Symbiotic Sustainability Model
The symbiotic sustainability model is a theory focusing on the pattern and outcomes of partnerships between nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and for-profit corporations. The model is important for the study of corporate reputation, because corporations often form relationships with NGOs to enhance aspects of their reputation.
The theory assumes that communicating the existence and character of the cross-sector relationship to the stakeholder is more important than the resources exchanged within the relationship. Through communication, corporations and NGOs try to convince stakeholders of the legitimacy and character of the relationship in order to reap rewards. Stakeholders include consumers, activists, and legislators. This entry first describes several types of relationships between corporations and NGOs. It then details the key propositions of the symbiotic sustainability model concerning co-construction, the types of capital involved, and the choice of partner. Finally, it discusses the diminishing returns for corporations and NGOS when accumulating partners and the risks and rewards of NGO-corporate relationships.
Corporate-NGO relationships include corporate sponsorship of charitable events, licensing NGO and corporate brands, cause marketing, NGO certification, and collective impact partnerships. Corporate sponsorships are defined as corporations donating to NGOs and in return receiving publicity for their action. Licensing involves an NGO or corporation allowing the other partner to use its brand for a fee. Relatedly, cause marketing describes the marketing of a product or service where a portion of the sales or profits are distributed to an NGO.
NGO certification means that an NGO audits a corporation’s business practices and guarantees some aspect of them. For example, an NGO might certify the environmental protection practices that a corporation uses. Finally, collective impact partnerships describe large cross-sector networks designed to affect some social problem through joint action.
The symbiotic sustainability model states that the existence, character, and valuation of NGO-corporate alignment is communicatively co-constructed by the organizations and their stakeholders. In other words, stakeholders are active participants in the symbolic creation and interpretation of NGO-corporate relationships. Instead of acting as passive recipients of messages about NGO-corporate relationships, they actively interpret the fit of the partnership and communicate their interpretations to other stakeholders.
Favorable or unfavorable communication can include interpersonal communication among stakeholders, social media messages, and organized campaigns. Michelle Shumate and Amy O’Connor found that Fortune 500 corporations in the same economic industry were more likely to communicate about NGO partnerships that addressed the same social issue. They claim that this common issue engagement is a result of common stakeholder preferences. In other words, because corporations in the same economic industry share stakeholders, they attempt to influence those stakeholders by affiliating with NGOs that address the social issues that those stakeholders care about.
According to the model, the communication of the NGO-corporate partnership prompts stakeholders to mobilize or restrict capital. The model identifies four types of capital: (1) economic capital, which includes financial resources such as cash and assets; (2) social capital, which includes organizations’ relationships with stakeholders and other organizations; (3) cultural capital, which includes positive associations with knowledge or admired values, including positive brand associations that increase the organization’s standing in society; and (4) political capital, which includes positive relationships with legislators or regulators.
In addition, the model suggests that NGOs and corporations seek different forms of capital. Research examining which corporations NGOs name as partners suggests that NGOs may report corporate partnerships to convince stakeholders of their competency, while corporations may report NGO partnerships to convince stakeholders of their caring. Because NGOs and corporations seek different things, they communicate differently about their portfolio of cross-sector partnerships.
An NGO or corporation’s perceived ability to mobilize stakeholders and their associated capital makes them more attractive potential partners. The symbiotic sustainability model suggests that the partners’ accumulated capital and position in the cross-sector interorganizational network is evidence of the potential value of the relationship.
The symbiotic sustainability model suggests that corporations and NGOs face diminishing returns for accumulating partners. Communication of a limited number of unique partners has greater value than communication of many cross-sector relationships. While early empirical research confirms that corporations tend to communicate few partnerships, later research finds that NGOs communicate many corporate partnerships. Furthermore, researchers have found that, in contrast to corporations, which only report one partnership with an NGO that addresses a social issue, NGOs report several corporate partners in the same economic industry.
Risks and Rewards
The symbiotic sustainability model suggests that NGO-corporate relationships are subject to certain risks and rewards. Since the organizations take on new organizational activities by creating the relationship, they gain access to the capital that stakeholders associate with their partners. Alternatively, they also may prompt stakeholders to restrict capital because of unfavorable perceptions of their partners. In this way, NGOs and corporations may inherit each other’s friends and enemies through communicating their relationship.
O’Connor, A., & Shumate, M. (2014). Differences among NGOs in the business-NGO cooperative network. Business & Society, 53, 105–133. doi:
Shumate, M., Hsieh, Y., & O’Connor, A. (2014). Top NGO partnerships with corporations: A test of the symbiotic sustainability model. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Seattle, WA.
Shumate, M., & O’Connor, A. (2010). Corporate reporting of cross-sector alliances: The portfolio of NGO partners communicated on corporate websites. Communication Monographs, 77, 238–261. doi:
Shumate, M., & O’Connor, A. (2010). The symbiotic sustainability model: Conceptualizing NGO-corporate alliance communication. Journal of Communication, 63, 577–509. doi: