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Should charities work with profit-making businesses? I think the answer is yes.

The issue of whether charities should work alongside businesses whose primary goal is to make profit has been in the news recently. The recent BBC Panorama programme alleged that some charities might have reined in their campaigning in order to protect financially lucrative corporate partnerships.

Here at Think Global, we’ve been actively considering whether to develop closer partnerships with businesses, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it is the right thing for us to do. Like many charities, our ‘comfort zone’ tends to be when we’re working with either other charities or the public sector. We share with them an ultimate purpose which is not focused on profit. So why are we deliberately stepping out of our comfort zone to seek to work alongside profit-focused businesses?

Firstly, we recognise that we need businesses to help us fulfil our mission. Our goal is to help make the world a more just and sustainable place through helping people develop greater understanding of global challenges (which will lead them to making better decisions). The private sector has a wealth of experience of global challenges, as well as important perspectives on these issues. At Think Global, we’re particularly looking at the moment at two global challenges, with the aim of producing learning materials for schools: human epidemics, and food security. We think that businesses have useful experiences and viewpoints, to help people to think critically about these two global challenges.

Secondly, having spent time working in all three sectors – public, private, and voluntary ‐ my experience is that many of the old demarcations between the three have broken down to some degree. When Miguel Pestana, a Vice President at Unilever, talks about the business imperative behind the company’s Sustainable Living Plan with its goal of improving well-being for one billion people, he shows the way that more businesses are recognising that they need to demonstrate goals that are broader than just the financial bottom line. Changes are happening in the charity world too. With the switch in Britain (and around the world) from grant-funding to contract-funding as the core income for many charities – including for Think Global – they are becoming more focused on the financial bottom-line than before (albeit with an ultimate social purpose). Whilst differences do remain (and probably always will), the old stereotypes of the different sectors are out of date.

One of the arguments that people make against charities working with the private sector is that this might lead charities to pull their punches in their campaigning work, for fear of upsetting their new partners (indeed , if money is involved, even their ‘pay-masters’). Let’s be frank about it – whenever money is involved, this is a risk. But it equally applies when charities accept public sector grants (where they need to beware the risk that they’ll ease off criticism of government for fear of losing their grants). Indeed, if charities raise their income from the public, the need to raise money could also distort what they say and do. (For example, charities need to be careful not to over-simplify and over-dramatise complex international situations, in order to ‘pull on the heart strings’ to increase donations. Some charities need to be careful not to rush in to a crisis situation, in order to look like the hero and receive the publicity/donations, when what is needed is a collaborative or measured response.)

The answer to this, I think, is to try to be transparent. We are drawing up some simple ethical questions for any partners that we work with to answer, about the business’s attitudes to social responsibility. They are not yes/no answers – but they are designed to bring to light how much a company has thought about its values, and whether it tries to live by its values in what it does.

I’m sure this issue will continue to court controversy. In seeking to work across sector boundaries, mistakes are bound to be made by some charities. There will be some people who would prefer to take a more purist approach – and I respect that viewpoint. But I think that the goal of better harnessing the experience and viewpoints of businesses for the social good makes the risk of mistakes worth taking.

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