Impact Vs. Reputation in CSR Partnerships

Even if you agree that the most important element of a CSR partnership is the impact achieved, it would be foolish to ignore the reputational effects.

So what happens to the reputation of a NGO when it partners with a corporation? A Cone study on corporate citizenship from 2004 suggests a positive effect: three quarters of Americans agreed that partnerships result in a more positive image of the nonprofit. But I’ve also heard that a non-profit’s reputation is tarnished by for-profit partnerships.

Something is missing from this framing of the question, so I’ve tried to deconstruct its logic. What causes someone to lose respect in a non-profit that strikes a corporate partnership? I believe it’s the low level of trust in the corporate partner.

That begs the question, do people trust all corporations equally? Edelman’s 2008 “Trustometer” asked North American opinion elites if they trust business to “do what’s right.” Overall, 58% said yes, but their responses varied widely by industry.

Nearly four in five people surveyed trust a technology company, but only 44% trust a media company, with insurance coming in at 48%, banks at 67% and biotech/life sciences at 71%.

Taking banking as a randomly selected example, do people trust Citibank, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, and HSBC equally? The original question gets pretty foggy, so you’re left evaluating individual couplings of corporation and non-profit:

Starbucks + Mercy Corps….Cisco + UNDP….Dow Chemical + Blue Planet Run Foundation….Google + TechnoServe….Intel + USAID

These are all real partnerships, and looking at the NGO (or bilateral or multilateral) partner adds another level of fog to the original question. What does Mercy Corps have in common with UNDP? About as much as Coldplay shares with the San Francisco Symphony.

A third and final layer of fog must be introduced: the nature of the partnership. In hypothetical scenario (a) the corporation cuts a check to fund a study on the effectiveness of foreign development assistance. In scenario (b) the corporation donates intellectual property to assist people suffering from a global epidemic. Both might be perfectly reasonable projects, but can you expect the same reputational impact on the NGO?

When leaders of businesses and NGOs sit down to collaborate, they have to look at industry, industry position, scope of work, timing, history, political environment, stakeholder overlap, and many other factors to know what reputational impacts could be in store.

Frameworks can only take you so far. However, once you’re satisfied that both organizations will be rewarded (or at least not punished) for engaging in a partnership, at least you can get back to achieving those impacts.

One Response to Impact Vs. Reputation in CSR Partnerships

  1. Interesting. Last year, I was part of the CSR awards committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, and we gave out a Partnership Award for excellence in this type of collaboration. The idea of the non-profit losing credibility with such an arrangement was never part of the discussion. (Well, it was China, where charities are often government-backed, and it was under the auspices of a corporate organization… ) However, I do think this is an important discussion, especially for an organization such as the Sierra Club. I think that building stronger connections between companies and NGOs, that go beyond donations, can help to mitigate this potential problem.