Partnering with Business…or Supping with the Devil?

Last November I wrote about a UK social enterprise called the Bright Ideas Trust which secured partnerships with Bank of America, The Prince’s Trust and a host of others.   These firms provide financial support (critically), credibility and a range of other services.

Technology forms such as Microsoft and Salesforce.com actively assist charities and social entrepreneurs, with free products.  Sure, it may be in their selfish interest to “hook” these firms on their products, but in the process, don’t social entrepreneurs gain access to valuable resources?

When we at ClearlySo work with professional service vendors to develop products for our social business clients, this is another way of “partnering” with businesses, and each party is considered to gain something from the exchange.

Normally the above are all considered “appropriate” business partnerships.

But in Bangladesh, Grameen struck a “dream partnership” with Norwegian phone company Telenor, to roll out a highly successful joint venture.  The deal has turned sour.  What went wrong with this business “partnership”?  Do partners turn nasty when the fruits of cooperation are great?  Not very “social”, is it?

Telecoms firms are active all over the developing world, often working with local partners.  Is this exploitation or cooperation, and what factors will help determine which it will be?  Can social entrepreneurs do anything to ensure fairness?

Are certain specific firms simply out of bounds for social enterprises?  When The Body Shop sold out to L’Oreal (part-owned by Nestle) observers reacted with rage.  “A step too far for an “ethical” company”.  Its one thing for Ben & Jerry’s to be purchased by Unilever, but Nestle…

What about other sectors?  Defence contractors?  Tobacco manufacturers?  Or banks—today’s bete noire?   Are some industry groups just beyond the pale?  Can any self-respecting social enterprise engage in a partnership with these?

What about energy companies—should social enterprises not engage with the well-regarded Shell Foundation because of some of the historically unpopular activities of its parent?  If BSkyB (Rupert Murdoch’s business in the UK) is a leader in certain aspects of working with social business—how should we view this, cynically or positively?

Partnerships with business, are they worth it or too problematic?

First Published in The Social Edge in May 2009.

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