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“Let’s Not Waste This Crisis”

By Shannon Bond on February 19, 2009No Comment

With this call to action, David Vidal, Director of The Conference Board Center for Corporate Citizenship & Sustainability, brought the 2009 Global Corporate Citizenship Conference to a close in New York City. The words have stuck with me, conjuring up simultaneous feelings of optimism and trepidation. As communities around our nation struggle, companies have the opportunity to lend a vital hand, but in this uncharted territory the best way forward is unclear.

As we get our bearings, let’s use this time, when we are reminded daily that we are in “an economic crisis” or “troubled times” and countless hours are spent examining and reexamining our companies, our economy and our options, to take a fresh perspective, because before we know it the reminders will cease and it will just be “today” again. 

As the dust settles and our new reality slowly begins to take form, we turn to our safety net, the 1.3 million nonprofit organizations whose efforts to handle the challenges created by market failures we support with hundreds of millions each year. What we discover is no secret: our efforts and theirs have not successfully fixed education, halted climate change, ended homelessness or hunger. The realization that we are missing something is crystal clear, and perhaps now, since all the rules have changed anyway, we get to rethink Corporate America’s role in creating positive social change.

If we had a clean slate, where should we begin? Many companies are examining all of their partnerships to identify which are the most strategic. Some are calling nonprofit partners to ask what support they need most. Still others are increasing volunteer efforts or shifting support to cover basic needs in their hometown.

All of these are relevant and important. What we can’t do however, is work alone. Insights from a panelist at the recent conference make a valid point for why we must do more to work together: “Too many people don’t know where we have succeeded or where we have failed. How can we move forward when we don’t understand where we have been?” Perhaps the spirit of “we’re all in this together” will begin to create a culture where collaboration between both funders and nonprofits isn’t checked off the list once or twice per year at a conference, but rather becomes part of how philanthropy strategies are built, programs are developed, and change is made. 

Below are some thoughts on both funder and nonprofit collaboration to get our wheels turning. I would invite you to contribute to the conversation by commenting below.

Funder collaboration

Paul Brest, President, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Hal Harvey, former Foundation colleague of Brest’s, wrote a book called Money Well Spent A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy  in which they discuss the importance of focusing our philanthropic resources. In a November 2008 interview with Philanthropy News Digest, Brest states: “…there are too many philanthropic resources not being used in as focused a way as they could be to achieve intended goals. We’re agnostic about goals. We don’t say do climate change instead of land conservation, or education instead of health care.”

Focus takes coordination, and a challenge of the magnitude described by Brest also takes commitment and discipline. There are certainly enough problems to go around and the point is not to suggest completely abandoning one cause for another, but rather that perhaps instilling a method to our madness could go a long way.

One place to start may be geographic coordination. Recently I’ve read about large funders that share a hometown collaborating to rescue local social service organizations struggling to weather the storm. Perhaps the collaborations begun during social “triage” can continue. If funders worked together to identify and prioritize the needs of their city resources could be targeted and support could be coordinated. Testing the viability and success of such a strategy at the city level may tell us much about the potential for a larger, farther-reaching coordination approach.

Nonprofit collaboration

As speculation about reduced philanthropic giving in 2009 grows, talk of impact on nonprofits has often turned into debate over whether “survival of the fittest” may in fact be good for the sector. Some think there are too many nonprofits, too much replication and duplication of efforts which makes it difficult for funders to target support. Others think there aren’t enough, since our challenges don’t seem to be getting any easier.

A middle ground opinion is that nonprofits should consider merging, or at the very least increasing collaboration to strengthen programs and share ideas for fundraising or board development. While mergers in a climate of growing unemployment may bring more costs than benefits, if this “crisis” can motivate organizations to work more closely perhaps this could be a trend that begins to improve services while beginning to eliminate duplication of efforts.

I recently helped facilitate a “Partner Summit” for OppenheimerFunds in New York City, an event which brought together the Company’s five key nonprofit partners, each dedicated to serving at-risk young people through entrepreneurship education. The day-long event was the second held by OppenheimerFunds and provided partner organizations the chance to share challenges, brainstorm solutions, discuss innovative fundraising techniques and engage in frank discussions about the corporate perspective in this economic environment. By providing incentive and opportunity for nonprofits to collaborate, funders create a win-win situation: the nonprofits innovate to strengthen services and capacity and funders ensure their dollars are spent efficiently and effectively.

Collaboration clearly is not an easy solution, nor is it always the best solution; however, if we want to come out of this downturn stronger on the other side, taking a step back to broaden our perspective is a good place to start.  In what other ways can we ensure we “don’t waste this crisis”? Let’s continue the conversation.

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