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5 Ingredients to Make Your Nonprofit-Corporate Partnership Succeed

By 3p Contributor

By Jessica Scadron

A few days ago, I was strolling along the foggy coast in Northern California when I noticed a cormorant flying in “v” formation with a flock of pelicans. A week later, I saw a pelican flying with a flock of cormorants.

I’ve been watching these birds for years and never saw them co-mingle in a flight pattern. I always assumed the same types of birds fly together. It turns out these two species bond in the hunt for food because they can catch more if they work together.

It’s a great metaphor for a corporate-nonprofit partnership. Joining forces with organizations that have resources your organization doesn’t can yield exponential dividends.

As federal funding tightens and corporations take on a larger role in communities, these partnerships are becoming increasingly common — and successful.

“Whether it’s tackling the Muslim ban or protecting green spaces, nonprofits have products and services that many companies realize they need to create a healthy business environment, and to contribute to a world their stakeholders — employees, investors and customers — want to live in,” said Danielle Silber, director of strategic partnerships at American Civil Liberties Union.

Everyone benefits

Are you with a nonprofit that wants to innovate but doesn’t have the financial cushion to take risks? Maybe you work for a company that wants to deliver services on a small scale to low-income neighborhoods, but don’t have the local understanding to do so.

Each entity has its strengths. A corporation has resources and connections, and a nonprofit has an intimate understanding of a community or issue area. Combined, the company can build a positive reputation showing its support for a cause, and the nonprofit can focus on advancing its mission.

For example, to help solve the problem of children missing school because they don’t have clean clothes to wear, Whirlpool created Whirlpool Care Counts — an initiative to install washers and dryers in schools to see how attendance rates are impacted when students have clean clothes. The pilot program was so successful, with 93 percent of participating students’ attendance increasing in the first year, that Whirlpool is partnering with Teach for America to reach more students across the country.

The five practices of partnership

If you decide to embark on this kind of partnership, make sure you have senior management buy-in and ample resources to run it. Then, follow these five practices to increase your likelihood of success.

1. A shared vision: What is it that each of you are trying to accomplish? Companies often look to strengthen their brands with customers, shareholders and employees. A clearly articulated social mission helps them do that through their corporate social responsibility efforts. Nonprofits are laser-focused on their social missions such as alleviating poverty, curbing climate change, or providing healthcare, for example. Although companies and nonprofits have different reasons for partnering, both should agree on the partnership’s purpose and outcomes.

The the nonprofit's core purpose will determine the perfect intersection for a company and nonprofit to work together. If a healthcare company wants to provide discounted services to low-income neighborhoods, the obvious partner for them is an organization whose mission is to do the same.

Look at Unilever’s partnership with Domestos and UNICEF to deliver clean, safe toilets to millions who don’t have them. In just three years, 6.2 million people received access, helping all three organizations meet their water, sanitation, hygiene and sales goals.

2. Define the partnership: Articulate the division of labor from the outset. Make sure each organization knows who is responsible for what, how decisions will be made, and which organization will lead the project. Appointing individuals will insure each side fulfills their commitments and keeps the train moving.

“Partnership terms are negotiated like any other contract,” said Cheryl Damian, senior vice president of Ketchum Social Purpose. “Not only does it drive accountability, it provides a clear understanding of roles and expectations. Many times it is during this process that organizations unearth hidden gems in terms of assets and expertise that can make the partnership more efficient and productive.”

3. Monitor and evaluate: Measuring progress is often the Achilles heel of any organization. Layer that with figuring out how to align metrics between disparate entities and the climb can seem steep.

Companies and nonprofits have different approaches to metrics. But measurement is critical to the success of the project in order to quickly build on what works, learn from what doesn’t, and keep momentum. A lexicon both partners can agree to, and realistically fulfill, will prevent mission stagnation.

In 2012, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment (WB) created the We Can Be Heroes campaign to raise funds and awareness for the worst hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa since the ‘90s. Thirteen million people were displaced, and WB wanted to help. So they partnered with International Rescue Committee, MercyCorps, and Save the Children — three organizations equipped to deliver expedient aid to those devastated by the drought. All entities agreed that the best metrics for measuring the campaign’s success were how many people received aid and amount of funds raised. WB hit the two-year campaign goals within six months.

4. Communicate: Like a good marriage, your partnership requires nurturing to be fruitful. Don’t be shy about shaking out the rug if decision-making stalls or the partnership takes a wrong turn. Open dialogue will strengthen your collaboration and lead to better outcomes. So will establishing processes for communicating with your partner, and your internal team. Create a project work plan, schedule weekly check-in calls, and consider using technology like Slack or a project management tool like Teamwork to make collaboration easier.

And don’t forget to communicate partnership successes both internally and externally. Doing so will build excitement for the project throughout both organizations.

5. Flexibility: Remember, each organization has its own culture. Organizations evolve and grow — so must the partnership if you want to have a positive experience. Handle conflict when it arises, and be accommodating.

Creating a partnership can be challenging, but the effort is worth it for organizations and the communities they serve. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you take things step by step. If you’re considering a partnership, or are in the midst of one you’d like to reinvigorate, apply these five elements and you’re likely to cultivate strong results.

Jessica Scadron is the founder of Social Harmony, a communications firm that provides strategy and implementation to organizations changing the world. Find her on LinkedIn, Twitter and email.

Image credit: Flickr / Adam Baker

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