· 2 min read · Features

Why 'giving back' is missing the point

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What is a business charity partnership for? For most people on the business side, partnerships with non-profits are an opportunity to give – money, time, leadership expertise, commercial insight. So, by definition, partnerships signify an opportunity to take.

And why not? Non-profits have been hit hard by funding cuts and austerity measures; they should benefit from the money, time and business brains that corporate partners can bring.

What do businesses get from making this kind of commitment? Corporate organisations in the reputational spotlight can talk about their commitment to communities, and staff will benefit from that feeling of satisfaction from 'making a difference'.

So everyone's happy. But everyone is missing a big, big trick.

First, all too often the motivation for these kinds of community investment activities is summed up in terms of 'giving back'. If businesses are 'giving back' to society when working with communities, the clear implication is that the rest of the time they are 'taking from'. There are two problems with this: Business exists to contribute to society. If its mindset is that it only does so with a community engagement programme, its fundamental purpose is arguably flawed; and business and society are not separate, but wholly intertwined. How can you 'give back' to something you are part of?

Second, businesses are missing out on a big opportunity to learn from as well as contribute to charities. Businesses who 'give back' are also regularly facing business challenges and knowledge gaps, such as:

  • How do we ensure we have a great workplace for people with disabilities?
  • How can we better serve customers who struggle with accessibility?
  • Where's the next big idea coming from?
  • How do we make our brand more trusted?
  • What is really happening at the base of our supply chain?

All too often business neglects the deep expertise and knowledge held by charities and the individuals within them. Sometimes that's not surprising; if charities' first ask is for money (for unrestricted funding is usually at the top of charities' wish lists), then business is likely to take the traditional view of charities as neighbours that pester you for cash. And to some degree that's OK - corporate foundations play an important role in funding many charity projects, and staff fundraising can be useful for charities too.

But back to charities' expertise. When Legal & General considered how to better serve its critical illness insurance customers recently diagnosed with cancer, they did not send their customer-facing team on a traditional training course; instead, they asked Macmillan Cancer to provide insight into the kind of support customers need. L&G saw the charity as a provider of intellectual capital and paid them as such.

There are more examples. When Network Rail wanted to tackle the practical and emotional problems associated with suicide on the railways, they jumped at the chance to work with the Samaritans who, among other partnership activities, counsel train drivers who have witnessed deaths.

When it became clear to Marks & Spencer that there was a need for lingerie designed for women who'd had breast cancer surgery, the company worked with Breakthrough Breast Cancer to design a range.

When Sky wanted to engage its broadband customers in the issue of internet child safety, they assigned 20 future leaders on a talent development programme to spend two days with schoolchildren and internet child protection charity Childnet International to shape the message. And when a senior team from Lloyds Banking Group wanted to understand how to make its workplace better for people with disabilities, they volunteered with Leonard Cheshire Disability, sharing their skills and learning about the issue in equal measures.

So, the message is clear. Someone once said 'knowledge is power'. Charities have the knowledge and you can tap it, in mutually beneficial ways. With this approach you can benefit from new market insight, establish two-way learning, be exposed to different values and even co-create new products and services.

And best of all, you can stop giving back.

Jan Levy (pictured) is managing director of community engagement firm Three Hands