Partnerships and Purpose at Sustainable Brands

By Sara Soderstrom, Erb Faculty Member

I was excited to attend and present at Sustainable Brands 2018. My research focuses on how organizations are engaging with sustainability challenges, and my work’s motivation stems from my deep-seated hope that business will transform how we address the many societal challenges that we face today. I believe that business is uniquely situated to help solve challenges like climate change and poverty. It was inspiring to hear from hundreds of companies at Sustainable Brands that are working to redefine how they do business—to do well by doing good.

As a University of Michigan faculty member, it was also exciting to have an opportunity to share my research with an audience of practitioners. My academic career often feels split—research and conferences with other academics, and teaching with practitioners. Yet for our research to have impact beyond the ivory tower—as Professor Andy Hoffman at Erb challenges us to do!—we must engage with practice around data collection, analysis and sharing of findings. Sustainable Brands was a great chance for me to do that.

I shared research I had done a few years ago with Kate Heinze, associate professor of Sport Management, University of Michigan. We did a case study on the Detroit Lions and how they developed a new, more strategic approach to engagement with the local community. Kate and I had been working on a different research project in Detroit, focusing on FoodLab Detroit and the emergence of a sustainable food economy in the city. As we spoke with different food entrepreneurs, we kept hearing about the Detroit Lions as an example of a fantastic partner to these early-stage business people. We started to explore what the Lions were doing and how they were having such a positive impact.

New Partnership Models

The Lions had recently transitioned from a traditional model based on charitable giving to a more focused development model with the  goal to “support transformational efforts that improve the wellbeing of metro Detroit’s underserved communities” (Lions’ Living for the City, 2013). In our assessment, we found the Lions’ narrower and deeper approach (focused on community health and local development) to be more strategic, and necessitating a stronger commitment to the city. This novel model of sustainable partnerships for impact contrasts with a more standard approach to community engagement—philanthropic donations of funding.

Needs Identification

An initial step in the Detroit Lions’ new approach was to complete a concerted, bottom-up process of identifying the city’s needs. The Lions community relations team met with many leaders throughout Detroit—to learn from them and better understand all the activities and expertise that already existed in the city. The team then identified how their own strengths mapped to a long list of community needs, narrowing their areas of focus to those topics that were the best fit between city need and team resources and goals. Thus, the Lions were deliberate in the areas they selected and focused on these two primary areas to develop and strengthen linkages with community stakeholders. Our research identified this as a critical element of their success—recognizing what skills they had and how they could apply them to the city’s needs. The team [Detroit Lions] then identified how their own strengths mapped to a long list of community needs, narrowing their areas of focus to those topics that were the best fit between city need and team resources and goals.

Communication and Outreach

Once community partners were identified, the next step was communication and outreach. The Lions mindfully considered both what their role should be and how their involvement should be perceived. It was clear to both Kate and me that the Lions’ path towards mindful engagement was critical in their successful outreach. Several key themes were identified that characterize these partnerships:

Respect and humility: listen to different perspectives, defer to the expertise of various partners, and respect the knowledge and experience of long-standing community organizations
Enabler role: engage in a helping, rather than self-serving and imposing, manner
Authenticity: a more genuine commitment to helping Detroit’s revitalization; not simply about money or visibility
Mutual benefits: partnerships that benefit themselves and their partners in terms of more specific organizational goals
Brokerage: connect different organizations committed to aiding Detroit

As I shared these findings with the audience at Sustainable Brands, it was affirming to hear how much these ideas resonated. Leaders across different companies met with me after to discuss how they are developing partnerships for their own projects and to ask about various considerations with respect to building sustainable partnerships for impact. The talk also generated a thought-provoking discussion about “what is impact?” that touched on how to measure the impact of community partnerships, the importance of recognizing causality, and the critical step of defining—and aligning—objectives for each partner in a project.

I look forward to continued conversations about impact through partnerships. Through my research, teaching and engagement with practitioners, I hope to connect with many in the Erb community.

Note: research findings adapted from Heinze, K. L., Soderstrom, S., & Zdroik, J. (2014). Toward strategic and authentic corporate social responsibility in professional sport: A case study of the Detroit Lions. Journal of Sport Management, 28(6), 672-686.