Building the Case for Collaboration in Your Organization: For a Partnership With Business

Grantmakers in independent foundations may find that the first challenge in working with business is persuading their own institutions that an alliance is a good idea. Colleagues, superiors, grantees, or other observers may react skeptically, whether because of philosophical reservations, concerns about legal propriety, or a simple belief that the two sides’ goals are too different to make a real partnership practical. Those concerns can be addressed, say grantmakers who have navigated them.

In one case, a grantmaker recounts, “I really felt, if we were going to work in health care, we needed to work with health care providers and funders — and if that meant just nonprofit providers and funders, we’d be ignoring two-thirds of the relevant universe. It seemed irresponsible and naïve not to try to find some common ground with the industry. But when I started discussing what I thought was an obvious idea, Whoa! Suddenly I found myself in the middle of everybody’s attitudes toward health care corporations and HMOs. Person after person was saying to me, in effect, ‘They’re going to swallow you up! They’ll eat you for breakfast!”

Not all reactions are likely to be as strong — and, in fact, says another grantmaker, “often the attitudes to worry about are the ones they won’t express to you. They might raise their eyebrows, and ask about ‘mission creep,’ and say, ‘Have we explored other ways of doing this?’ but they won’t just look you in the eye and say, ‘I don’t like the idea of dealing with a for-profit company on this.’”

Whatever the source of colleagues’ skepticism, it’s important to address their concerns frankly and with careful thought. “The truth is,” said the grantmaker in health care, “they had real concerns, based on real experience, and I needed to show them I had real answers.”

Grantmakers in private foundations who have faced similar challenges offer these points of advice:

  • Be pragmatic and offer a carefully researched case. Some business practices create social problems. It is important to work on changing those and on harnessing the considerable strengths of the corporate sector in forming a solution. Documenting both the troublesome practices and the opportunities to change those practices — with as much objective evidence as possible — is crucial. Citing what businesses can add to the mission may be a big plus. Solutions that rely entirely on government funding and nonprofit vendors tend to be, as another person put it, “resource-limited and fragile” because of their dependence on political will. Or, to quote another grantmaker, “Bringing business into the equation opens up the possibility of more robust solutions.”
  • Emphasize that businesses may welcome the partnership. A large share of foundation donors and trustees are successful business people, who may have reservations about “reforming” business or “holding the private sector accountable” on social issues. Anticipate a negative reaction from that quarter, say some grantmakers who have faced those objections. Think carefully about why businesses might want to work with you and would benefit if they did.
  • Make the case in the foundation’s own terms. A grantmaker responsible for the health portfolio of a venture philanthropy, for example, understands that her organization values “this notion of using different financial instruments and tools as part of the philanthropic process.” Knowing, as well, that the board is interested in supporting work in developing countries, she proposed a start-up loan to a company in Africa that produces anti-malaria bed nets for local distribution. By contrast, a grantmaker in a U.S. foundation — one with a strong interest in national health policy — overcame her organization’s reluctance to collaborate with a for-profit nursing home chain (on a project to improve the quality of nursing home care) by citing the company’s influence in the industry.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Working with the Business Sector.