THE OFTEN FORGOTTEN DOWNSIDE TO ACCEPTING CORPORATE CONTRIBUTIONS

“Go where the money is, ” said bank robber Willie Sutton. He could well have been advising nonprofits that target corporations flush in cash. Yet through the wrong partnerships nonprofits’ efficacy, reputation and goodwill is often looted while companies — who boost sales, gain new young customers, and burnish tarred legacies — make out like bandits.

The Occupy movement serves as a stark reminder of the severe harm caused by Wall Street companies that collaborate closely with nonprofits. Recent social campaigns harnessing technology have achieved almost immediate policy shifts. This dynamic, complex world presents huge opportunities for organizations to pursue visionary outcomes with like-minded partners.

Yet many charities’ bias towards growth undercuts their impact. Two weeks ago, the Human Rights Campaign appointed Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein as their national corporate spokesperson for same-sex marriage, prompting widespread reactions of disgust including Matt Taibbi’s. Soda machines still man school hallways, and environmental organizations embrace companies that wreak ecological devastation. Nonprofits say shrinking government support and glowing goals justify such partnerships. But neither trump the need for community and character to lie at the heart of their mission.

Only a small percent of the nonprofit sector are in social change (or social justice) philanthropy, described in December’s Stanford Social Innovation article as one measured “by its capacity to question the dominant development model, to seek the root causes of inequality, and to engage in a process of self-reflection that also seeks to expand its accountability to the broader public that it seeks to serve.” The traditional domain of industrial titans expanded as diverse groups created charitable forces of broad stripes. But many nonprofits bloated by oversized assets and new investments narrowed previously innovative, high impact programs.

Nonprofits partners’ successes exacted high tolls on target communities (making the very donations available). Explosive corporate growth resulted from companies’ masking product costs and effects, weakening regulatory protections, and diminishing worker power; leaving Americans with stagnating wages, bigger waistlines, and a high risk of homelessness. The Great Recession slowed progress towards the Millenium Development Goals, with 80 million more jobs needed to regain 2007-level employment. And the planet hurtles towards an environmental point of no return due largely to profits taken at the Earth’s expense.

Time for the powerful nonprofit sector — devoted to health, sustainability, and economic opportunity — to dump the Vichy water and rejoin the fight for justice alongside newfound and newly committed partners. Yet many are closer to settling down for a nap after their Black-Card-funded lunch than answering the call to action.

Why? They ignored the fact that something as small as a kind gesture prompts reciprocity. Three pertinent examples: an institution where the name of Philip Morris is etched on a wall in gold is unlikely to put on Christopher Buckley’s brilliant take on lobbying “Thank You for Smoking”. And it is the rare development organization that would partner with Pepsi then highlight soda’s harmful health effects internationally, or take banking money then lobby hard for taxes on financial transactions and hedge fund managers. More likely it would pivot to change constituents, eliminating nutrition programs or anti-bank/anti-soda campaigns.

Advice for how an individual nonprofit can avoid such awkward situations is here. More promising is a nascent trend across sectors to question how best to achieve transformative impacts and visionary programming.

The environmental group 1Sky, which includes Bill McKibben, issued this letter that gives more credibility to community organizations. Mainstream nonprofits rallied hard behind national climate change legislation that was slashed to ribbons before failing to pass. Yet smaller organizations reached out to minority populations, scoring a huge win with the defeati of Proposition 23 that kept California on target to meet aggressive greenhouse gas goals. A recent report argues that the last decade of enormous environment spending brought minimal achievements, and agrees progress requires more grassroots activism.

Arts organizations are beginning a dialogue about the scarcity of political theater, according to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann. Their provocative and often political DC playhouse has tackled AIDS, gentrificaton and political comedy among other topics. In fact, the Woolly helped birth “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. Mike Daisey’s prescient monologue based on his investigation into FoxConn has since been followed by an explosion, audit and campaign involving Apple products. The play virtually sold out in DC last year and returns soon, demonstrating its contemporary relevance and enduring social value.

The downside to supersizing has been known for some time, the pitfalls of bad partnerships even longer. Nonprofits have traditionally been respected for achieving near-miracles. It’s time for them to renew their vision, roll up their sleeves, and work on issues critical to their communities. As for any inspired leader, both company and
collaboration will come.

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.

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