Does CSR Threaten the Nonprofit Sector?

Once solid lines of demarcation between the major societal sectors: business, government and nonprofits, are increasingly blurred. The ever-growing power of transnational corporations, brought about in part by globalization and mass commercialization, along with the notable shift of government duties to the private sector, has compounded this haziness.

Between business and nonprofits specifically, it has been argued that the advance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has encroached on territory that was once the dominion of NGOs. Nonprofit (used interchangeably with NGO) operations, including public and governmental advocacy and environmental stewardship, are increasingly falling under the corporate umbrella. Socially conscious and highly educated talent, who traditionally flocked to nonprofit roles, now enjoy expanded options in business, potentially eroding the nonprofit workforce. Therefore, the question arises, is the nonprofit sector threatened by the increasing prevalence of business in the social sphere?

The answer is No. If anything, CSR expands the opportunities available to civil society organizations in some of the following ways:

1.     Advances in Funding: Corporate endowments, foundation funding, cause-related marketing and other channels of nonprofit funds are part and parcel of many for-profit CSR initiatives. While contributions to like-minded NGOs do not replace improved in-house operations, such as energy efficiency or conscience employment, such sponsorships do supplement CSR while enhancing the budgets and programs of the chosen NGO partner. Nature Valley’s significant work with the National Parks Project provides a top-rate example. Over $360,000 has been donated to the National Parks Conservation Association to date.

2.     Strategic Partnerships: The advance of CSR has also no doubt fueled the emergence and expansion of more long-term, strategic for-profit and nonprofit associations. These efforts, often requiring extensive Memorandums of Understanding, years of development and significant financial commitments, go well beyond the scope of donations and marketing. Noteworthy examples include Conservation International & Starbucks as well as Environmental Defense Fund & McDonald’s. These ongoing and far-reaching efforts bridge divides and touch on everything from supply chains, climate, forest protection, waste mitigation and more. While some such partnerships are funded solely by the corporate partner and others share financial responsibilities, these cross-sector efforts enhance the reputation of both organizations while significantly advancing shared environmental goals.

3.     Watchdogs still needed: While it is nice to think that CSR has limited the need for NGO and consumer watchdogs that simply is not the case. Even during transformational partnerships like those mentioned above, collaboration is an addition to, not a replacement for advocacy and accountability. Indeed, in times of conflict, nonprofit collaborators have publicly disagreed with corporate partners on strategies and goals, solidifying the importance of NGO actors to remain independent. And those are the partners! Regrettably there are many for-profit entities yet to embrace basic tenets of sustainability and continue to support practices with a single bottom line view. We continue to look to our nonprofit advocates to identify, publicize and, when necessary, call out these latecomers for the betterment of society.

Our shared ecological and societal imperatives are without boundary and therefore require cross sector involvement. Blurred lines are not only non-threatening, but are necessary to meet our urgent needs. Silos can no longer endure as success is the product of cooperation.

Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

4 responses

  1. Whew. You made me nervous with that title. As a CSR evangelist I saw it on my Google reader and instantly thought “NOOOO!” My mind was already racing with my rebuttal as I clicked on it.

    Luckily, you know better. Just look at Dow chemical’s huge partnership with The Nature Conservancy. CSR initiatives and NGOs are wonderful complements of one another, and they will make each other stronger.

    Bradley Short

  2. Hi Bradley,
    Thanks so much for weighing in. Made you nervous? Great-means I chose the right title-I got you to read it!
    Yes, CSR has led to greater Nonprofit and for-profit collaborations and this trend will continue. Cross-sector work is necessary to meet our shared environmental and social challenges. No one company, NGO, or industry can make substantial improvements in isolation. Cooperative effort is required.

  3. Good topic Leslie. I’d go as far to say that we need more of the blur, perhaps to the point of corporations becoming more like non-profit entities. Continuously expanding profits in perpetuity is not really a sustainable model, and it’s basis in the underpinnings of free market doctrine prove to be an inherent impasse in the dialogue between capitalism and sustainability.

    The rise in non-profit business in the U.S. could be the turning point for minimizing corporate profits for a given consumer product with much less expectation for this standing rule of continuous growth. If “CSR” helps corporations migrate away from a historical business model towards one of a more sustainable fiscal system then it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

    -T. Caine

  4. ASQ is embracing SR and ISO 26000 as a way for quality professionals to add additional value to the organization. Although a not-for-profit, ASQ does not really fall into the NGO category mentioned above. Rather than detract from the ASQ mission, many of us feel that social responsibility adds to the mission of making the world a better place. Since most of our members have more experience in the corporate world, I suspect we will focus on CSR before addressing the bigger picture of SR and sustainability.

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