Collaborative Problem-Solving with Credibility

Some companies are turning to nonprofit partners to solve problems collaboratively, with built-in credibility.Cause marketing has evolved for some companies into collaborative partnerships that provide shared value for the participating corporation and charity.

Mary MacDonald of EarthShare, a federation of nonprofits involved with environmental issues, says many corporations are looking to collaborative partnerships to solve problems, not just donate money.

In a blog post on GreenBiz.com, MacDonald cites the example of The Nature Conservancy and Coca-Cola collaborating on ways to reduce water usage and conserve watersheds around the world.

"Water scarcity is a growing problem," MacDonald writes, "and water is the primary ingredient in every can of soda Coca-Cola produces."

The collaboration involves The Nature Conservancy quantifying the water consumed by Coca-Cola bottling operations, then offsetting it with watershed conservation projects the company sponsors worldwide. Coca-Cole reports it will hit the 42 percent mark by 2013, including preservation of a 1.7-million acre wetland in Vietnam.

The partnership also is trying to trim wasted water down the drain, which at some plants reaches 50 percent of overall usage.  Waste now has been cut to an average of 17 percent, MacDonald says.

The bottom line, MacDonald concludes, is that "a corporate giant discovered working with nonprofits with expertise in conservation was critical in addressing its water consumption issues.

More and more companies are forming allegiances with nonprofits in cause marketing campaigns. The company adopts the cause and helps to promote fundraising and volunteerism for the charity. This association has a positive effect for the company and a financial benefit for the nonprofit.

Collaborative partnerships take the idea deeper by combining the brainpower and resources of a corporation and a nonprofit to tackle a serious problem. Raising funds for the nonprofit remains an element of the undertaking, but the deliverable of a collaborative partnership is much more tangible than goodwill.

Coca-Cola realizes it can be vulnerable to criticism for using a lot of water. Working with a reputable nonprofit such as The Nature Conservancy to find a way to cut water waste gives this exercise a higher pubic profile. The company gets credit for something it might have to do anyway. At the same time, it can justify the water it does use in making its sodas by working with its nonprofit partner on a global water conservation effort.

You may view this as an advanced placement class in corporate social responsibility.

It would be easy to dismiss collaborative partnerships as a fad or something only large corporations can undertake. Not so. Companies of any size can team with local nonprofits to tackle problems within the scope of their collective capabilities and resources, whether it is getting classrooms wired for technology or helping homeless teenagers escape the streets.

Customer and citizen expectations are growing, in part because of frustration over the inability — or unwillingness — of government and trusted institutions to tackle tough problems. This gives businesses and nonprofits a unique opportunity to collaborate and make a difference. It also turns out to be an invaluable way to manage difficult issues with a partner that has built-in credibility.