Joining together for positive change

New Hampshire is frequently lauded for its high quality of life and relative prosperity. In part, we owe that stature to the nonprofit organizations that we rely upon for essential services.From running after-school programs and offering job training to feeding the hungry and helping the aged, these organizations change lives every day. Today, more than ever, these organizations are navigating challenges that call upon all of us to forge creative partnerships and a new model of engagement.I recently met with a group of nonprofit executives to hear their perspectives on current community needs. As you might expect, participants spoke about the increased needs and demands for their services. They spoke about the rising number of children who are homeless, increased demand for foreclosure counseling and myriad challenges that New Hampshire residents face as they struggle with continued unemployment and job insecurity.While some organizations had benefited in the past year from funding for specific projects offered through the stimulus efforts, all shared concerns about the availability of resources to support the work. As our discussion continued, one comment in particular stood out to me as deserving further reflection. That was the need to bring businesses and nonprofit entities together to advance the dialogue and develop collaborative solutions for our communities.This participant remarked that too often the sectors work in silos, but nonprofit organizations are in fact businesses and are just as concerned about innovation and job creation as the for-profit sector.With economic realities at the forefront, nonprofit and for-profit businesses alike have focused on developing effective strategies for long-term sustainability. There are many examples of increased collaboration amongst nonprofit organizations across the state.Some have focused on minimizing overhead expenses to maximize their precious resources for mission-driven activities. A case in point is the Women’s Fund and the Women’s Policy Institute co-locating their offices and sharing administrative expenses. Some organizations have gone further, embracing mergers, such as the newly created Granite United Way, which in July consolidated the activities of four separate United Way agencies.Trust and transparencyWhile corporate donations have decreased nationally in recent years, companies have not retreated from sustainability activities.Recent research suggests that corporate social responsibility remains a core business strategy for many companies. Nearly all (94 percent) of respondents in the BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainability Poll 2010 said they plan to maintain or increase their budgets for CSR/sustainability programs in the year ahead. So why, during uncertain economic times, do companies continue to embrace community involvement? A company builds lasting trust when it is responsive to the communities it serves – and acts responsibly and ethically.Trust and transparency are as important to corporate reputation as the quality of its products and services. Corporate social responsibility is not simply about “doing good.” It’s about what a company can do to deliver greater business benefit.Many companies are seeking to align their philanthropy with business goals. Some are focusing their priorities more narrowly, and some are paring down the number of charities they support. While these changes can be formidable for nonprofits that are already pressed for resources, there are opportunities for those that redefine their approach to donors. At the recent Nonprofit Leadership Summit convened by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, Jason Saul, chief executive of Mission Measurement and a leading expert on strategy and performance measurement in the social sector, spoke about a new era in corporate partnerships.He challenged audience members to consider the economic value that their work brings. He said that social issues have become business issues and that the public has raised its expectations of businesses to solve social problems. He described an environment where companies can profit from leading social change. Can we create transformational social change and still make a profit? Can being socially responsible favorably impact the bottom line? I believe that we need to take a proactive approach in solving social problems important to our business because, as corporate citizens, we are in a unique position to make a difference.Philanthropy can be so much more than writing a check or volunteering for a day. Real partnerships over time will make all the difference in our communities. New Hampshire businesses have made great strides.As a financial institution, Citizens Bank is in a position to support and provide solutions to a community need. But I think the responsibility lies on all of us to continue to think strategically about how we can work together to strengthen our communities and look for every opportunity to improve the economic vitality of our state and region.Cathy Schmidt is president of Citizens Bank New Hampshire.