Partnerships (part 2)

Unleashing the Power of Nonprofit Partnerships: Lessons for Business

In the realm of social change, nonprofits are leaders in collaboration. With limited resources and complex challenges, they actually don’t have much of a choice. To fulfill their often daunting mission – from curtailing climate change to stopping homelessness– they have, by necessity, embraced the call to partnerships with business, government, universities and other nonprofits. So as we continue this two-part series on partnerships, let’s look at some valuable lessons learned and examples to see how this spirit of collaboration holds keys that can unlock opportunities in the business world.

Nonprofits, devoid of hefty budgets and adequate resources, have mastered the art of alchemy – turning tight finances into profound impact through partnerships. Witness the partnership between TOMS Shoes and the nonprofit Water.org. Beyond traditional philanthropy, TOMS committed to providing clean water for every pair of shoes sold. This collaboration not only addresses immediate needs but forges a deeper connection between customers and social impact. The lesson here, for both businesses and nonprofits, lies in the ability to see collaboration as more than a cost-sharing endeavor. If carefully designed, a great partnership fulfills both the mission of cleaner water for all and a business goal to build purpose and brand loyalty into a product. In other words, it’s not always about the money – though that certainly helps.

Nonprofits often operate in dynamic, unpredictable environments, requiring a level of agility that businesses can learn from. The ability to navigate complexity, adapt swiftly, and respond to emerging challenges characterizes nonprofit partnerships. In a world where change is constant, this adaptability becomes a strategic advantage. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) showcases unparalleled agility during health crises around the world. The organization swiftly forms partnerships with governments, other NGOs, and local communities to provide emergency medical care where it is needed most, often when no one else is willing to try.

One of Gratitude Network’s nonprofit Fellows, School on Wheels, did this in Los Angeles. School on Wheels (SOW) offers academic tutoring to students facing homelessness in various settings, such as shelters, motels, group foster homes, and those living on the streets. Unfortunately, due to state and federal grant restrictions, SOW is restricted in providing services to “doubled-up” students, meaning students who must live with another family or friends. Since doubling-up may account for 85% of all homeless, according to the U.S. government, it was imperative to find a solution. To address the educational needs of all homeless students, SOW established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with LACOE (Los Angeles County of Education). The partnership defines a referral process that designates SOW to serve students meeting the HUD definition of homelessness, while LACOE supports students in doubled-up situations. This collaborative effort ensures that every homeless student receives the academic help they need.

Nonprofits inherently operate with a holistic mindset, understanding that social impact goes beyond profit margins. Businesses can learn from this by adopting a broader perspective that considers not only the bottom line but also the well-being of communities and the environment. Nonprofit partnerships showcase the potential for creating shared value, where societal benefits intertwine with business success. Safeway and Albertsons have developed a comprehensive set of programs, including the Nourishing Neighbors campaign and Community Gift Cards, that effectively empower customers to support local causes and nonprofits they believe in.

Nonprofits are driven by a clear sense of purpose, and this purpose becomes a guiding force in partnerships. Another Gratitude Network Fellow, NavGurukul in India, provides training in software programming marginalized girls. They developed an MOU with the national government to provide a underserved girls with Certificate in Software Programming, recognized by the Government of India. The training and certificate enables young women to get well-paying jobs that literally lift their families and communities out of poverty. Now they’ve launched new courses across the country, in design, media, finance and management that is reaching thousands of students and changing their lives.

In this symphony of collaboration, nonprofits conduct an orchestra of partnerships that harmonize disparate elements into a cohesive whole. As businesses seek to learn from these lessons, the key lies not only in the tactical aspects of collaboration but in embracing a mindset that transcends profit for the betterment of society – and build positive brand and customer loyalty. In simple terms, it’s a recognition that we can’t achieve alone. Nonprofit know this inherently. Business and government are learning by example.

Steve McCoy-Thompson

*Steve McCoy-Thompson has worked over 30 years at the nexus of business, government and the nonprofit sector – as a management consultant to and with Fortune 100 companies and government ministries and as executive director of nonprofits and a community foundation. He is currently the Executive Director of Gratitude Network, which helps nonprofits apply best practices and business principles to reach over 40 million children worldwide.