeframe to see measurable results, it is in public health focused non-profits best interest to partner with healthcare companies who share a similar mission and whose executives understand the challenges of public health. Other possible partners are companies with a community focus. For example, H-E-B, a Texas food store chain, views the health of their communities as vital to their success as a business. As a result, they started offering diabetes monitoring services, in-store nutrition education and healthy private label food choices.
Public health non-profits may also find fruitful partnerships with firms whose products are used in public health. For example, Canyon Ranch Institute (CRI), a public health focused non-profit, developed a mutually beneficial partnership with Clorox. Clorox, who has traditionally entered new markets through M&A, has entered Peru through a public health campaign in conjunction with CRI. CRI was able to use an arts-based intervention that combines artistic disciplines, such as theater, music, dance, puppetry, and storytelling, in order to advance health literacy and improve hygiene-related behaviors. This creative approach provides a win-win situation for Clorox, CRI, and the people of Peru.
While there are many benefits of CSR partnerships, the process of matching non-profits with corporations is inefficient. Through our interviews with over ten well-known, large corporations with CSR programs, we uncovered a variety of ways that non-profit partners are identified, selected and managed. While some firms relied on their PR or ad agencies, others sourced potential partners through employee suggestions or even a Google search. Furthermore, ownership for CSR can reside in many different parts of the organization. For example, some programs were located in a separate foundation, others within Marketing, while some were led directly by the CEO. This variability presents a huge challenge for non-profits to scale CSR partnerships. Other challenges include matching cultures and long-term goals.
Partnerships with a common public health mission are only growing in size and will be important for HBS students to understand and prioritize as leaders.