Martyn Drake: How charities can connect with business leaders

We need to get past our prejudices and see them as individuals

Many of us in the third sector have our own views on what business leaders are generally like. 

Often, it’s an archetype; a combination of personal experience and folklore, with generalisations subconsciously added from popular fiction and media portrayals – which, nevertheless, for some business leaders is probably fairly accurate. 

Some businesses are driven entirely by profits, and some leaders entirely by money. This is true. But in my experience this is a surprisingly small minority, and a declining one at that. 

Most business owners and leaders are far more complex, and what drives them far more nuanced than the prevailing image. They’re often far more socially conscious than we might be given to expect, too – and not just the philanthropic outliers: the Cadburys, Roddicks, Timpsons of this world. 

Those of us who work widely across both sectors have seen a much more widespread evolution in thinking across the board. We see the 2019 statement by the US Business Roundtable “redefining the purpose of corporations” as neither a cutting-edge herald of what is to come, nor an attempt to superficially “wokewash” the corporate sector, but a bunch of multinationals finally catching on to a trend that had been rapidly leaving them behind. 

Even so, that statement is an important signal. It demonstrates the desire to migrate along the ethical acronym continuum, from CSR (corporate social responsibility) through ESG (environment, social and governance) to TBL (triple bottom line) and beyond.

This has moved from a few early adopters to mainstream currency and is becoming the default orientation for business. 

And that opens up big opportunities for any charity with a social or environmental mission. 

In the past, a charity’s engagement with the business sector was broadly about three things: 

  • The money: whether charity of the week or the year, or chance to co-brand, raise awareness and pick up some supporters and donors.
  • The skills and resources: experienced executives as trustees, technical specialists for pro-bono projects, donations of software and equipment and the like. 
  • And often overlooked, but potentially most influential, as a route to impact: as employers, service providers, polluters, and so on.

The problem with CSR, though, was that it was always an add-on to a business; a 'nice-to-have' with a modest budget and little aspiration. Which is why the smart charities worked out they had to get past the CSR boundary to access the bigger opportunity. 

Getting into operations, customer service, the marketing divisions of a business; offering compelling propositions; educating corporate buyers on the unmissable opportunities of deeper collaboration; selling the value and negotiating an equitable share of it; this was the way, they discovered, to unlock the true potential of genuine corporate partnerships.

And this is the opportunity that the mainstreaming of social purpose in business can open up more widely for the sector.

As the CSR gloss gets increasingly replaced by more tangible frameworks like ESG, with investor-facing levels of visibility and measurability, those barriers between social impact and business strategy start to erode.

The opportunities to engage with, advise and guide corporate ambitions, practices and activities will increasingly emerge across the business landscape. 

But only for those charities that can straddle the cultural divide, that can relate their change to others’ corporate objectives, that are fluent in the language and concepts of commerce. 

The charities that grasp these opportunities will be those that can think inside their new customers’ heads; who genuinely “get”, understand and can empathise with business leaders. To do this, we need to unpick our preconceptions and dispense with the stereotypes and archetypes.

Because if we want to take this opportunity, if we want to access the income, impact and influence we could gain from a new generation of corporate partnerships, we will need to meet business leaders where they are, and take the time to educate and lead them to where they need to be, using language they’re familiar with, concepts they can engage with, and outcomes they can connect with on an economic, emotional and personal level.

In short, we need to get past our prejudices and learn to see them as the individuals they are.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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