Transformative Partnership

Companies supporting nonprofits is a well-established staple in philanthropy. Maybe a particular relationship began because of an affinity for the cause by the business’ founder. Maybe a cause had alignment with a company’s business. Maybe it’s little more than corporate optics and PR. Maybe it’s something deeper.

Just as the old CSR model is transforming into ESG, the old philanthropic funding model is transforming into integrated relationships between companies and nonprofits. This relationship is built on metrics, employee engagement and shared values.

At the next level, there is the transformative partnership, a collaboration in which two organizations, both leaders in their specific field, work closely together. They marry skills, capacity and vision to propel a mission and transforms both company and nonprofit. This partnership challenges the staffs at both entities to put their core competencies to the test. In this process, a nonprofit creates scale and impact, unachievable on its own. A company makes itself better at its actual business. Solving a critical societal problem takes a leap forward.

NatureServe and SAS were able to create a transformative partnership.

NatureServe is the leader in monitoring biodiversity throughout the Western Hemisphere, working with nearly 100 organizations and over 1,000 conservation scientists to collect, aggregate, and standardize biodiversity information, providing comprehensive data to land use decision makers for strategic conservation efforts. NatureServe and its network partners develop and manage the most comprehensive data for over 100,000 species and ecosystems.

SAS is the leader in analytics. Through innovative software and services, SAS empowers and inspires customers around the world to transform data into intelligence.

Sean O’Brien & I-Sah Hsieh at the Social Innovation Summit

After being introduced to each other by an insightful third party, staff from both organizations sat down to learn about what each other was really good at and identify the interests for exploring a mission focused collaboration. Through trial and error idea generation, it became apparent that at the core of both entities was the living and breathing of data and analytics. That core was overlaid with mutual motivation.

To make a complex story more simple — NatureServe has the best biodiversity data and gave it to 70 SAS employees for brain storming on how to use it more effectively in conservation and species extinction prevention. The top ideas were then given to SAS research and development teams.

A 2 minute look at the partnership in action.

With the goals of making NatureServe’s work more efficient and effective and to reduce costs, the SAS R&D team employed AI and advanced analytics, all the while collaborating with NatureServe staff. The result was an exponential increase in capacity for NatureServe’s work.

The company brought skill aligned expertise, technical resources and people motivated to problem solve. The nonprofit brought information and a challenge aligned to the company’s core business. Together they created that transformative partnership.

I asked Sean O’Brien, CEO at NatureServe and I-Sah Hsieh, Principal Program Manager — Social Innovation at SAS about the experience and what they’d say to others looking to advance their own organizations and missions.

NatureServe’s online biodiversity dashboard

What was important to SAS in finding a nonprofit partner that went beyond the traditional philanthropic funding relationship?

I-Sah — “From the start, SAS employees have upheld this unwavering commitment to continuously find new ways to apply our analytical expertise to the most complex and challenging problems in our society. And that’s because we believe that no data problem is too great, no question is too complex and that the search for answers will lead to positive change.

We look for nonprofit partners who can greatly benefit from the power of analytics, but there are additional factors that weigh heavily in determining the partnerships we take on. Because the work we do for nonprofits hinges on the support of employees, we prioritize those with missions well-aligned to the personal passions of our employees. We also evaluate the data of an organization with our research and development teams. Their insight gives us a better understanding of how SAS can help the organization, and also how the data of that organization can become a valued resource to further innovate our own technology.”

What was important to NatureServe in finding a corporate partner that went beyond the traditional philanthropic funding relationship?

Sean — “NatureServe is, in many ways, “nature’s tech firm” and we want to bring the latest technology and the best thinking to the challenges faced when trying to conserve biodiversity. We benefit from relationships with tech firms like SAS because they can bring expertise that we do not have on staff to address tangible challenged we face…their ability to make full use of the technology and think outside the box has advanced many projects crucial to our ability to protect species from extinction.”

How has the NatureServe partnership challenged SAS staff in thinking about their own work?

I-Sah — “Our partnership with NatureServe began by first bringing together more than 70 SAS employees for the first-ever Social Innovation Summit. The summit was an opportunity to gather employees across the organization — developers, marketers, sales teams, HR, data scientists, and more — to explore ways SAS® software could be applied to the biodiversity issues NatureServe is working to address. After a day of working together, teams presented their best ideas and those ideas were eventually were elevated to SAS’ research and development team to help turn them into reality.

The summit reminded employees of the power of our technology and the way it can be used to address the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues. NatureServe’s unique challenges not only gave our developers the valuable experience of seeing first-hand how their work would be deployed to help the world, but also caused different teams to collaborate together to solve these specific problems.”

What’s your advice to a nonprofit leader who is searching for a corporate partner that goes beyond just funding?

Sean — “The key here is to have a well-defined challenge that is relevant to the expertise of the potential partner. This means conservation groups like NatureServe need to understand their own needs and the capabilities of the company. We have found that with this formula many firms are willing to help, whereas open ended engagements are harder for corporate partners to join.”

What’s your advice to a company leader who is searching for a nonprofit partner that goes beyond funding & PR?

I-Sah — “First, identify what your organization is best at in the world and then combine that with the passions of your employees. From there it’s all about finding a non-profit at the intersection of those unique skills and passions. At SAS, the result was an increase in employee satisfaction since they can personally contribute their skills to the company’s philanthropic efforts. As a data and analytics company, SAS began an analytic volunteerism program, where we assemble teams who have both the analytic skills and the shared passion to help answer the important questions for each non-profit partner.”

Not every company and nonprofit pairing can create a transformative partnership, but they are out there to find. It takes some matchmaking. It takes some struggle to get right. They are worth pursuing because society and the planet are the biggest winners.

Scaling the recovery and recycling of ocean plastic pollution to create a closed loop economy.

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