Purpose Partnerships: Ground-breaking study shows major change in leader companies’ path to purpose and partnerships

Published on April 5, 2019

The role of business in society is being redefined – and so are business partnerships. As businesses take on new roles, to contribute more explicitly to societal well-being through the Social Purpose Business Model, they find that their relationships to their long-term community partners change as well.

These are the findings of a ground-breaking new study commissioned by the Government of Canada. 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 multi-national companies. Interviewees were from public, private and co-operative firms, held mostly senior leadership positions, and managed sustainability or corporate social responsibility portfolios.

These are the some of the remarkable key findings of the research. 

Social purpose companies:

  • 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 different partnership styles found in the research. Social purpose companies demonstrate all these practices and are uniquely involved at levels 4 and 5.

Corporate Partnership Contributions Continuum

Level Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5
Nature of corporate contribution and level of collaboration Grant

Employee volunteering

In-kind donations

Sponsorship

Skills-based volunteering

Best practice sharing

Capacity building

Customer access

Connection to other partners

Social procurement

Tailored, discounted or free products

Joint program delivery

Co-location

Strategic integration / embedment

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.

Most of the companies interviewed expect their partnering approach to change in five years’ time. They anticipate their partnering will be more strategic and proactive, with longer term partnerships addressing systemic issues. Relatedly, companies expect they will scale up their partnerships, expand geographically, and increase their internal capacity to partner. The companies that are refining their humanitarian reason for being in business expect to be working through new social purpose-aligned partnerships.

Leader companies also expect to be partnering 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.”

However, a major barrier could hold back social progress. Several companies commented that civil society distrusts business and is limited in its understanding of how and why to partner with business on common goals. One respondent commented that “one challenge is the fact that there is a large distrust of business within the charitable sector and civil society. They like receiving a cheque but are skeptical of the broader partnership concept which is new to many.”

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. Read the study to find out more. Then do what you can in your business and non-profit relationships to change the narrative. There’s so much work ahead; to delay is to fall behind, and that can’t be an option.

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