Shedding light on partnerships

Because of shrinking support from the government, cash-strapped Canadian non-profit agencies are doing what their U.S. counterparts have done for decades: accepting resources from companies eager to appear socially responsible.

"In the 1980s, neo-conservatism became more prominent in the U.S. government, and that's what we're experiencing now in Canada, which means less money from the government," says Gail McKenzie, a U of L Master of Science (Management) student. "On the flip side, businesses are choosing to be more socially responsible, because the public's demanding that of them."

Between degrees, McKenzie worked for several non-profits, including an adult literacy centre in Manitoba, and witnessed this emerging trend first hand. So when she started her master's at the University of Lethbridge, she opted to study how these partnerships work for non-profits, filling a noticeable gap in the literature.

McKenzie, who defended in December 2008, interviewed a number of U.S. non-profits about their legitimacy concerns. Most felt pressure to prove themselves to the public and to the businesses supporting them, but not to their clients or to their workers.

"Taking actions to become more legitimate to businesses and the public could change the way clients and volunteers see them," says McKenzie, who plans to ultimately complete a PhD. At the moment, she's teaching a U of L management course and writing grants for the Centre for Socially Responsible Marketing.

McKenzie says she was fortunate to be supervised jointly by Drs. John Usher and Mary Runté.

"John's an expert in theory and Mary's an expert in the sector and the (research) methodology. It wouldn't have worked without them both," says McKenzie. "I think my project is richer because I was able to get such different perspectives, which really enriched how I saw things."

Runté first taught McKenzie as an undergraduate and was struck by her curiosity and encouraged her to pursue graduate studies.

"I always look for the student who has his or her hand up and is asking, 'What are the implications of that?'" says Runté.