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Can Consultants Help Non-Profits Help Companies with CSR?

February 25, 2014

ACN is a great organization, but the organization does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this blog. It’s just one guy’s opinion.

This morning I had the honor of speaking on a panel for the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits, along with Bill Bonner of Bonner of IMPR and Leah Bradford of the Kraft Foods Group and the Kraft Foods Group Foundation. In addition to being really impressed by ACN as an organization, I really enjoyed the lively and engaged crowd that had thought provoking questions and great contributions.

My task was to answer two questions:

  1. How are companies using consultants to develop corporate partnerships related to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or sustainability?
  2. Does this market have potential?

CSR Defined

First, I think it’s important to start nearly every conversation about CSR by defining it. The simplest definition I give is that CSR is managing and organization’s business operations in a way that is good for people, profit, and the planet. CSR deals with a wide range of issues: supply chain & human rights protection, lobbying, workers’ pay and benefits, product life cycles, investments, public disclosure practices, diversity and inclusion, and carbon emissions to name just a few issues.

A very key point is that CSR includes philanthropy, volunteering, and community relations, but as I pointed out, CSR is much more than that. Don’t conflate the two terms.

For the purpose of this article and this morning I treated the terms CSR and sustainability as being synonymous.

A Non-Profit’s Role

For the most part, non-profit organizations tend not to engage with companies – specifically in helping them with CSR. For the most part, most non-profits are geared to work with companies in the community relations or cause-marketing spheres. However, occasionally a non-profit can help companies fulfill their goals related to the social or environmental impacts of their business.

A great example is Aspire, a Chicagoland non-profit that helps differently abled adults attain meaningful jobs (as well as many other services). The non-profit partnered with OfficeMax and the Kessler Foundation to develop a training program to help Aspire’s constituents thrive in a retail or warehouse work environment. (Full disclosure: years ago, I worked and consulted for OfficeMax, but I had no involvement in this program). This program helped OfficeMax with its diversity and inclusion efforts while also servicing Aspire’s constituents.

The Difference: A CSR or Philanthropic Role

So how is this not just a company sponsoring a non-profit? The key distinction for me between a philanthropic program versus a non-profit helping a company with CSR is as follows…

For cause-marketing or community relations programs (philanthropy/volunteering) a non-profit’s role is primarily focused on using its assets to help a company.  This could be the non-profit’s brand or logo to be put on a product’s packaging to increase sales and support a cause. Or a nonprofit using its Board of Directors to help a company’s executives create relationships in the community and build their leadership capabilities.

A non-profit is helping a company with CSR when it is primarily focused on using its expertise to help a company. In this case, Aspire has a unique and differentiating skill set that few organizations have: insights into the employment of adults who have a different set of abilities.

Tough Love: A Role for Consultants? Not really.

While I have helped some of my clients with their relationships with non-profits, I do not see it as a major market for consultants to dive into. So my tough love advice is: will it put food on your table? Maybe. But if so, it’ll likely just be a side dish.

The central question for any business and especially consulting is whether you offer products or services that solve a problem so that people are willing to pay money for it. Companies rarely need help from consultants for match-making services, as an example. There may be some services where consultants are needed for facilitating group meetings with non-profit organization, but in my experience this hasn’t been a huge market. (I do think, however, that there is a much bigger role for consultants to play in helping non-profits with their cause-marketing, volunteering, and philanthropic capacity.)

However, things aren’t so bleak. The projects I have worked on for my for-profit clients include facilitating such meetings and benchmarking existing and not-existing relationships against future needs related to CSR strategies. Yet, this wasn’t something I specifically “sold” as a service to my clients. Rather, I received these projects because I was already a trusted adviser, known for excellent research, writing, analytical, and facilitation skills. So while those were the services I provided, they just happened to be on the subject matter of relationships with non-profits or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) related to specifically to CSR programs.

Sponsorships between non-profits and companies dealing with CSR are so closely ingrained with a non-profit’s core abilities that bringing in consultants would be redundant. In fact, one could argue that it would be a warning sign that a non-profit may not be as strong of a partner if they have to bring in non-ancillary help.

So my honest advice to consultants is to focus on your core competencies rather than trying to become the central hub of non-profit and for-profit relationships. If such projects arrive, treat them as welcome appetizers rather than regular entrees.

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