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Purpose partnerships: How mission-driven companies approach business relationships

As values shift, finding values-aligned partners is critical.

The private sector is contributing more explicitly to societal well-being by adopting Social Purpose Business Models (PDF). And as businesses take on these different, new roles, they find that their relationships to their long-term community partners change as well.

Business is being redefined — and so are business partnerships.

These are the findings of a groundbreaking new study commissioned by the Canadian government. Two dozen companies with established corporate social responsibility practices were interviewed for the research. Respondents spanned the country, representing a broad cross-section of Canadian industry, from small businesses to large multinational companies with Canadian operations. Interviewees hailed from public, private and cooperative firms, held mostly senior leadership positions and managed sustainability or corporate social responsibility portfolios.

These are some key findings of the research.

Social purpose companies have a few things in common. They: 

  • Establish community partnerships to help them achieve their social purpose goals
  • Proactively create non-profit organizations to collaborate on shared initiatives
  • Co-locate with their community partners to cross-fertilize ideas and projects
  • Embed their partners in their operations to realize common objectives 

The table below summarizes the partnership styles found in the research. Social purpose companies demonstrate all these practices and are uniquely involved at levels 4 and 5.


Graph of corporate partnership continuum

As shown in the research, companies adopt several criteria for selecting non-profit partners, the most common of which are:

  • Vision and values alignment
  • Contribution to the company’s social goals or social purpose
  • Relevance to the business

These criteria suggest the new landscape for partnership development: Social purpose companies seek out values-aligned partners with whom they can collaborate to achieve shared goals. Here’s one example of a company transforming its non-profit partnerships to collaborate on systemic change: HP Canada and WWF-Canada partnering for good. This case study shows how HP started out with transactional, philanthropic, event-focused partnering with WWF-Canada a decade ago. By pivoting their relationship, they reorganized their collaboration to address systemic societal issues of concern to both organizations, such as their Living Planet @ Work program that gets Canadian workplaces to consider green IT and other environmental solutions.

Most companies interviewed expect their partnering approach to change in five years’ time. They anticipate their partnering will be more strategic and proactive than ad hoc and reactive. They will address systemic issues through longer-term partnerships, rather than focus on transactional philanthropy that addresses band-aid solutions.

We see that if we want to move a social issue forward, it will take more than just one non-profit or company working pre-competitively.
Relatedly, companies expect they will scale up their partnerships, expand geographically and increase their internal capacity to partner. The companies currently refining their humanitarian reason for being in business expect to be working through new social purpose-aligned partnerships.

Leader companies also expect to partner with corporate peers and competitors in future. As one social purpose company said, "We want to start partnering with others in the industries we operate to advance our sector. We see that if we want to move a social issue forward, it will take more than just one non-profit or company working pre-competitively."

However, a major barrier could hold back social progress. Several companies commented that civil society organizations distrust business and are limited in their understanding of how and why to partner with business on common goals. One respondent commented, "One challenge is the fact that there is a large distrust of business within the charitable sector and civil society. They like receiving a check but are skeptical of the broader partnership concept, which is new to many." No single business can overcome this systemic distrust, but social purpose businesses acting as a part of society rather than apart from society will go a long way to address this issue.

These old mindsets and entrenched habits in the community and business sectors will get in the way of social progress, unless we all champion this new paradigm of collaboration. There’s so much work ahead; to delay is to fall behind, and that can’t be an option.

Read the study here — then, do what you can in your business and non-profit relationships to change the narrative.

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