Refocusing corporate partnerships to build assets

At Rippleseed, I take an assets driven approach to developing strategic corporate-community partnerships¹ .

If companies are to create long term, sustainable businesses, then the communities in which they work and live need to be well functioning, stable and self-reliant. Long term stability comes  when both sides are able to generate, own, share, deploy, diversify and grow their assets.  It requires effective and efficient collaboration and leads to mutual commitment.

I do not use the term ‘asset’ in the accounting or financial sense – but extend the common dictionary definitions to provide a description that focuses on community development and how companies deliver substantive social impact: an asset is a useful, desirable, valued, or valuable quality, person or product in the community; an advantage or resource generated and held by the community.

Such a description resonates with the aspirations of every individual and community seeking to develop and leverage their human, social, financial, physical or natural assets. Owned by the community, assets engender the pride and dignity that comes from being self-sufficient and self-reliant. It puts people in control of the pace, direction and substance of what they do with their assets and hence deal with whatever opportunities and challenges (natural or man- made) that may come their way.

It is easier to use the language of assets. In the recent few years, we have seen among others, the emergence of ‘base of pyramid’, ‘inclusive business’ and ‘social value creation’  concepts and some notable examples of their practical applications. The language that underpins these concepts certainly makes sense upstream in think tanks, business schools, management consultancies, businesses, international development organizations and elsewhere the concepts have been adopted.  But then , I have also seen them being lost in translation further downstream at the community level where there might be a hundred different languages and words to describe the same thing. The language of assets is an easier pathway to building grassroots level engagement. It is possible  to get your head around some tangible human, social, physical or financial outcomes of a collaborative project or partnership when it is explained in plain language.

Every business relies on local resources to run its business – people, goods and services, water, land and other natural resources, amenities etc. It make sense to take a long term strategic assets driven view.  Business can do substantively much more than it currently does in terms of deploying its assets to help vulnerable communities to build and make better use of their assets. The symbiotic relationship, however, is far from well understood. For instance, the current ‘default’ model of most corporate partnerships is transactional, focused on short term goals and transient relationships: selective community projects that serve the company’s immediate vested interest or current social cause (often with a public or shareholder stamp of approval in mind); corporate giving; and employee volunteerism.

Corporate reporting  tends to amplify only the company’s side of the story, presenting its contribution to community investment as evidence of good corporate and brand behaviour. Often, the focus is on outputs – the numbers delivered – rather than on the more transformative and systemic long term societal outcomes for the communities. The transient nature of community projects shows its worse aspect when a company chooses to exit from the community – when the mine or factory is no longer economically viable or there is a cheaper place to relocate to. That is when the company’s legacy truly becomes visible: not just in the form of derelict and decaying physical assets or depleted natural assets the company leaves behind but in the (in) ability of the community to make the most of its social and human assets.

There is no denying that ‘capital’ can bring about change in the short term .  However, if it remains the default method, it will create a fragmented impact, lacking in cohesion or coherence. At its worse, it can create a sense of dependency and uncertainty in the community if it thinks it can make changes in a piecemeal way because it has to rely on handouts from what is increasingly becoming discretionary corporate expenditure.

The goal of corporate partnerships should be to create integrated programmes where businesses can make the best use of their own assets to generate and improve local social , human and other assets. In addition to local content partnerships and bringing communities into supply and distribution chains, companies can bring to the communities such core business skills as access to training and other human resource development capacities; borrowing capacity; assistance to local firms to gain access to new technologies; project and contract management skills; improved access for local firms to their supply and distribution chains; marketing and distribution know-how.

The business benefits for a company from taking a more enlightened deployment of its core business skills and assets are obvious: a better fit with its core business, a more efficient and effective use of its resources, opportunities to co-create and innovate its products and services or enter new markets or extends it channels to market, opportunities to learn about and from its markets, economies of scale through replication and scale, more substantive evidence of its social impact, and opportunities to enrich and enliven its brand story. It is not only the community which benefits: local NGOs, community based organisations and other civil society partners would also gain experience, knowledge and capacity to support their communities once the corporate involvement may have moved on.

At Rippleseed, we are passionate about using our business management, corporate social responsibility experience and insights and our partnering expertise to promote and support innovative partnerships. Our aim is to create opportunities for companies to look at what programmes or partnerships work well and how they can use those as the foundation to build on.

We recognize that a company may begin its community ‘partnership’ with a cheque or some other transactional relationship, but our aim is to help envision and develop how that initial investment can lead to the generation of other assets in the community. We feel the company’s social impact is more assured if it pursues a partnering approach that delivers more integrated outcomes , eventually leading to the creation of inter-connected ‘virtuous circles’ for both company and community. It could be the beginning of the formation of a covenant between business and society. Would that not be amazing?

¹ Ripplesset asset mapping is part of the methodology used by Rippleseed to support its partnerships’ development work

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