by Josh Jacobson

My staff team at Next Stage are saints. No, truly. They put up with a lot, because when I get excited about something, I sort of can’t shut up about it. Such is my fascination with win-win strategies.

I’ve spent most of my working life trying to build strong philanthropic cultures inside nonprofit organizations with the goal of encouraging donations. For most, a philanthropic transaction is viewed as a “selfless act of charity.” I thought that way too until I started reading the work of Penelope Burke, the author of Donor-Centered Fundraising. She opened my eyes to the concept of “warm glow altruism” – the idea that a donor to a nonprofit gets something in return for making a contribution in the form of a positive feeling of accomplishment. A big ol’ dopamine hit. Her assertion is that a nonprofit can create a marketplace for these good feelings and can generate more donation revenue when it ratchets up the exchange. And with that, my love of win-win strategies was born.

Lately, Next Stage has turned its attention to “rewiring social good” between area companies and nonprofit organizations. Here we are exploring “win-win-win” strategies (aha! An extra win!) with the idea that our community benefits when nonprofits and private sector companies are able to work out an exchange that makes the partnership with each other an essential part of both business models. We have shorthanded it as “profit and purpose.” We believe so much in this direction that we are pivoting our firm to pursue new “win-win-win” frameworks. You can read more about it here.

With so much recent focus on “win-win-win” here at Next Stage, an article from the Winter 2021 edition of Stanford Social Innovations Review, a must-read publication, caught our eye.

The Dangerous Allure of Win-Win Strategies” (link), published by researchers with Andrew A. King and Kenneth P. Pucker, unpacks how many of the supposed breakthroughs in the past that were meant to change society ended up landing with a thud.

The points they make are extraordinarily well-researched (this is SSIR we’re talking about after all) and I was left to reflect on how we can learn from these failed initiatives of the past. Here are three 3 ways we can do better in future “win-win-win” efforts:

Avoid Inauthentic Expressions – If you’re engaging in social good purely for profit, it is not likely to have a great outcome. 

King and Pucker outline how the industry attempts to correct negative environmental impact through the creation of new mitigation industries have largely failed. Recycling efforts will never fully undo the harm done by plastics, for example, no matter how much profit there is in it.

It is a point well made. Efforts to create platforms for collaboration between corporations and nonprofits can only be successful if they begin with authenticity. Shining up corporate greed with social good does not work, and only exposes both sides to unneeded risk.

Seek Multi-Faceted Alignment – For many of the strategies outlined, the solutions being trumpeted were specific and narrow, often arising from the businesses themselves as a means to overcome a business challenge.

The examples given focus on big, sector-wide initiatives that were over-sold from the start.

We think solid strategies are formed when we seek to serve a broader set of needs. Social good has lived in the marketing side of the private sector for a long time, and it has largely been relegated to business-to-consumer companies where the customer is the target.

Our vision is for social good alignment to be multi-faceted, addressing many underlying business needs for companies and nonprofits both. It is also important that these win-win-win strategies be highly customized to these needs and rightsized with realistic outcomes.

Focus on Data & Measurement – Speaking of outcomes, the SSIR researchers were toughest on the lack of solid evidence that the concepts outlined actually did what they were sold as doing.

Some of this was attributable to overly-ambitious visioning, but a lot was just an inability to measure impact.

This is the biggest obstacle to overcome for local companies, who see investment in nonprofits as a “soft cost” where they have a hard time justifying the return on investment. I have heard the budget of corporate social responsibility called “a slush fund” for feel-good projects.

This must change if we want to encourage increased investment in social good, and Next Stage is leading the way to build strategies that start with data first.

All this to say, our enthusiasm for win-win-win strategies is not diminished but certainly better informed. What we are constructing is not built on relentless optimism – just the opposite. We see the challenge ahead of us with clear eyes and an open heart, and we know building proof is the key to unlocking amazing (though not limitless) potential.