Private Sector and Nonprofit Partnerships (Part I) – Star-Crossed Lovers or 21st Century Innovation?

Private sector and not-for-profit organization (NPO) partnerships are a growing, recent, and curious phenomenon within corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies. The collaborations are increasingly recognized for their potential to form the 21st century’s economical innovation. They stem from the evolution of a relationship between the two sectors that began as corporate philanthropy. James Austin of the Harvard Business School theorizes this progression with three distinct levels, in what he calls the Collaboration Continuum. (See figure 1)

Figure 1 - The Collaboration Continuum
Figure 1 – The Collaboration Continuum

This blog focuses on a specific type of partnerships which are on the rise: the collaboration between the corporate sector and a conservation focused non-profit (CNPO).

Two households, both alike in dignity


Montagues and Capulets—the corporate sector and CNPOs, respectively—have always intrinsically been ideologically opposed. The exponentially increasing extraction and waste of natural resources is directly at odds with a movement seeking to protect and manage these resources. As Mark Kramer and Michael Porter describe, in discussing the tension between civil society and corporations: “Each side has assumed that the other is an obstacle to pursuing its goals and acted accordingly.”

To introduce this topic, join me in conceptualizing a metaphor made up of two characters. The stage is human society and the players are integrative collaboration, playing Romeo, and corporate partnership, our Juliet.

We join the story just after the happy, yet precarious, marriage between Romeo and Juliet. It is here that we must depart from Shakespeare’s original story. In our narrative, Mercutio must not die.

The Love Continuum

“Partnerships between the private sector and NGOs are not new, but the nature of these relationships is broadening.”

Being opponents does not mean that mutually beneficial interactions cannot take place. By contributing cash and resources, the corporate Montagues are able to shape public perception, forming a more consumer friendly image—their reputation capital. Capulet CNPOs, on the other hand, need donations or government funds to carry on activities. Moreover, large unrestricted sums are a valuable boost to achieving objectives. By all accounts, philanthropic collaborations are self-interested, yet generous interactions.

“A CSR strategy is either a general response to a recognized social issue or a strategic intervention that attempts to strengthen the company’s business operations or its competitive position.”

Some efforts evolved into transactional partnerships. The corporate House Montague, under increasing public pressure to play by different social rules but also recognizing a need for greater return on monetary contributions, moves beyond simple philanthropy. The CNPO House Capulet, in return, provides a public backing of Montague’s activities, giving Verona an image of reconciliation. While these collaborations have a level of mutual benefit, they address the two groups’ differences superficially, and a level of distrust remains.

Love of Sustainability as Collaborative Peace

Montague vs. Capulet
Montague vs. Capulet

Enter Romeo and Juliet (integrative collaboration and corporate partnership), whom have so far shown an unprecedented opportunity to bring their households towards peace and balance—that is, sustainability. Peace in Verona is the active collaboration of both households working towards a sustainable society. Each character exemplifies one of the two elements compounded into this ideal:

  • Long-term, sustained, economic growth, and
  • Responsible management of Earth’s natural resources

As described above, they are not the first “offspring” of both households to collaborate. There was philanthropic giving and corporate donation, then came transactional giving with partner marketing. However, compared to the deep love of Romeo and Juliet, these are half-reluctant infatuations delivering artificial short-term results. They are sort of the Rosalines of Verona, if you will.

Romeo and Juliet’s love lies in their ability to develop shared value. It originated from the recognition of fundamental mutual need.

The changing climate, the collapse of fisheries, the rising food and energy prices, along with many other environmental and economic warning signs have incited their relationship and opened the possibility to justify peace across both households.

Mercutio is the reputation capital that both sectors have forged over the course of their collaboration. It is Romeo and Juliet’s best friend. If he dies, all credibility of their marriage will die with him, donor-investors will cease to support the collaboration,  and the status quo ante will remain.

“The partnership lends credibility to the company’s sustainability initiatives due in part to the critical surveillance of corporate actions by the NGO.”

Romeo’s innate long-term strategic thinking and drive to innovate within the global economy is what sets him apart from the rest of the corporate Montague family. It is also why he felt instantly bonded to what Juliet has to offer. Her environmental and social affinities are the expertise Romeo had been looking for. Moreover, Juliet benefits from understanding Montague’s impacts but also its’ opportunities in reaching Capulet’s goal.

Romeo and Juliet collaborating
Romeo and Juliet collaborating

Together they actively work on a variety of external or internal projects by sharing resources, turning the page on the days when a simple monetary commitment was enough. They focus on identifying and implementing operation strategies that will both benefit the Montagues’ revenue as well as Capulets’ conservation objectives.

Many factors, known or otherwise, constantly threaten the household’s increasing union and the love of their Romeo and Juliet. After all, their fundamental functions remain at odds. But a common goal for peace can gradually shift them towards harmony. The story must progress around an evolution of this love (matching organizational operations) for peace (the common goal of sustained and responsible prosperity).

Part II of this blog will further explore private sector and CNPO collaborations through the lens of the World Wildlife Fund/Coca-Cola partnership.

Additional resource


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