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Last Friday, the Next Stage team got to spend the day in a film studio, capturing some incredible conversations for Season Two of What’s Next?, our video roundtable that explores innovative partnerships between nonprofit and corporate changemakers. And wow – we feel lucky. Nearly a year out from the publication of Profit & Purpose, we got to spend an entire day talking to partners that are forging new paths for social good partnerships.

Since the launch of Profit & Purpose, we’ve also had the privilege to work alongside several companies as they build out their own impact strategies. In just the last few weeks we’ve sat in several conference and Zoom rooms with nonprofit, public and private sector leaders as they map out their partnerships and collaborate on shared outcomes.

I’ve sat in a lot of sponsorship conversations throughout my career on both the nonprofit and private sector sides of the table. But y’all – these conversations felt different.

These partnerships have the hallmarks of so many of the trends we’re seeing in the corporate impact space right now. Collaborative planning, multi-year funding commitments and focus on hyper-local causes are becoming more and more common among companies we interview and work with. We think this is for several reasons.

A Changing Dynamic
First, the disruption of the last two years has pushed for greater innovation. There is a growing realization that no single entity – nonprofit, corporate, government or civic – can create systemic change on their own, so it becomes essential to work together. This creates an environment where each organization is more acutely aware of their own needs, as well as the strengths of their partners.

Second, quickly evolving ESG demands are encouraging companies to think about impact in ways they hadn’t previously needed to consider. This focus on the ‘S’ or Social component is prompting companies to think in ways that are traditionally occupied by nonprofits. We are currently seeing a greater sharing of expertise between partners, as nonprofits and companies learn that sharing expertise, data and outcomes offer benefits that have previously gone unexplored.

A Different Conversation
The partnership meetings we attended over the last few weeks were honest and engaging. People left the room feeling energized. After our team left our third meeting room buzzing with excitement, we realized that it wasn’t the projects itself that were so exciting (although the partnerships themselves are innovative and energizing!). It was the conversation itself that felt different.

We think this ‘new’ way of partnership is changing the dynamic between nonprofit and private sector partners. In Profit & Purpose, we noted that transactional sponsorships are dying to a more dynamic, collaborative kind of relationship and these conversations were evidence of that shift. Here are three ways we see this dynamic changing the tone and the power dynamic:

It encourages honest conversation. There is an openness to conversation that happens when nonprofits and companies come to the table as co-collaborators instead of funder/fund-ee. Rather than conversation about transactional sponsorship grids or expectations around outcomes, we saw a free exchange of ideas and information. In one case, the company asked a room of grant recipients for their opinion on their impact theory – and really listened to the feedback. In another case, a nonprofit was able to request a different type of support – access to data and a connection that the CSR professional didn’t even realize was needed.

It enables creativity. One nonprofit leader noted the freedom that came with this style of partnership. Rather than requesting a set of outcomes before the project even started, co-collaboration meant that the partners defined possible outcomes together – and noted that these may shift throughout the project. Traditionally, funders have held nonprofits to strict reporting and outcomes. And while accountability is important, so is innovation. A long-term, collaborative partnership means that both parties can adopt a ‘fail faster’ mentality that is more responsive to the needs of communities and better equipped for results.

It leverages resources. In this type of partnership, both sides have valuable resources – data, expertise, network, stakeholders and more. This type of collaboration allows each side to authentically access those resources and work together. In one meeting last week, a group of nonprofits and a company discussed what it would look like to share data, how the company could help them interpret that data and the shared narrative and outcomes that could be driven by collaboration. In another meeting, educational nonprofit leaders shared leadership goals and considered what cross-training opportunities may be available that would improve employee engagement for both parties.

These conversations were only the beginning of many of these partnerships, but the mutuality and kinship present were refreshing and promising for the success of these collaborations. In the meantime, I’m feeling extra grateful for the energy present in so many of these rooms and the work we get to do every day.