The notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts took center stage at the Greaterthan Conference, a two-day conference wrapping up in Portland today that aimed to foster new models of partnership among the private, non-profit and public sectors of Maine.
The event, the first in a national tour, brought together panelists and presenters from industry, academia, government and nonprofits to wrestle with the details of building a better world through cross-sector collaboration.
"Business can be the agent of better government," said Raj Sisodia, professor of marketing at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., who advocates conscious capitalism, a strategy that shows how businesses can profit from passion and purpose.
Organized by David Swardlick, president of Portland's Swardlick Marketing Group, and John Rooks of SOAP, a sustainable advocacy group in Portland, the conference offered attendees an opportunity to shake up business as usual and approach new collaborations that benefit more than just the partners.
Speakers cautioned public and private sectors alike to think about partnerships strategically.
"Spend corporate resources in a way that makes sense," said David Hessekiel, president of Cause Marketing Forum in Rye, N.Y., an organization that builds alliances between nonprofits and business. For instance, a company should not make a big charitable donation if its operating revenues are so tight it could lead to employee layoffs. Likewise, he advised nonprofits to think about what kind of business partner they need.
"What are you looking for? Funding? Intellectual property? Media connections? Figure out what you want to do. Successful collaborations require competent partners," he stressed.
Hessekiel shared the podium Tuesday with Ed Chansky of international law firm Greenberg Traurig, one of the tour's major sponsors, to discuss the realities of cause marketing. The top 10 charities in the country are valued at more than $1 billion each, which represents an opportunity for businesses that align themselves with those groups, he said, adding that about 80% of consumers are influenced in their purchases of products associated with good works.
So while the benefits to both partners can be extensive, practitioners need to proceed with caution since the collaborations can be heavily regulated.
"Maine is one of the heaviest regulated states in the area of cause marketing," said Chansky, who advised businesses to pay attention to all disclosure laws and be especially clear in their purpose.
By way of a good example, he displayed a print ad of Jerry Lewis announcing that for every box of Rice Krispies purchased before Sept. 1, Kellogg would donate $1 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The ad contrasted with Georgio Armani's pledge to donate an average of 40% of gross profit margin of a particular product to Bono's Red campaign to curtail the spread of AIDs in Africa.
"How much is that?" he asked the audience. "Somewhere between zero and 40% of the product's purchase price, otherwise, unknowable."
A business' strategic alliance with a nonprofit can lead to notable returns. Hessekiel said Whirlpool's marketing department often reflected the intellectual, engineer-heavy company's culture, with appliances that promised "whiter whites."
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the company teamed with Habitat for Humanity and pledged a new stove and refrigerator for every home built. The emotional connection that campaign made to prospective Whirlpool customers was phenomenal, said Hessekiel.
"The results in preferences and customer loyalty measures were off the charts," he said.
A panel of Maine industry executives on Monday discussed the commitment it takes to expand those beneficial relationships in a seminar on the benefits of investing in leadership qualities that go beyond the board room. Robin Sawyer, vice president corporate controller with Fairchild Semiconductor, said many of the company's executives have graduated from the Institute for Civic Leadership's intensive leadership training course and support ICL's work in a number of ways. One is to attend the breakfasts the leadership institute holds.
But rather than send 10 Fairchild employees to the breakfast, the company decided to offer to pay for 10 people from outside the company to attend the breakfasts, expanding exposure to ICL's mission and its networking opportunities. A social service agency that helps the local Latino populations took the offer.
"We're trying to build relationships beyond ICL," said Sawyer, who is in the midst of designing a cohesive philanthropic campaign for the semiconductor manufacturer. "We're trying to weave more of those relationships."