Susan Ross, Author Of “Expanding the Pie,” On Nonprofit-Corporate Partnerships
After working as the reproductive health director of CARE, where she focused on partnerships with corporations aimed at improving health conditions in garment factories until 2003, Susan Ross became interested in how such nonprofit-corporate partnerships could streamline and amplify social impact work. Ross recently published Expanding the Pie, which employs numerous case studies to demonstrate how nonprofits and corporations can work together and benefit each other. Ross holds an MBA from Purdue University. Below, she shares with Dowser her motivation for writing the book, and some details about its main arguments.
RS: What is the main idea of Expanding the Pie?
Ross: I really think that nonprofits need to be better at articulating what their value is, not just socially but also from a more quantittative perspective. they need to talk about what they do as investments not just charity or a nice thing to do.
If we think about wealth creation, and improving how businesses make profits in the process of their business, rather than giving away what’s leftover at the end, then it will expand the pie for everybody.
What’s happening in the world today shows that the systems we have aren’t working–it’s not sustainable or equitable. And the business perspectives of looking at emerging markets and base of the pyramid are useful, but we need to focus on not just involving poor people but also making them better off in the process. And more companies and international donors are becoming interested in that. But we need to create a model for that.
And your book zeroes in on the question of what models are out there?
The first section of the book looks at trends, different kinds of partnerships. There are three main kinds: (1) nonprofit/corporation; (2) government agencies/nonprofits/corporations; and (3) multi-stakeholder initiatives. And in the last chapter, I look at how each organization can figure out which model works for them and what might be a risk.
What’s risky for a nonprofit about partnering with a corporation?
The organizations that have the hardest time transitioning are, number one, the ones who campaign against business. Like Greenpeace–in Johannesburg at the UN World Summit conference, they were on the same stage as Shell, and it was definitely risky. Groups that work with children might have a hard time working with some of the chocolate companies, because they practice child labor–formal and informal. A lot of people didn’t want to work with Nike for awhile because they used sweatshop labor, but that changed over time.
Continuing with the Greenpeace example, how would a corporate partnership benefit them?
This case study is actually in my book. We don’t think of nonprofits as grant-giving organizations, but in Germany Greenpeace gave a small grant to a company called Foron because they were close to going out of business, but they had a hydrocarbon technology that they used in a refrigerator, and Greenpeace wanted everybody to use it because it was clean energy. So with this grant this company launched a massive consumer awareness campaign and created this refrigerator technology. And within three years they basically got the other refrigerator brands to agree to use their technology. They were able to change the whole market. But the company went out of business because eventually, they lost their comparative advantage. And the partnership didn’t continue because Greenpeace had achieved their objective. I think particularly the environmental organizations could benefit from this kind of partnership because they can impact the market just by working with one company that is leading in environmental practices, and there are other case studies in my book to support this idea.
How long did the book take you?
I began doing interviews for the case studies about four years ago. It’s interesting because when I began this project, people thought I was crazy, but now this topic is all the rage.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been invited to give the keynote speech at conference in Shanghai on improving conditions in factories in China. The American Apparel Industry Association started it, and various companies like Kraft and Home Depot will have their suppliers there to talk about how to deal with this issue, particularly in the garment industry, and particularly now that China wants to produce higher-revenue products and have higher wages.