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In 2004, Apple launched its iPhone research and development project with 1,000 employees, spending almost three years building the smartphone before launching it in 2007. Think about how much time and how many resources the company invested in creating such an innovative piece of technology. Wouldn’t reducing poverty require equal, if not more, sustained attention?

Many of our most pressing challenges—HIV/AIDS, food security, and stagnant unemployment—are complex and entrenched in the societal fabric of the world’s poorest regions. Thousands of experts have already spent decades trying to alleviate these challenges. Yet they have made slow, if any, progress.


Nonprofits’ ability to develop innovative solutions is too often limited by a single equation—how to reach x people in y months across z regions. These organizations must try to maximize returns on investment while minimizing spending per unit even if that unit is a human being. Deviating from this formula means, to many charities, reinventing their programmatic models. Yet their ability to allocate time and funding towards developing new strategies is restricted by unrealistic expectations; their supporters demand that organizations produce consistently high results every year. Failure to do so often means losing essential funding. Without the financial support or space to take risks, nonprofits must continue to use the same, tired development methods.

The corporate sector’s most significant contribution to development, then, should center on its ability to help reshape the guidelines by which nonprofits operate. By incorporating business practices—long-term investment in research, staff development, and freedom to take calculated risks—companies can help propel philanthropic efforts forward. They can encourage charities to develop comprehensive strategies and create sustained interventions within target communities. They can give the nonprofit industry the resources, time, and understanding it needs to innovate.

However, to really implement this strategy, corporations must make a conscious decision to support charities for their impact rather than as just another arm of a corporate marketing strategy. Too often, businesses are more concerned with the branding of their philanthropic work than the effectiveness of the programs that they support. Transforming lives and communities must become more important than simply appearing to promote sustainable change with large outputs and impressive info-graphics.
Companies can also influence philanthropy beyond financial investments and sustained commitments. Corporate mentorship of an organization’s financial, executive, and programmatic departments can be invaluable. Rather than send all of its employees to a homeless shelter to hand out cups of soup one day, a business could send one of its accountants to teach the center’s director how to best utilize its donations and build financial stability. A company could also allow its marketing team to spend a month working with the organization to develop a more effective branding strategy. Such programs would be far more beneficial to a nonprofit than a one-time volunteer event.

Although the end goal of nonprofits may ultimately differ from those of the corporate world, the processes by which they operate as well as their investment strategies can and should mirror one another. To contribute to sustainable development, businesses must employ the same investment strategies and development plans that they use for their own corporations. Only then can the sector make not only a financial profit but a profoundly human one as well.

Jacob Lief is the Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Education Fund (www.ubuntufund.org), a nonprofit based in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Ubuntu provides comprehensive household stability, health, and educational support to 2,000 orphaned and vulnerable children.