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Make a difference: Charity partnerships must do more than merely satisfy HR objectives

Partnerships between businesses and charities are supposed to be based on mutual benefit, but many companies treat charity partners like suppliers. They do so at their peril.

More and more companies are recognising the benefits of charity partnerships. Some have been doing it for years, while for others it's new territory. The motivation is often around HR; because many classic ‘charity of the year' relationships have some major fundraising targets at their core, employees are provided with a focus for fun and engaging fundraising activities, many of which provide benefits in terms of employee bonding, morale and pride.

Employee volunteering is another opportunity presented by a charity relationship, as is payroll giving. But even employees who don't participate in any of the above might still feel good about the fact their employer is committed to a charity and an associated social issue.

But for a business-charity partnership to genuinely work, the benefits must be mutual. Both organisations' objectives must be understood and a positive relationship based on that understanding must be established. This sounds obvious, but too often it doesn't happen. Too often the charity is viewed as just another supplier.

I've recently come across a couple of examples where a charity partner has been more like a supplier in disguise:

The UK division of an international engineering company held a two-day offsite conference with a team of 50 to discuss business issues and develop the team. They chose to do the latter by engaging in a project with a very small community regeneration charity with just two employees. The half-day project involved developing an understanding of the charity's strategic challenges and brainstorming solutions to those challenges.

It all sounds good, but on closer inspection it arguably worked better for the company than the charity. Why?

  • Mismatch of resources - 50 business brains on the issues of a very small ‘kitchen table' charity with limited capacity to implement those ideas was a mismatch. It was quantity, not quality.
  • An event, not a partnership - this was essentially a half-day teambuilding exercise, in which the charity was the project provider, with no guarantee of an ongoing relationship.

So while corporate objectives were satisfied - the event worked well for the company and participants had a good experience - tangible benefit to the charity was by no means guaranteed.

And last year an environmental charity started a relationship with a major corporate organisation. But rather than signing a ‘partnership agreement', the company insisted on making it a ‘service delivery contract' - just as they would with a supplier of services.

Their objective was to guarantee employee volunteering opportunities for a target number of employees over a target number of days - with little consideration for the charity's broader objectives and for the actual need for the volunteering. The charity felt compelled to agree, rather than to lose the relationship altogether, so they simply see themselves as a supplier of projects in a non-dynamic, transactional relationship.

The problems for charities associated with companies looking to achieve HR outcomes through charity initiatives are numerous:

  • It is difficult for them to say no. Even if the relationship is far from ideal, they are inclined to jump in anyway, in the hope that it will evolve into something better.
  • The tender process that some companies use (in one form or another) suggests a client-supplier dynamic. It is not about two organisations getting to know each other over an extended period of time. But if this system is to be used and charities have to ‘pitch' to companies, why should companies not have to pitch back to charities on why they will make good partners?
  • Companies do not have a great enough appreciation of the resources - or lack of them - available to charities.
  • One-day projects for large numbers of employees can be more about achieving employee volunteering targets than adding real value. They risk being disruptive to the charity rather than beneficial.
  • Companies fail to see the benefits of charity partnerships that don't involve employee engagement (a whole new topic in itself and one for a future column).

I'm painting a bleak picture here, and by focusing on a couple of (nameless and disguised) companies I'm potentially accusing corporates as a whole of disregarding the objectives of charity partners and failing to engage with them on issues in which they have a common interest. It's not all bad - there are plenty of examples of productive and mutually beneficial relationships out there - but my intention here is to warn HR and CSR people of the perils of a one-sided relationship; it will come back to bite. Reputation amongst key stakeholders is at stake, employee pride can turn into employee cynicism all too easily, and the scarce resources of both company and charity could be used poorly.

You have been warned.

Jan Levy is Managing Director of Three Hands