Can charities and corporates share skills for mutual benefit?

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In Part One of a series examining the interplay between development, charity and business, SALT talks with a Sheffield-based man bringing hope to Africa. By Giles Crosse.

Patrick Brown founded social enterprise WaterMade to explore how commercial ventures can fund water, sanitation and hygiene across Africa. Watermade’s money helps development charities The Long Well Walk and Kids Club Kampala deliver project work on the ground.

In addition to creating this working partnership, Brown has experience at Sheffield University social enterprise project, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). The work lends him insight into the scale of environmental challenges.

“I think the most pressing concern international organizations like the UN face is how to work with those most in need of development,” Brown said. “Many organizations work within a very top down structure and a ‘trickle down’ mentality, where good principles get manipulated and lost along the way, long before they reach those worst off in our global society.”

By those worst off, he means individuals at a structural disadvantage. Women, children, the poor and those in disconnected rural areas are in this group. Plainly, concepts of business and development must change. Corporate profit and doing good often seem at odds.

“Too often, only economic policies are put forward as a fix-all solution to human development. This puts many people at a natural disadvantage, as they may not have the resources to take advantage of economic opportunities,” he said.

“I believe that international organizations and the corporate world need to thoroughly re-evaluate their purpose and refocus their efforts. Not just on using economic or financial methods to solve social problems, but on more socially focused strategy that works closely with people on the ground.”

Brown believes business and development can achieve great things together, but he knows the methods used to promote development are often ineffectual. Corporates need to be brought more fully into the development dialogue, so they can clearly see the huge impact they can have.

“This is something The Long Well Walk does by both working closely with our partner communities on the ground and showing [corporate] donors exactly where their money is going.”

Helping charities learn from business

Brown says WaterMade exists to show charities can achieve sustainable revenue through business strategies whilst maintaining charitable ethos. Better applied, financial long-termism fixes poverty and suffering. Charities need methods and techniques that resemble businesses, leveraged to put charitable aims and people ahead of profit. There are, however, pitfalls along the way.

“WaterMade is non-profit, in fact 100% of profit is donated back to our two partner charities, and we were constituted to do exactly that,” he said. “But I think when many social business ventures grow this starts to become a problem.”

He elaborates: social businesses naturally want to grow their charitable output, but this can come at the expense of foundational ideals. “Take the Fairtrade Movement, for example: a socially orientated enterprise which began as a way of linking handmade gifts and textiles from the developing world with consumers in the developed world.

“We’ve since seen Fairtrade grow into a massive global movement making about US$5 billion in sales a year. Last year I produced an essay arguing what many trade and development scholars are starting to realize: Fairtrade’s growth does not necessarily translate into help for the most disadvantaged.”

The desire to grow the company, boost profits and improve efficiency has led to Fairtrade focusing on a few mass-marketable products, mostly from Latin American countries; bananas, coffee and chocolate.

Ultimately, Brown argues, this leads to large, professional plantations which small-scale producers and farmers cannot compete with. The profit incentive towards more homogenous product ranges excludes some producers from the market, for example women making handicrafts in Uganda.

At this point, the benefit of applying business logic implodes, as profit overrides purpose. “I use this example because WaterMade currently sells these handicrafts as our main product.

“I first realized the barriers to entry for this type of product when researching whether Fairtrade certification, with WaterMade’s support as a trading partner, would be a financially viable option for these women.”

Aligning business, charity and global good

“The simple answer is that global society needs to make a move towards a more socially focused, and less financially driven ethos.” Brown said.

“In this respect charities lead the way. I believe we need a mindset shift in which businesses and business leaders view charity and development not as a side project, but as the primary focus.

“There may be too many challenges facing global society to sum up; environmental degradation, ideological, cultural and ethnic conflict, political disillusionment, resource drainage, over population and rampant inequality.

“These are all practical issues that aren’t going to go away.” But, he argues, we can open a genuine debate on the challenges, putting stakeholders together to build solutions.

“Some issues we can change, some we will have to learn to live with. The first step to solving any issue is engagement and awareness. You can’t solve any issue without popular support. We need better education, dynamic methods of involvement, critical inquiry on a mass scale, greater transparency in our institutions.”

The Long Well Walk is presently publicizing one man’s fundraising journey from Sheffield to Cape Town, catalysing the mass engagement Brown hopes will link new businesses with charity and Africa. “Anyone can send out a press release, or sell their idea on social media, or shout about their idea until they’re blue in the face, but the walk creates real engagement, he said.

“It really makes people think about the issue. When Liam starts the African leg of the walk and starts creating links in the communities we want to help, this message will become even clearer.

“The crowdfunding campaign is another method of doing this. We want everyone who views our campaign online to feel they can genuinely make a difference in the lives of children we’re working with in South Sudan. And that’s because they can. If we can get enough people to pledge a small amount we can genuinely harness the power of the crowd to change lives.”

Overcoming the inherent differences between charity and business is hard, but both have much to learn from each other. There may come a day when they join, with development the ultimate winner. In Part Two of his conversation with SALT, Patrick Brown considers how 2050’s world might look, and whether, by then, divisions between charity and business may blur.

Please share your experiences and views in the comment section

PHOTO CREDIT: Aurelien Guichard on flickr

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  • http://www.soulbranding.com/ Elsie Maio

    Yes, they can! Now let’s scale it. Charities and corporates have shared skills for mutual benefit for a long time. But the opportunity now is to share core competences for core mutual benefit. Not marginal benefit, like reputation for corps and bandaids for poverty. That is the distinction that is sizzling in pockets of leadership both in the corporate and social-mission sectors. Here are some examples in this 10 minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcYNRX-ODw#t=11