On June 7th and 8th, Global Business Coalition on HIV/ADIS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GBC) held their annual conference here in Washington DC. I attended parts of it while also volunteering with the preparation (stuffing conference packets and making name tags for people like Ban Ki Moon, Condoleeza Rice, and Ashley Judd). The conference focused on the importance of public-private partnerships, bringing together companies, government agencies, and NGOs ranging from Chevron to the International Center for Research on Women to officials from PEPFAR. It was a striking contrast and one that certainly gave me a new perspective on who does good things in the world and how they do it.

As someone who has worked consistently with non-profits, I am accustomed to the constant search for money, the ever-present question of “do we have the funding for it?”  Businesses do not face this issue in the same way that non-profits do. Johnson & Johnson, for example, works on women’s health and rights in South Africa, and they can decide how much money they are going to put toward their projects, rather than deciding on what they are going to do based on the limitations of funding. Of course no for-profit business can put all its profits toward the social good; this would violate their responsibility to shareholders who expect a return on their investment, and it would prevent the company itself from expanding and flourishing. But they do not have to piece together funding for projects and constantly be on the lookout for potential granters.

Many businesses use their funds to create foundations that grant money to non-profits.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given a total of nearly $23 billion in grants, and the Ford Foundation gave $500 million just in 2008.  However, it is not just a steady flow of cash that businesses have to offer. It is also their skills and expertise.  For example, marketing and messaging is one of the key elements of running a successful business – without the advertisement of the product, it generally won’t be successful.  Due to lack of funding and human resources, non-profits are often unable to invest in the advertising expertise that is vital for mass messaging on issues like HIV testing.  Businesses have the branding capability and the resources to get messages out there.

Can you imagine if every Coca-Cola commercial had a one-liner in it about knowing your HIV status?

There wouldn’t be a person in America (or in most of the rest of the world, for that matter) who hadn’t heard the message.  This is part of the reason that the (RED) campaign has been so successful at fundraising and raising awareness – they enlisted Starbucks, Gap, and other major companies to sell products with their brand and their message.  In addition, major businesses have enormous sway on politics because of their financial capabilities.  If they put this weight behind social issues, they can make an enormous impact.  When the GBC was pushing Congress to lift the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, for instance, they enlisted the help of The Brink’s Company, who turned out to be an instrumental force behind the legislation.  The ban was lifted in December 2009 and now allows clinics to use federal funds for needle exchange programs which have been shown to reduce transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users.

Businesses can contribute other types of expertise as well.  One of the companies recognized by GBC at their awards dinner was Sanofi-Aventis, a global healthcare company that produces a wide variety of pharmaceutical products.  In 2005, they partnered with Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) to quickly develop and disseminate a new malaria medicine used to combat resistance; an effective, low-cost drug was introduced to the market in just three years.  In 2009 they entered into another partnership (details here) to combat sleeping sickness.  Sanofi lends its pharmaceutical expertise and development capabilities on a pro-bono basis, while DNDi understands the specific needs and limitations of providing drugs to large numbers of people in Africa.

Many corporations do want to make a social impact and could benefit from the partnership with non-profits as well, as non-profits often have the on-the-ground community experience and understanding of need that businesses lack.  It is true that many businesses do enormous harm to the environment and to communities in which they are located, and that some of these same businesses turn around and adopt a social project in order to improve their public image.  But others really do want to do good in the world and are eager to use their resources – both human and financial – to make a significant social impact.  Businesses are run and staffed by human beings, after all.  And luckily, the majority of human beings want to help others.  We as non-profits should take advantage of the skills and resources that businesses have to offer.  No one sector will be able to solve the problems of the world, so we should do our best to work together.