With the debut of such platforms as Jumo, Kickstarter and Sparked, the social sector has truly gone social. We now have more ways not only to connect and learn about the issues that resonate with us but also to share those causes within our wider network, co-fund them with like-minded individuals or donate via our device of choice.
However, the development of social networking tools, while hugely beneficial, only goes part of the way toward changing audience interaction with nonprofits and NGOs. The opportunity for the social sector to make a real impact and instigate behavioral change on a wide scale still ultimately remains a question of how it utilizes its commercial brand partnerships.
There is no doubt that increasingly integrated and engaging technological developments with a community core are engendering a deeper bond between the social sector and its audiences. The framework, as undertaken by Jumo to connect charities' online content, is an admirable first step to help smaller social-sector groups find coherent virtual voices.
However, to amplify that voice across all connection points (on- and offline), a strategic brand partner is an important ally. Not only do commercial brands afford social-sector partners scale and reach, that volume very often also presents an opportunity to consistently and regularly communicate their cause to a new audience of unconverted ears.
Since established brands have an inbuilt relationship with an audience who trust them, a set of beliefs that guide what they do and an infrastructure that can support their wider business objectives, charities and NGOs have an array of resources to plug into—least of all the benefit of a brand partner's years of expertise in brand-building and storytelling.
And if there's one thing brands know how to do well it's how to tell a good story. A great example of a commercial partner working with an NGO to create an authentic shared value proposition is Tata Consultancy Services' work with New York Road Runners. Taking its core IT competency, the operations specialists at Tata wanted to introduce efficiency and connectivity across their partner's organization—from conducting an internal systems audit to creating an athlete-tracker app for race days. In turn, the brand has found a long-term partner in the NYRR team and looks to expand its North American efforts into Tata's Mumbai heartland. As Ann Wells Crandall, exec VP of NYRR, says, "This isn't about sponsorship. I want a strategic partnership that enhances [our] property. ... How can both parties create a value proposition together?"
With the growth of cause-related marketing agencies making it easier than ever for commercial brands to connect with the right social movement, there is no reason brand stories should seem incongruous. We are living in an age of transparency where audiences are more astute and quick to expose companies whose messaging feels detached from the consumer experience.
Key will be removing CSR from the last slide of case studies and baking it into business plans from the top down. If that prospect seems scary, B corps, or benefit corporations, are already beating you to it. The idea of the triple bottom line—people, planet and profits—is one that is gaining traction. But that 's the long-term vision.
In the short term, by leveraging your audience's latent desire to help worthy causes and fusing it with your brand's attributes—be they technological expertise, infrastructure or attitudinal fit—both brands and the social sector can advance their CSR game. As Crandall says, "Before entering any partnership, I ask my potential brand partner, 'What are your objectives? How will you measure success?' " That's something we should all be asking ourselves at every juncture of the CSR process.
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