On a cold January afternoon in 2012, at Dow’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan, I sat at a large conference table with representatives from across Dow’s venture fund, foundation, sustainability team, and human resources department. This was the first meeting of its kind that I had attended with one of our corporate partners. I was unwittingly part of an emerging shift in how social change organizations and corporations are working together. A shift towards partnerships that align business growth objectives with social and environmental imperatives.
Since that initial meeting, Acumen has developed a portfolio of diverse corporate partnerships focused on strengthening the links between social enterprises and global corporations and supporting the development of more inclusive business models. We’ve worked with companies such as Dow, Unilever, SAP, Goldman Sachs, EY, Bain, GE, and Reckitt Benkiser to address their specific business goals tied to sustainability and social impact, and have engaged them in an effort to help scale our portfolio companies. These collaborations have varied widely, and we have had the luxury to experiment and learn alongside our partners about what it really takes to create shared value.
To share what we’re learning and to facilitate further partnerships, we’ve held three Collaboration Summits in Nairobi, Kenya to bring together corporations and social enterprises form across Africa. Through these Summits, I have watched as curiosity turned to commitment, then to action, and eventually to impact. Through carefully facilitated discussions, new opportunities for collaboration have emerged, including opportunities for investment, shared distribution efforts and new linkages between local suppliers.
Whether it is in pursuit of greater impact, new insights, or increased sustainability, there is a growing interest in the ways that corporations and social enterprises can join forces. As an example, we have seen Unilever and d.light team up to improve access to solar lanterns and boost the performance of small retail outlets. We’ve seen experts from Dow, EY, Bain and SAP work directly with entrepreneurs to help them tackles business challenges. And perhaps most exciting of all, we’ve seen representatives of corporations and social enterprises challenge each other to rethink their business models in ways that could drive greater impact in emerging markets.
At the same time, bringing these two different types of actors together has also proven itself to be full of challenges and risks. There have even been times when the challenges involved were more trouble than they were worth—a hard but valuable lesson.
Today, we have released a report, titled “Social Enterprises and Global Corporations: Collaborating for Growth with Impact,” that showcases the types of partnerships that we have supported or witnessed and the lessons learned from them. The report also contains an important call to action to those who see potential in this type of collaboration, which is to remain open to experimentation. What started as an experiment for Acumen has become a core part of how we work, and we believe that these types of partnerships will become instrumental to nurturing and scaling social innovation.
For example, when we think about how to scale the social enterprises in our portfolio, we consider how to leverage our corporate partners to align their key capabilities and business objectives with the goals of our portfolio companies. When we think about how to accelerate the growth of inclusive agricultural supply chains, we think about it through the lens of the potential corporate partners that are looking for ways to make their own supply chains more inclusive and sustainable. And when we come across a business that strives to do more to transform the lives of the poor, whether it’s a growing social enterprise or an established corporation, we now ask ourselves what role we can play to facilitate that transformation.
By providing a framework, examples, and reflections on lessons learned, we hope our new report will catalyse discussion and collaborative action to accelerate growth with impact. Ultimately, our aim is to bring together the stakeholders that can use the powerful tools of business to more effectively improve lives.
Director, Strategic Partnerships, Acumen