Corporations donated more than $20 billion to nonprofits and charities last year, according to Giving USA. But forming successful and lasting relationships with corporate partners remains a challenge for many nonprofit groups. How do you attract a corporation's attention? How do you interact with their team? And how do you create a bond that will stand the test of time?
Social Solutions—a technology company based in Austin, Texas—provides performance management software to help government agencies and nonprofits, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United Way of Metro Chicago, maximize their impact by tracking the outcome of their programming. At the company's annual Impact Summit in Austin this week, experts representing both the donor and nonprofit perspectives discussed how charitable organizations can best position themselves to attract and retain corporate partnerships. Read on for their top tips.
1. Be clear about the business case
Of course, companies work with nonprofits because their leadership cares about serving a cause bigger than the bottom line. But more often than not, these firms are also chasing a secondary benefit—such as boosting employee engagement, enhancing consumer trust or building relationships with the communities they serve. When talking with a current or prospective corporate partner, highlight win-win situations that further your nonprofit's mission and also help the company meet its goals, said Susan Moore, VP of government affairs and corporate responsibility for the California-based semiconductor company AMD.
"Focus in on the value proposition between you and a corporate partner," she advised nonprofits. "and really take the time to understand what’s important to that company and how to explain the business value."
Showing your corporate partners that you're aware of their priorities also helps strengthen your relationship for the long haul, Moore continued. "A lot can change," she said simply. "People come on board, and people leave. The more you have a relationship where you each know how you’re helping each other, the more you can weather those changes."
2. Keep your mission front and center
"Be true to yourself and your mission," said Amanda Webster, community relations manager for National Instruments, an Austin-based producer of automated test equipment and related software. "I think of stories like Scholastic partnering with Meals on Wheels. Scholastic wanted to get books out into the community and Meals on Wheels agreed to deliver the books, but that's not Meals on Wheels' mission—and then they were stuck delivering books."
You and a prospective corporate partner may both have great ideas about how to improve your community, but that doesn't mean those ideas mesh well together. By being selective about your partnerships, you're far more likely to develop a mutually beneficial relationship that impacts your community while making sense for both you and your partners, Webster said. "Be conscious of whether you’re putting a square peg in a round hole," she advised. "Ask yourself: Is this truly a good fit, or are we making a stretch here? One great match is better than a lot of small, not-so-great matches."
3. Understand the company's culture
"Each corporate partner that you work with has their own culture," Moore said, "and their definitions of success will be different." When engaging in talks with a new partner, do your homework to uncover some detail about its culture. Take a look at the company's website. Review its mission or values statement, if it has one, and read through its latest corporate responsibility report.
As you do so, try to determine some common themes. Is the company all about community engagement, or is it more focused on attracting top talent? Does it work with a broad cross-section of nonprofit groups, or is its giving more targeted? Suss out what its teams appear to value, and come prepared with some ideas about how your group can contribute.
4. Form relationships across the company
When you interact with your corporate partners, do you always speak with the same person or the same team? If so, you may consider diversifying your approach. "Your doorway to your corporate partners should not only be through the public affairs or community affairs team," Moore said.
Get to know people in the human resources group to better understand the company's needs, and connect with the corporate communications team for help in getting the word out about your organization, she suggested. "Our corporate communications team is constantly available to help advance the positioning of our partners—whether it’s Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft, or one of our nonprofit partners," she explained. "Those nonprofits are just as important. They’re a key part of our business."
In the interest of saving time and resources, try to set up a meeting with a corporate partner’s public affairs team, communications team and HR team—all at the same time—to discuss your priorities. Be clear about what you're looking for and the value-add for the company, and make yourself available to discuss.
5. Treat donors as people, not paychecks
"People should feel like more than a checkbook," said Shaleiah Fox, associate director of external relations for the University of Texas at Austin, who cultivates support for the school's Black Studies Department. "It’s important to listen to the donor—not only because they’re giving, but also to better understand what’s important to them, so [your] work can better reflect those priorities."
Beyond that, simple pleasantries go a long way in helping donors feel appreciated and cultivating a relationship that feels reciprocal—not extractive. "Say 'thank you'—right away and as often as possible," Fox advised. "We tend to think it’s implied, but really we can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to the people who support our work."
6. Don't forget donor-advised funds
"Understand that your donors might have access to donor-advised funds," said Brandon O’Neill, VP of charitable planning for Fidelity Charitable. Through donor-advised funds, donors can make a lump contribution, receive an immediate tax benefit, and recommend grants from the fund over time. These funds also allow donors to gift non-traditional assets—including stocks, stakes in S or C Corporations, and even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin—and they're becoming more popular each year.
As America’s largest donor-advised fund provider, Fidelity Charitable has $26 billion in its giving accounts as a ready reserve for philanthropy. It gave out more than a million checks to nonprofit organizations last year—totaling $4.5 billion, or more than $18 million every day.
Along with individuals and families, businesses can also open donor-advised funds for their corporate giving. To help nonprofits engage with them, Fidelity Charitable came together with Charles Schwab, Bank of New York Mellon and the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to create the DAF Direct widget—which organizations can embed on their websites to create a fundraising ask for donor-advised funds. "Make sure you bring up the option—rather than just thinking about checks or securities," O'Neill advised.
Image courtesy of Social Solutions
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.