The process of building relationships between corporations and nonprofit organizations is not often discussed – and these partnerships are often at the heart of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. This research focuses on such partnerships, drawing upon in-depth interviews with senior leaders of corporations top-ranked for CSR and, separately, the senior leaders of their primary nonprofit partner organizations. Corporate senior leaders for this study were chosen from the companies listed in the annual ranking of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens by Corporate Responsibility, and all of the senior corporate and nonprofit leaders interviewed (N=24) had held formal leadership positions for at least 10-15 years.

Through separate but similar interviews from each side of a dozen global CSR partnerships, this study uncovered where corporations and nonprofits see eye-to-eye, as well as where they differ and yielded a set of insightful best practices. The findings also suggest that some CSR relationships might better be called “public interest partnerships,” because they truly focus on communities more so than corporate or nonprofit interests.

As Brunner (2017) stated, public relations and public interest communications (PIC) encompass the building of community and engagement. When public interest is at the heart of an initiative, the goal is “achieving significant and sustained positive behavioral change” that “transcends the particular interests of any single organization” (as cited in Fessmann, 2017, p. 17). What we discovered in our interviews seems to show that these partnerships fit these descriptions.

Best Practices of Public Interest Partnerships

When asked about best practices for forming corporate-nonprofit partnerships and making them last long-term, most of the respondents focused on three best practices:

  • work toward having clarity at the outset as well as throughout the partnership,
  • strive for consistency in terms of having shared goals but also sharing storytelling related to the partnership and its impact, and
  • be comprehensive with the relationship or truly “go deep” in terms of making an impact within a community or on the public as a whole

Practices such as beginning with a memo of understanding (MOU) were mentioned. Detailed planning documents like MOUs help provide clarity and require both partner organizations to find common ground on operating principles before they move forward. Also, the idea of “going deep” came up in several interviews on both the corporate and nonprofit sides, reaffirming the importance of being comprehensive and consistent in forming these successful, long-term partnerships.

Nonprofits are no longer looking for corporations to simply write a check, and corporate partners want more meaningful relationships, too. If both partners have a larger shared value – such as social justice – this value might help guide the relationship as a whole, as well as the storytelling and reporting related to the partnership and its results.

True “public interest partnerships” may be seen as the new gold standard in terms of CSR. Striving for the three “C’s” (clarity, consistency, comprehensive strategy) may help corporations and their partner nonprofit organizations achieve greater outcomes.

Choosing Partners

When asked specifically about choosing partners, practitioners on both sides of these sustainable relationships seemed to create a lasting impact by focusing on the following:

  • putting the community first – begin with the desired end state in mind
  • having shared values, which has often been noted in prior CSR research
  • remembering reputation – the opportunities for partnership are seemingly endless; partners must not lose sight of society’s perceptions, and actively manage and protect their organizations and brands as well as their partners

Challenges, and Opportunities for Public Relations

When asked about the challenges of creating and sustaining such partnerships, the corporate and nonprofit partners interviewed for this study emphasized the importance of communication, measuring impact, and managing expectations.

Good communication is at the heart of any good relationship, and it seems that these public interest partnerships are no different. Participants mentioned needing good communication at the beginning of the partnership, in terms of being transparent about what both partners want, but also about the need to communicate well together in terms of reporting on the partnership to the public or to investors, donors, volunteers, or other stakeholders. Many companies produce CSR reports, or some variation thereof – and working together to tell the story of these partnerships in these media as well as to traditional media, on social media, or in other ways – can be a challenge but one that is worth the effort.

This challenge relates to measuring impact, as the measurement has to take place in order to tell the story about the impact the partnership is having on the community or on the public as a whole. As many participants mentioned, beginning with the end in mind and starting with a clear, measurable objective is just as important when forming these long-term relationships as it is when starting a new PR campaign or internal communication program. These objectives will help organizations in measuring the impact of the relationship, which will also help in communicating the relationship to stakeholders or to the general public.

Managing expectations is also based on good communication, and interview participants mentioned the importance of keeping promises and not over-promising, as well as being realistic from the outset about what both organizations can deliver or accomplish. And again, starting with an MOU or another more formal document may help manage expectations in both the short- and long-term.

This study helps shed light on how corporations and nonprofit organizations can most effectively build partnerships in the public interest. Indeed, CSR seems to be evolving from a focus on business practices and stakeholders to a true commitment to communities and the public good. That was articulated by the corporate and nonprofit partners who participated in this interview process. In fact, successful, long-term relationships between corporations and nonprofits might more appropriately be called “public interest partnerships.” This term reflects the multi-faceted nature of these relationships as they have evolved in the decades since CSR has become common practice. It might also help resolve an issue mentioned by previous scholars about how nonprofits don’t necessarily like or use the term “CSR” (Waters & Ott, 2014). To nonprofit practitioners, these are relationships or partnerships; and they are an important part of broader CSR efforts or even a company’s overall purpose on the part of successful corporations.

Not all such partnerships are successful, of course; this study focused solely on exemplary programs. Still, the findings strongly suggest that CSR is moving in the direction of public interest, not just corporate or nonprofit/fundraising goals. Society’s needs continue to change and at an increasingly rapid pace. The more we can learn about collaborating and communicating with the public interest in mind, the more confidence we can have in making lasting, positive impacts on communities and on society as a whole.

Acknowledgments and Citations:
The authors would like to thank and acknowledge the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication for providing funding to help us conduct this research. We also greatly appreciate the time and insights shared by all of the professionals we interviewed for this study. A version of this research was presented at the PRSA International Conference in 2017, and a related paper was published in 2018 in the Journal of Communication Management (see below for citations).

McKeever, B.W., Remund, D., Rosanio, G.B., (2017). Moving Beyond CSR: Building Sustainable Corporate-Nonprofit Partnerships. Panel presented at the PRSA International Conference in Boston, MA.

Remund, D., and McKeever, B. (2018). Forging effective corporate/nonprofit partnerships for CSR programs. Journal of Communication Management, 22(3), 309-326.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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