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Why strategic partnerships can help brands elevate their social responsibility

Nonprofit organizations can help companies better appeal to Gen Z and millennials—and provide bottom-line benefits

Why strategic partnerships can help brands elevate their social responsibility
CEO Carolina Garcia Jayaram speaks at Elevate Prize Foundation’s annual convening supporting global social entrepreneurs.

There was a time when Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s—companies whose values stood at the center of how they conduct business, engage with employees, and align with broader social initiatives—were considered outliers in the business world. Increasingly, however, these outsiders are now a model of corporate behavior, resonating with consumers and employees alike.

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For Carolina Garcia Jayaram, founding CEO of the Elevate Prize Foundation—a global nonprofit that seeks to amplify the impact of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and activists with funding and support—authenticity is the secret to their success. “For the past 30 years, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have been in a league of their own,” she says. “They have and continue to lead with their values, influencing how to have a meaningful impact on the world. Consumers are now demanding that the brands they engage with are aligned with the causes they care about. Companies are racing to get on board and follow the example that Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s set decades ago—they know they have to figure out what they stand for and ensure that their actions reflect those values.”

Sticking to your values—in everything from corporate social responsibility initiatives to day-to-day business operations—is more than just a fringe benefit for young adults today. In a recent Harris poll, more than half of Gen Z respondents said that social activism is the most important issue to them. And it shows up in their shopping carts, as well. “Ethics are at the heart of their purchasing,” says Rebecca van Bergen, founder and executive director of Nest, a nonprofit that supports artisans and makers around the world and connects them with brands and consumers. (Van Bergen is also a 2021 recipient of the Elevate Prize.)

So how does a brand evolve and elevate their corporate social responsibility in a way that is an opportunity for them as a business while also resonating with the young-adult audience they’re hoping to reach? Garcia Jayaram emphasizes three key attributes: authenticity, an engaged workforce, and finding strategic partners.

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SEEK OUT AUTHENTICITY

For an example of a company authentically pairing its values with social issues, Garcia Jayaram points to the CAA Foundation, the philanthropic wing of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a Los Angeles–based talent agency. The CAA Foundation places nonprofit leaders in the writing rooms of television shows and movies tackling social issues, to make sure their stories include the perspective of people who have actual experience with that issue.

That combination of nonprofit leaders and Hollywood talent creates a win-win for both parties. “Audiences want to see the content they watch to be transformative,” Garcia Jayaram says. “If you want films to do well, for TV shows to do well, they need to be authentic. Audiences are interested in narratives that challenge the status quo, amplify underrepresented voices, and shed light on important issues.”

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At the same time, she adds, the partnership is absolutely central to CAA’s business. “By prioritizing authenticity through the diversification of the talent and stories they invest in, companies not only have the opportunity to have a tangible impact and shape the world for the better, but they see that positivity reflected in their bottom line. It’s what their audiences are hungry for.”

REFLECT AND ENGAGE YOUR WORKFORCE

The old model of corporate social responsibility—in which the boardroom alone decides which charities get their checks—no longer resonates with employees. Instead, Garcia Jayaram says, “employees want to be inspired and to be involved. In this era of the Great Resignation, they are more intentional about how they spend their time and energy and whom they choose to work for. They want to know that the mission and values of the company they work for are aligned with their own.” She adds that, while philanthropic efforts and matching programs have value, a company can truly engage its employees by tapping into what they care about. “It’s not enough to make decisions about charitable giving or action on behalf of employees. It’s critical to get to know people, what matters to them, what they’re passionate about, and what they’d like to bring to the company.”

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This can be accomplished through employee resource groups or partnerships. Finding a nonprofit organization to integrate into a company’s business can help create genuine, company-wide engagement that resonates with employees and young, prospective talent alike. Such a partnership extends beyond the CSR department or a corporate foundation to a company’s entire workforce. 

FIND POSSIBILITIES IN PARTNERSHIP

How does a partnership go beyond simple philanthropy? “Traditionally, it’s been a very transactional relationship: brands teaming with nonprofits,” Garcia Jayaram says. “There’s an opportunity to forge a real and truly collaborative partnership between the nonprofit and a brand so that both sectors benefit. Untapped resources within the corporate sector could profoundly deepen and amplify the work of the social impact sector and vice versa. Such partnerships can have a monumental catalytic effect as long as they are imbued with thoughtfulness and trust.”

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The Elevate Prize Foundation helps create such strategic partnerships by vetting smaller nonprofit organizations that could be suitable and dynamic participants in a brand’s business. “We have an expertly designed framework for identifying, selecting, and supporting some of the world’s most innovative and successful nonprofits and their leaders,” Garcia Jayaram says.

Nest is one such organization, and Rebecca van Bergen is one such leader. Nest connects artisans around the globe—who are often women supporting their families with their craft—with market opportunities in the retail world. It establishes standards around how these artisans should be treated, and works with brands such as Target and West Elm to help them source with integrity. Both sides benefit from the expertise they share: Brands implement the socially responsible values that Gen Z and millennials demand, while also bringing innovation into their business practices, helping artisans from around the world receive greater support for their businesses.

Van Bergen points out that collaboration comes naturally to Nest’s partners—an attribute that can result in some unlikely scenarios. “We work with very competitive brands—including ones that are competitive with each other in terms of demographic and sales but that are hugely collaborative in terms of social impact,” she says. “Most brands know they can’t do this alone, so they really want to align and work together on solving some of these issues.”

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In the age of the Great Resignation, being authentic—and showing a real dedication to social issues—can be a game-changer. “This is an opportunity for brands—companies that are not just looking for ways to attract and retain the workforce that they want, but also desiring to make a meaningful difference in the world—to do it in a way that helps them as a company,” Garcia Jayaram says. “There’s real opportunity, and a real necessity for that.”

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