For Love and/or Money: When Business and Activism Join Hands

Social-entrepreneurial partnerships can be win-win situations, but nonprofits and celebrities have to choose their collaborators carefully.

Recently, Sandra Bullock asked to be pulled from a Women of the Storm video campaigning for the gulf cleanup effort after concerns that the group might be influenced by oil interests. At the same time Susan Sarandon was campaigning with The Body Shop to end sex trafficking of children. Bullock and Sarandon demonstrate two recent examples of these tenuous but often rewarding partnerships.

For Bullock, who after more consideration decided to proceed with the video, an effort to lend her celebrity to a good cause was temporarily derailed by one of the complications of social-entrepreneurial partnerships: possible conflict of interest. Sarandon underscored this danger in remarks explaining why she teamed up with The Body Shop: “I choose very carefully the groups I will talk about and will put my reputation on the line (for),” she says. “You get a big bang for your buck with this group because you know where the money is going, it’s well spent. So it’s really worth the investment.”

These A-list actresses made headlines, but collaborations between business and social change endeavors are growing behind the scenes. While joint projects between activism and enterprise become more common, The Body Shop is one of a smaller group of businesses that have made social change part of its agenda from day one.

“Our founder Anita Roddick really truly was a human rights activist first and an entrepreneur second,” says Shelley Simmons, brand communications and values director for The Body Shop. “Everything we’ve done in our business looks at how to behave responsibly.”

Sex trafficking, Simmons says, is not a pretty subject and the last thing a beauty company might be expected to adopt as an advocacy cause. But the company’s founder was learning a great deal about the prevalence of sex trafficking when she died of a sudden brain hemorrhage at age 64. In her honor, The Body Shop decided to create the campaign to fight against traffickers.

Simmons says she spent 18 months researching the campaign and crafting its three stages before embarking on a three-year commitment. The company would spend the first year creating awareness of child sex trafficking, the second introducing a policy agenda and petition, and the third enacting that agenda.

James E. Austin, a professor at the Harvard Business School, says businesses and social activists need to be very selective when embarking on such collaboration. “For a social partnership to work optimally, there must be a good fit between the nature of the problem being addressed and the strategic focus, competencies, values and missions of the partners,” says Austin, who studies such partnerships.

ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) and the Somaly Mam Foundation are The Body Shop’s partners in the child sex trafficking project. ECPAT-USA Executive Director Carol Smolenski said her organization had been turned down by other businesses in the past. “It’s extremely difficult to get any company that is the slightest bit interested in talking about child sexual exploitation,” says Smolenski. “If we can actually regularize this issue by getting the public involved it’s huge.”

Once a nonprofit gets a company interested, NYU Business Professor Sheila Wellington says things can get even more complicated.

“Are there strings attached?” Wellington says. “Of course it’s okay for nonprofits to accept money from corporations, but there really have to be no strings attached.” Because corporations are sometimes engaged in business practices that are in conflict with their public social goals, “the business community is more suspect now than ever before,” says Wellington, “and it pollutes the environment for legitimate nonprofits and businesses that really want to help the social good.”

A clinical professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and a board member of the National Council for Research on Women, Wellington says it sometimes takes a personal connection for a company to take on a difficult cause. “I know a CEO who was raised by the widow of a deceased veteran,” Wellington says. “His concern for single mothers is very genuine. So it’s not always just because it’s good for business.”

While businesses at times solicit nonprofits for collaboration, mostly it’s nonprofits that are seeking sponsorship or funding. Sometimes their requests are more specific.

RightRides, which provides late-night transportation to women and LGBTQ individuals in New York City, sought out a car company to realize its mission.

“When we started we had a privately owned car and two volunteers. We couldn’t respond to half of the calls we received,” says Oraia Reid, the executive director and founder of RightRides for Women’s Safety. “Zipcar donates eight cars to us on a weekly basis and now we are able to serve 45 neighborhoods.”

The partnership, Reid says, came at a perfect moment for Zipcar, a car sharing group that was then beginning to break into the New York market. Through RightRides, Zipcar was introduced to riders as a progressive for-profit, helping a not-for-profit. “The good work is inherent,” says Reid, but “we have been successful with creating proposals that underscore the value add to companies when they collaborate with us.”

Harvard’s James Austin says that this is one of the reasons many more such partnerships are happening over the past two decades and why they’ve also grown in their depth and breadth. “The strategic benefits to both partners and to society from cross-sector collaborations have become more significant and clearer,” he says.

At the hotel penthouse where The Body Shop held its press conference late last month, the bells and whistles of a beauty company launch were on display. Chicly dressed media sipped glasses of lemonade and nibbled on black bean croquettes with sweet chili sauce as they waited for Sarandon to make her entrance. But when Somaly Mam, herself a former victim of sexual slavery, greeted the room with a wide smile, it became clear that this fashionable party was about more than selling a product. “Susan helped me so much,” Mam said. “I only found out later that she was a famous movie star.”

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