8 ways small companies can partner with charities for mutual benefit

Cross-sector partnerships, and the wider world of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), is often seen as the domain of big companies – the use of the word ’corporate’ doesn’t help! However, at thirdbridge we know that small businesses have just as much to offer charities as big corporates and, crucially, have just as much to gain.


The key concern for many small businesses is how to sustain and grow their organisation. The two crucial components to achieving growth are attracting and retaining customers, and building the right team. It just so happens that partnering with a charity can give a massive boost to a company’s reputation that can lead to gaining new customers and attracting new staff.  It’s one of the key reasons that bigger companies invest so much in charitable partnerships, and we want to help small companies understand and take advantage of the opportunity too.

Through our work at thirdbridge, we have seen some fantastic examples of small and medium companies coming together with small and medium charities to have a really positive, mutually-beneficial relationship.  We have summarised some of these to provide examples that we hope will inspire others.

1) Support a cause:

  • Campaign against the closure of a local hospital or library:

A local printing company supported a successful campaign run by a small literacy charity to stop the closure of a local library. They did this by providing PR contacts in local media, giving financial support to put adverts in the local paper and on local radio stations, printing leaflets, and encouraging their customers to back the campaign.

2) Provide operational support:

  • Help charities navigate legal issues and contracts:

A local chartered surveyor reviewed the lease renewal of a small charity to ensure that the lease conditions were robust, in the best interests of the charity, and legally sound.

3) Improve company operations:

  • Reduce waste in your production process (and reduce your environmental impact):

A local clothing manufacturer creates one-off clothing lines with material offcuts, supplying them to a local homeless charity who either pass them directly to the beneficiaries they work with, or sell them through their online store to raise funds.  Staff spend the last 2 hours on a Friday afternoon working on the charity lines (and the factory is also open on a Saturday morning for any staff who wish to spend more time working on the lines).  An annual fashion show is now planned that will help to raise further funds for the charity.

4) Sponsor a local event:

  • Ensure a local event is a success:

A local business sponsors a local village fete, paying for catering and a local band to perform. The business also encouraged employees to volunteer to help set up the various stalls and the marquee on the day.

5) Raise funds and volunteer:

  • Get involved in a team challenge fundraising event:

A team of IT consultants and project managers formed teams to participate in a dragon boat racing challenge to raise money for a local charity that helps older people to get online and connect with relatives overseas.  This led to a number of the employees volunteering with the charity in their evenings, teaching older people how to use video calling technology.

6) Develop a new service:

  • Help isolated old people visit friends and relatives:

A taxi firm partners with a local hospice to offer free rides to elderly visitors who have no other means to get to the hospice to see their loved ones.  The taxi rides are booked and organised by the hospice on behalf of the elderly passengers.

7) Deliver a programme:

  • Support young people to find employment:

An HR recruitment firm partners with a local charity that helps young unemployed people from disadvantaged backgrounds into work.  The company offers summer internships in their offices (and with some of their clients), interview training skills, CV-writing workshops, and pairing up some of the young people with a mentor from the company.

8) Invest in a social enterprise:

  • Help refugees start a business:

A local accountancy firm provides seed funding to a social enterprise that is giving financial skills training to refugees who are setting up their own businesses.  Some of the businesses have since become paying clients of the accountancy firm as their businesses have grown.

Doing good really is good for business. It can help a smaller company to improve their reputation and visibility in a local community. In turn, this can help them both gain new customers and attract and retain staff – individuals generally like to work for a company that has a positive reputation.  Furthermore, many B2B companies that are in the supply chain of larger corporates find it much easier to win contracts as larger companies strive to achieve their own social responsibility targets by selecting suppliers that are having a positive social and environmental impact.[1]

We hope the above examples help inspire more small businesses to partner with charities for mutual benefit.  Identifying a mutual benefit is a great way to ensure that such relationships are long-term and sustainable – resulting in increased positive impact.


Please note: If you are already working with a charity we would love to hear from you so we can continue to add to our examples and help inspire more companies – please get in touch.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge




[1] https://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/01/24/6-steps-more-sustainable-supply-chain

Are charities and companies really that different?

Why do we think that charities and companies are so different?  Why do we have the  (cartoonish) stereotype that people working in the private sector are professional, ego-centric, hard-nosed, money grabbing, selfish individuals?  And the equally cartoonish impression of people working in the charity sector being amateur, do-gooding, selfless, friendly people?  Why does business sit towards the evil end of the good/evil pendulum, whereas charities are towards the other end?

Are charities and companies really all that different?


Having worked for many years across both the private and third sectors I can attest that there are plenty of hard-nosed, ego-centric individuals in the charity sector, just as there are plenty of friendly, ethical individuals working for companies. Individuals. People.

And that’s the thing.  Companies and Charities are made up of people.  Are the people working for companies inherently bad and the people working for charities inherently good?  No, of course not.  So let’s look at why companies and charities exist:

To solve an issue.

It might be the issue of wanting the next smart phone, it might the issue of needing a nice car to travel to work in, it might be cancer.  But organisations exist to solve an issue.

And how do they go about solving the issue?

By selling and delivering something to a consumer.

It might be a product, it might be a service, it might be an idea.  But organisations, charities and businesses alike, sell and deliver something.

Some organisations make and sell products (Age UK make and sell products for elderly people, Apple make and sell phones).  Some organisations sell a service (PwC provide accounting services, CLIC Sargent support young cancer sufferers).  Whilst yet other organisations sell products/services that others produce/provide (Amazon sell the products of others online and Comic Relief sells, through fundraising, the services of other NGOs).

Indeed, the sales department in a company really isn’t all that different from a fundraising department in a charity.   Both will have income targets to achieve.  Both will have ‘market segments’ they are targeting.  And both will have marketing or communication departments creating awareness in the target markets.

So why do we persist in thinking that charities and companies are so different?

When you really look at it, there are only two differences:

1)    Who pays for the products/services that are consumed:

The charity fundraiser is (generally) not selling to the consumer of the products/services they provide – instead they ‘sell’ the cause (or the great work they are doing to address the cause) to their donors, and someone else (the beneficiary) then consumes the products/services – whereas a sales person in a business will (generally) be selling to the direct consumer of that organisations’ products or services.

2)    The way success is measured:

The second difference is the fact that the guardians of the organisations (be they shareholders or trustees) choose to measure success in different ways.  For some, the ultimate measure of success is how much money they have made.  Whereas others measure success in how many lives they have improved.

Now, I’m simplifying things, I know.  And it’s not always a clear distinction.  Indeed, Richard Branson believes that “the only mission worth pursuing in business is to make people’s lives better” (which is easy to say when you are a billionaire, but let’s take the sentiment at face value for the purpose of this argument).  And try telling a finance director in a charity that the main objective of the year is to help people, and to ignore whether the organisation has made enough money to be financially sustainable.

So there is a clear blurring of the sectors and, if we just think about the basic reason for being – companies and charities exist to solve an issue by selling and delivering something to a consumer – then the essence is the same.

Perhaps, then, charities and companies are not as different as we think.  Perhaps people in both sectors can relate.  Perhaps we even have some shared ideas, some shared objectives.  Perhaps those similarities can form the basis of partnerships that can benefit both sectors, and society as a whole.  Perhaps they will contribute to the success measures that both sectors have – and if more lives can be helped whilst more money can be made, surely that’s a win-win?

So why don’t we stop talking about the differences between companies and charities, and start recognising the similarities.  Let’s call ourselves organisations.  Organisations that are made up of people.  People that have knowledge, ideas and skills that can be pooled to benefit all.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge



Don’t be embarrassed. What do you really want from your charity partnerships?

A few months ago I wrote a blog about how charities should be honest about what they are seeking from a corporate partnership.  The emails I have got since have prompted me to write this from the perspective of the corporate partner, and pose the question – what do you really want from your charity partnerships?

Companies should be framing their charity partnerships and community investments as strategic initiatives. To be truly successful the strategy pursued should align with the business objectives of the company.

When embarking on any strategic initiative you need to be clear about what you are seeking to achieve – you need to set objectives – and then define metrics to measure whether you have achieved those objectives.  This is Strategy101.  But how many organisations set objectives with their charity partners?  And how many set business related objectives for their community investment programmes?  And how many then define metrics and measure the progress towards these business objectives?  The answer to all three questions, we have found, is very, very few!

Part of the reason is that too often the programmes and initiatives that are run under the banner of Corporate Responsibility simply aren’t viewed as strategic and, as such, companies do not seek to set objectives and measure the determinable value that they create.  Too many CSR departments are still viewed as ‘cost centres’ and the programmes seen as ‘tick in the box’ activities or PR exercises.  Embarrassment is also a factor.  Companies are in a short-term, ‘do-gooder’, philanthropic mind-set, rather than a long-term, shared value mind-set.

One of the main advisory services that we provide at thirdbridge is to support companies in the development of a strategic mind-set to community investment, helping them to identify the objectives that are important to them and how ‘community investment’ can help to achieve those objectives. The ‘bottom line’ value for companies is at the forefront of these conversations.  If we can help organisations prove that community investment programmes have a positive impact on bottom line profits, then the possibilities for scale and positive social impact suddenly open up.

Five examples of strategic business objectives that we have seen companies address through their community investment programmes (and that ultimately have a positive impact on bottom line profits) are:

  • Reducing employee attrition – there is a mountain of evidence that shows the link between employee volunteering programmes and the impact on engagement, motivation and, ultimately, commitment of employees.
  • Attracting the top graduate talent – again, irrefutable evidence that ‘millennials’ want to work for companies that embody their values and do more than just make money – community investment programmes are a great way to leverage this, helping companies win the, so-called, war on talent.
  • Developing skills in the workforce – a lot of research proving that running skills based volunteer programmes are more effective and cheaper(!) than classroom based training in developing the skills of employees.
  • Improve reputation amongst customers – there is a real change underway in consumer buying habits – people want to buy products from responsible companies – businesses need to be acutely aware of this and ensure their external reputation reflects what consumers want.
  • Identify new market opportunities – developing products or services with charity partners that have knowledge and experience in previously untapped markets is a truly symbiotic approach that presents huge opportunities to companies – from the ageing population in the developed world, to the booming middle classes in emerging markets.

Companies should not be embarrassed about pursuing business objectives related to their community investment programmes, and the public should not a cast a cynical eye at such objectives.  Doing this will help make such community investments strategic and valued – it means that companies will be willing to do more because it is a business investment as much as a community investment.  Ultimately, it will mean such activities become business as usual – and that is how true scale and real value for society will be delivered.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge



Beyond fence painting – new research identifies 3 areas of corporate volunteering that offer real value

I tried a little experiment recently using word association and the results were disappointing, although perhaps predictable. I asked a number of friends, family members and acquaintances what first springs to mind when they hear the phrase “corporate volunteering”.  Overwhelmingly the result was “painting a fence/wall” (note: ‘tidying gardens’, ‘team building’, ‘bake sales’ and ‘fundraising’ also featured heavily)Now, this may just be a reflection on the company that I keep, but I like to think my friends and family are a reasonably intelligent, nice bunch of people and, indeed, I believe that if this flash survey was widened out on a national scale the results would not be dissimilar.

Indeed, team building activities such as fence painting still feature heavily in CSR reports under corporate employee volunteering and are still regularly ‘offered’ by charities to corporate ‘partners’.  There are some very good reasons for this, not least the request from companies to their charity ‘partners’ to provide volunteering opportunities for 100’s of staff on one particular day of the year (a difficult proposition for any size organisation).

I’m also not saying that these type of activities are inherently a bad thing to do – they offer a great entry point for companies into philanthropic activities, they are (largely) enjoyable for the individuals that take part and are often the ‘hook’ that gets vital corporate donations for the charity.  So you could argue that, on one level, it is an example of a ‘shared value’ partnership – companies do benefit from off-site team building, and charities benefit from the accompanying corporate donation (and perhaps a short term benefit from the new lick of paint, although I have heard numerous horror stories of “we had to get the professional painters in afterwards to do the job properly…”).

But surely the skills, capabilities and resources of a company could be put to better use?  So what types of volunteering programmes can corporates get involved in that would add real long-term value to their charity partners, and help achieve the desired business objectives of such partnerships such as improved employee retention, more effective skills development and top graduate recruitment?

In our research of over 100 cross-sector partnerships we have identified 3 focus areas of corporate volunteering that utilise the skills and capabilities from both partners and bring real value to the organisations and individuals involved:

  1. Charity Operations: The focus is on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the charity partner, reducing their operational costs.  Employees from the partner company will be primarily focused on improving the ‘back office’ operations of a charity, including; HR, IT, finance, marketing, communications, fundraising, legal and trading activities.  A good example of this is the partnership between Shelter and Fujitsu – with Fujitsu using its expertise in technology to increase the reach and capacity of Shelter to help more people into homes.
  2. Service Provision: The focus is on scaling or strengthening the delivery or a programme or service that a charity is running. Employees from the partner company will be involved in delivering a programme or service that directly impacts beneficiaries e.g. improving the well-being of young people.  Employees will either work directly with the beneficiaries to deliver the service or help to plan, setup and implement the service. See the Age UK Call in Time service supported by Zurich Community Trust for a good example.
  3. Product Innovation: Arguably the most exciting focus area – the charity and corporate partner work together to develop a new product or service that will help to solve an identified social issue. The corporate may be supporting the development of the product/service with a charity partner or leading the development.  A great example is the Fuel Management Programme developed between Macmillan Cancer and npower to alleviate fuel poverty in cancer sufferers – read more about this great programme here.

I’m not saying that everyone should throw their paint brushes away (professional decorating firms should be actively encouraged to use their skills in this way!), but I would urge companies and charities to think long and hard about developing programmes that will maximise the utilisation of capabilities from both organisations, helping to deliver long term, strategic value to both partners.  We recommend using the above definitions as a loose framework to help organisations categorise and develop programmes with their partners.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge



Stop ticking the box and start pushing the needle

Mentioning the term ‘corporate partnership’ really does mean different things to different people.  After recently attending the ‘Corporate Charity Partnerships’ conference held in London it struck me that 3 broad definitions have really started to take shape and, depending on who you are talking to, it really can mean completely different things.

From my personal experience, research and, indeed, the presentations given by peers at the conference, partnerships tend to fall into one of the following broad categories:

  1. ‘Charity of the Year Partner’ – the main driver in this type of partnership is philanthropy. The corporate will donate money, products and time in the form of fundraising events and team challenges.  It is often the first route into partnerships for many companies and, indeed, the first route into volunteering for many employees.
  2. ‘Strategic Partner’ – the main driver is to utilise the skills and resources of the corporate partner to help build the capacity of the charity partner. Still predominantly a one way approach, often with direct monetary donations as part of the mix, but it builds on the capability of the corporate to help deliver a service or support the operations of the charity.
  3. ‘Shared Value Partner’ – the main driver is a shared objective and aligned mission. The corporate and charity partner work together to tackle and solve a social issue through the development of a new product or service.  Both sides benefit and play an equally important role in the development and delivery of the product or service.

The conference itself was a mixture of ‘tick the box’ rhetoric from the still dominant ‘charity of the year’ advocates where corporates select a charity (often via an employee vote) and raise and/or donate money and time (often unskilled volunteering) over the course of a year…through to some truly inspiring talks from corporates and charities who are really ‘pushing the needle’ and forming shared value partnerships to tackle and solve social issues – the Barclays ‘Banking on Change’ partnership with CARE International UK and Plan UK being a fantastic example.

Indeed it was clear from the presentations given that many charities still view corporates as simply a potential source of funds who should open their cash drawers when asked…rather than as a potential partner who could assist them in scaling their current programmes or focus on tackling a specific issue by mobilising the skills, experience and resources at the corporates disposal.

On the flip side, it was clear that many corporates are still very happy to ‘tick the box’ and give themselves a pat on the back when they donate a bit of money or organise a fundraising event, continuing to keep ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ very separate from the core business.

I am not arguing the merits or drawbacks of the above types in this post, I am also not suggesting they are mutually exclusive, that one is superior to the other or that a corporate should progress from 1 to 3 in chronological order (indeed a mixture of all three at any one time might be the best approach).  However, at thirdbridge, we do believe that a move towards more shared value partnerships is long overdue and has the potential to bring about huge societal (and business) benefit in a short timeframe, and at scale.


Blog written by Rick Benfield, CEO of thirdbridge