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Non-profits, businesses team up on sustainability strategy

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Increasingly, global companies are looking to the non-profit sector for insight and to build more impactful corporate social responsibility programs.

NEW YORK - Once upon a time, there was a world in which philanthropy lived outside the corporate sector. When non-profit organizations thrived as the human-interest counterbalance to the profit interests of businesses. When each side viewed the other with suspicion and not a little distrust.

But if there was a dominant theme to this week’s BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) Conference 2010 it is this: the “wicked problems” of this world cannot be solved by one or the other side, they require unprecedented collaboration between businesses and the non-profit world.

“Your solutions affect our work and ours will affect yours,” noted Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, during a plenary address on Thursday. “We can no longer retain that neat division of labor.”

NON-PROFITS BRING DISTRIBUTION, HUMAN PERSPECTIVE
From controversial agricultural giant Monsanto to cosmetics and personal care behemoth Avon Products to global brewer SABMiller, more enterprises are sounding the urgent need for non-profit and for-profit companies to share ideas and strategies. And vice versa. Together, these organizations can bring a more holistic set of problem-solving skills to bear on the problem at hand, according to executives from both sides.

One example discussed at length during the conference involves Monsanto’s partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Monsanto Chairman Hugh Grant notes that his company has donated intellectual property for drought-resistant corn to this foundation, so that non-governmental organizations in Africa can help distribute the seed stock to small farmers across the country and work with them to harvest it. Yes, there have been problems reported with the effort. Yes, many have concerns over the genetically manipulated nature of the seeds. But like it or hate it, partnerships such as these will set the stage for companies future entry into emerging markets. “This is a business model for the future,” Grant said in a BSR Conference 2010 plenary session.

It's not just businesses reaching out to non-profits, mind you. Rockefeller is involved with an initiative with the G-20 and Ashoka's Changemakers, called the G-20 SME Finance Challenge, that is intended to help bring capital to small and midsize businesses that are have innovative ideas centered on social and economic impact, sustainability and innovation. The winners of that challenge are expected to be announced in mid-November, according to Rodin.

SHARED PURPOSE
Andy Wales, group head of sustainable development for SABMiller, admits that partnerships between the non-profit and for-profit sector won't come quickly. Or easily.

As long as each side each open and transparent about their agenda, however, there is real potential for positive change, he says. Wales says the World Wildlife Fund, for example, was instrumental in helping his brewing company devise appropriate carbon footprint and environmental impact measures for brewing companies. "We had a sense of shared purpose," he says.

Wales, along with BSR Managing Director Dunstan Hope, has just published a book called "Big Business, Big Responsibilities," which illustrates how some larger companies are tackling industry-wide problems in conjunction with unorthodox partners. Outside the book, there are also plenty of ready examples, such as the Environmental Defense Fund's work on fleet management initiatives.

Hope says each side has important institutional knowledge to bring to the table: businesses have intimate knowledge of the processes and resources behind their products and services, while non-profits usually have a sharper lenses on the human impact. He believes sustainability executives could benefit greatly from spending time working on both sides.

DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR PUBLIC SECTOR
What of the public sector, the government's role in innovation for a smarter planet?

Many at the conference this week said they aren't holding their breath and they are skeptical of seeing public sector leadership on many challenges of global sustainability, especially after the contentious mid-term elections. Governments don't like taking risks. Notes Rockefeller Foundation’s Rodin: “The best role of government is to figure out policies that don’t get in the way.

STILL MOVING FORWARD
The good news is that despite continued economic uncertainty, sustainability executives are forging ahead with their efforts. In fact, data released this week by BSR/GlobeScan suggests that more than 80 percent of corporate sustainability exports are optimistic that global companies will embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainability as a core part of their business strategy during the next five years.

The survey, called the State of Sustainable Business Poll 2010, also found that 94 percent of BSR member companies expect to either maintain or boost their budgets for sustainability in 2011.

Climate change, workers' rights and human rights are the current top priorities for the respondents' sustainability efforts, the data show. Water quality and availability concerns are on the rise.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure