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andrew hill

The caricature of global capitalism puts sandalled do-gooders and corporate suits at opposite ends of the spectrum. Historically, the corporate social responsibility department was walled off from the boardroom, except when the CSR manager came to ask which cause the chairman deigned to support this year, or the chief executive was coaxed out to a community awards ceremony for some awkward back-slapping with his favourite charity-workers.

This is changing, thank goodness, as relationships evolve between companies and enterprises structured along business lines that put social benefit above profit.

According to Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, not one corporate representative attended the first Skoll World Forum, nine years ago. At the recent 2012 event, not only were there dozens of companies on the delegate list, many had executives up on the podium, explaining the advantages and challenges of working together with social enterprises.

Some mutual suspicion persists. The likes of PepsiCo, Unilever and Novartis were perhaps too polite to voice during the conference any qualms about working closely with not-for-profit organizations. But other delegates had no such compunction about describing the concerns that still run in the other direction. "A lot of what Rio Tinto does to West Australia is criminal," said lecturer Bronwyn Lewis, who works with the mining company on a child literacy campaign, "but there's a few people in Rio Tinto who actually make a difference, and some of them are quite high up."

These days many social enterprises are not just supping with the devil, they are shopping for the ingredients and cooking the meal together.

I agree with Ms. Hartigan that this represents progress. Social entrepreneurs can benefit from alliances with big business – and vice versa. In fact, what I find bracing about ventures between established companies and social enterprises is that their partners are less starry-eyed than the parties to many ill-fated corporate alliances. As I have written before, the success and durability of corporate partnerships often stand in inverse proportion to the rosiness of their initial publicity: see, for example, Suzuki's unilateral termination of its partnership with Volkswagen, or BP's unconsummated alliance last year with Rosneft.

Behind the aura of social purpose, the word most frequently used by Skoll delegates to describe the nature of their relationship with big corporate partners was "pragmatic." It starts with the right choice of partner, according to Rupert Howes, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council. It has linked with McDonald's to promote sustainable sourcing of ingredients for the fast food chain's ubiquitous "Filets-O-Fish." Social enterprises have got to "cut the herd" of potential corporate allies, he told the forum, "and work with the leaders that will draw the others up."

Gene Falk of mothers2mothers, which has partnered with Hewlett-Packard to digitize and analyze data from its HIV/AIDS education program in Africa, was blunter still. Not-for-profit organizations have to "think what the corporate partner needs out of this [alliance]and go into it with eyes open," he said.

Nobody should be surprised – or particularly worried – if alliances are founded on self-interest. Keith Kenny of McDonald's Europe sounded almost sheepish to admit that some of the motives for the company's MSC partnership were "perhaps a little bit selfish." By ensuring sustainability of sourcing from its fisheries, McDonald's also ensures the stability and longevity of the suppliers themselves. Well, good for them – and good for the MSC.

Frankly, if more companies acknowledged the selfish reasons for getting together with business partners, their alliances would probably last longer. Likewise, the virtues of a good social partnership – transparency, communication, trust, patience – are precisely the qualities any joint venture should have, whether its objective is drilling in the Arctic or mentoring HIV-positive mothers in Africa.

There is a need to educate more companies about how to work in a self-reinforcing partnership with social enterprises. But the lessons big businesses can learn about how to run their hard-nosed profit-making alliances with other corporate partners are just as valuable.

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