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Are you a nonprofit that wants to deliver an impactful project but doesn’t have the means to do so?
Do you maybe work at a company that wants to do more good locally but doesn't have the know-how or the understanding of the local landscape to do so?
You’re at the right place. This article will seek to demystify nonprofit-corporate partnerships and offer practical insights for how to make them work.
What’s the context?
The last decade has seen a rapid evolution in purpose-driven leadership and social impact initiatives. Nonprofit organizations are no longer bearing the brunt of driving social and environmental change alone.
Collectively, we have started to move past dull corporate philanthropy towards more collaborative and integrated projects around impact, sustainability, change, and more.
Furthermore, the idea that corporations need to give back is quickly becoming the norm.
In response, businesses of all sizes and across all industries have scaled up their CSR initiatives and started partnering with communities and nonprofit organizations alike.
The most progressive of them are focusing on the triple bottom line and generating shared value. This trend is good news for the whole world, and this includes nonprofit organizations.
Nonprofit-corporate partnerships have many benefits. Not only do they generate a lot of shared value for society at large, but they benefit both nonprofits and corporations that engage in them.
How do nonprofit-corporate partnerships work?
When we hear the words “corporate partnership” or “corporate sponsorship”, many of us might think of big banners with corporate logos in the background of charity runs. In reality, corporations and nonprofits can partner in many other ways.
At their core, corporate-nonprofit partnerships are a way for corporations and nonprofits to align themselves in order to further a specific mission or support a cause. In such a partnership, there are naturally gives and takes for both sides. For example, the nonprofit organization might offer the know-how and promotion, whereas the corporation usually provides financial donations or support.
Corporates and nonprofits can partner in many different ways, for example on campaigns and programs, via in-kind gifts, pro-bono support, or employee volunteering. Corporates can also sponsor specific events or campaigns or be part of a matching gifts program. The options are plenty!
Benefits of working with corporates
More operating funds
All nonprofits need funding. Without funding, there are no activities or programs. And without activities and programs, there’s no impact.
By partnering with corporations, nonprofit organizations get access to more funding, enabling them to deliver programs and potentially invest in growth (e.g. capital projects which might otherwise be difficult to fund).
Enhanced brand image
Sometimes, for a nonprofit, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Working with a corporate partner can help expose your nonprofit to people who would have never crossed your path otherwise, increasing your reach and enhancing your brand image.
Partnering with a corporation makes for a great opportunity to share your story and highlight your impact programs. Corporate partners have the reach and PR teams to help grow awareness for your cause and your organization.
Aligning with an established corporate brand lends additional credibility to your organization and your programs and activities.
However, the opposite is also true. When you align with a company that has a questionable brand reputation or has values that don’t match yours, this can reflect poorly on your organization.
For example, the 2010 partnership between KFC and Komen for the Cure (a breast cancer foundation) received a lot of criticism.
The campaign’s mission was to reach women in the US in areas that were likely not to have had access to quality information about breast cancer. Many criticized the campaign for promoting unhealthy fast food with a cause such as cancer awareness.
Benefits for corporations
“Global executives attribute 63% of their company’s market value to their company’s overall reputation.” (Weber Shandwick And KRC Research’s 2020 State Of Corporate Reputation)
“Ethical drivers (76%) are 3x more important to company trust than competence (24%).” (Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer)
Nonprofits have a lot to offer to for-profit businesses. Although it sometimes doesn’t seem this way, it’s important to remember this. You’re entering a mutually beneficial partnership, you’re not asking for charity. You’re on equal grounds here.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Modern consumers are demanding more transparent and ethical products and services, and in response more and more businesses are creating corporate social responsibility policies.
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a policy that businesses can put in place to decrease the social, financial, and environmental effects of “traditional” operations.
So, by partnering with nonprofits, businesses can become more responsible stewards of their resources and appeal to the modern consumer.
Increase in sales
“Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Gen Zers favor purpose driven brands when making purchase decisions.” (Cone Communications Gen Z Purpose Study 2019)
While more and more companies care about their impact on the environment, companies are ultimately profit-oriented.
Luckily, partnering with nonprofits can lead to an increase in sales and improvement in return customers. Again, this is because modern consumers prefer socially responsible businesses.
By working with a nonprofit, a business can stand out i na competitive market and reach a wider audience, including some more elusive customers.
Like modern consumers, modern employees increasingly seek to work for socially and environmentally-responsible companies and increasingly prioritize work that feels meaningful.
If a business engages in projects that somehow benefit the world, they’re more likely to attract and retain talent.
Many employees feel disengaged and disconnected from their work, so working in a socially responsible environment or volunteering can give them a sense of meaning. This, in turn, decreases turnover, increases productivity and loyalty, and builds a healthier company culture.
To build mutually beneficial and long-lasting partnerships, here are some tips to take into consideration as a nonprofit organization entering into a partnership with a corporation:
How to Reach Out
This could be an article of its own (and it will be!), so we share just the basics here:
If you’re a small or medium-sized nonprofit, start by looking for small and medium-sized businesses in your area. Do a quick Google or LinkedIn search for businesses in your area and find contacts (Human Resources, Employee Relations, or Community Engagement titles may be your best bet).
Research the economic trends in your city, state, or country. This can inform which business you choose to reach out. For example, you might want to pay attention to major layoffs or store closures. These indicate that the business is probably not the right fit.
Look for companies that are growing: launching new products, expanding their operations, hiring new employees, etc. Also look at their history of giving.
Which businesses have given to similar causes in the past?
Which businesses do you share values with?
Once you have a prospect list, make sure you’re clear about the value that you offer. Remember, this is a mutually beneficial partnership. And the value you identify and choose to communicate should be informed by the pain points of the business you’re approaching. Or in other words, you’re not going to send the same pitch to every prospect. Identify the pain points of a specific prospect, and then develop a partnership proposal that responds to those pain points.
Accelerist suggests that while many companies have different needs and goals, most of their pain points can be described in five groups:
- Brand Reputation
- Employee Engagement
- Customer Engagement
- Societal Solutions
- ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) Goals.
10 tips for better nonprofit-corporate partnerships
1. Understand the company you’re partnering with
If you want to build a successful nonprofit-corporate partnership, you need to start right at the beginning, before there’s even a partnership to build.
The first step is selecting corporations that have values and mission aligned to your own.
For example, if you’re an environmental nonprofit, it doesn’t make much sense to partner with a company that produces drinks packaged in plastic bottles. But partnering with a producer of reusable bags committed to protecting ecosystems is a different story.
As briefly mentioned earlier, in addition to choosing a company whose mission is closely aligned to your own, it’s important to take the time to understand the company’s pain points. What are the main business challenges they’re facing? When you understand this, you’ll have a good starting point for developing solutions that are going to benefit everyone involved.
2. Set clear expectations and ground rules
When you agree to enter a partnership with a company, it’s essential to set clear expectations and ground rules right from the get go.
This will ensure clarity, ownership from both sides, and make the partnership stronger over time. It will also reduce the chances of conflict arising out of confusion or lack of communication.
- Set goals and identify milestones together. Goals help keep you on track, they rally teams together, and they also help with effectively communicating internally and externally.
- Make sure you identify Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) you’re going to track together.
- Agree on reporting methods and reporting frequency.
- Ensure everyone knows how decisions will be made and who is responsible for what.
- Establish processes for communicating with your partner and all relevant stakeholders.
To do all of this, you can organize a partner kick-off call or meeting.
Throughout the process, be sure to communicate clearly about your nonprofit’s vision and goals as well. Furthermore, make it clear to your corporate partner how their time, talents, and donations will make a difference for your beneficiaries and problems you’re trying to solve.
Pro tip: Spell out all of this – preferably in a contract.
3. Identify the partnership theme
Why should anyone care about your campaign?
Ask yourself this question before starting to promote your partnership.
This might sound like a harsh approach, but if you don’t develop a project/campaign that adds real value or solves a real problem, you will be shouting into the void.
The project should be relevant, and this relevance should be discussed in the very beginning, before any planning is made.
Even if you have done so, once you get to the communications plan take some time to explore if there are conversations already happening that relate to your campaign. Is there something in the current socio-economic or cultural context that could inform the theme or focus of your project?
Traditionally, nonprofits used to approach corporate sponsors with a simplistic approach to sponsorship (“X dollars will get you a logo here and here”).
While this approach might still work for some industries and some nonprofit, many have moved on. Most corporations now look to highlight their social impact through powerful and collaborative storytelling.
Pro tip: As is the case with all marketing efforts, try to be as specific as you can about your audience. Identify your audience persona. This will help you craft content that your audience resonates with.
4. Create compelling content.
Once you have selected a theme, get started on developing the materials you’re going to use: infographics, videos, reports, articles, blog posts, social media posts, and more.
While you’re doing this, keep thinking about your audience:
What are the best tools to engage your specific audience?
Make storytelling as easy as possible for partners by giving them information and tools that help tell your story in a compelling way. For example, make sure your partner has access to your brand guidelines, as well as pre-approved assets and content.
5. Communicate frequently and stay flexible
Just like acquiring a donor and are not the same thing, finding a partnership and maintaining one are not the same thing.
Make sure to schedule frequent check-ins or events where you can touch base with your corporate partner.
Like a garden, your partnership requires tending to be fruitful. Keep the dialogue open and don’t shy away from bringing up issues or concerns. This will ensure better outcomes in the long run.
You can also use online tools like Slack for communication or Asana for project management to make collaboration smoother.
Discuss concerns and celebrate successes – and everything will flow that much more smoothly!
Pro tip: Stay attentive to details. For example, you might send handwritten thank you letters or surprise your partner with a public thank you. These are great for cultivating relationships with corporate sponsors, and the cost is minimal.
6. Share stories and ignite conversations.
If you’re truly looking to move beyond “a company pays you a sum of money in exchange for their logo on your website”, it’s vital that you ignite relevant real-time conversations with your communities.
Furthermore, many corporations in today's world don't just want to support your mission once, they want to create long-lasting and tangible change alongside you for years to come. Stellar stewardship can deepen your relationship with your partners, and help build trust in your area of expertise that in turn translates to positive funds for your mission.
With the advent of social media, it has become easier than ever to share compelling stories with large audiences.
For example, SoulCycle partnered with The Trevor Project to celebrate Pride and shed light on LGBTQ issues. For this, they created a video providing greater audience reach for The Trevor Project’s work, and they also organized a special class pack for Pride Month where 10% of all profit was donated to the nonprofit.
7. Get the teams on board.
For nonprofit-corporate alliances to truly thrive, there has to be an organization-wide adoption on both ends. Both teams need to truly believe in the value of the project for it to really have an impact.
If there are only one or few people involved on either end, it’s harder for the relationship to survive the test of time and turnover. This is why sometimes, when a key individual on either side leaves their role, the partnership suffers or the connection is lost.
Cultivating multiple relationships across the board helps ensure lasting connections.
Stay connected and clear with your partner on how your collaboration truly supports your overall missions.
Pro tip: Check how well the partnership is really embedded into your organization:
- Are your staff and volunteer job descriptions and team project plans aligned with the activities outlined in that plan?
- Do the policies and procedures related to the partnership support a streamlined implementation of your mutual strategy?
- And, are all resource and funding decisions prioritized based on that plan?
8. Utilize many avenues of working together
There are many different ways in which nonprofits and corporations can work together. Explore as many of those avenues as possible, practical, and relevant for your unique circumstances.
Transaction-based promotions are probably the most common form of nonprofit-corporate partnerships. In such an alliance, a corporation donates a specific amount of cash, food, or equipment in direct proportion to sales revenue—often up to some limit—to one or more nonprofits.
However, when you move beyond purely transactional partnerships, you can access a variety of benefits you otherwise wouldn’t.
Here are some ways in which you might want to do so:
If you have volunteer opportunities for the corporation’s employees, this can increase the cooperation between you and the company.
Many times, companies also pay their employees to volunteer, as this can help reinforce soft skills for certain industry workers and creates a good relationship with the local community.
Volunteering programs will not only strengthen your partnership, but it will also allow you access to specific skills you might be lacking on your team.
Pro tip: Only run a volunteering program if you have the capacity to do so. While many nonprofit professionals believe volunteers are always helpful, if an organization doesn’t have the capacity to manage the process, volunteering can be more of a burden to manage than a help.
Corporate matching gifts are a very popular type of corporate giving programs. In essence, through matching gifts programs, companies match donations their employees make to eligible nonprofits.
Look if you can forge partnerships with businesses in this way. Through matching gifts programs, not only will the employees of the business be encouraged to give to your nonprofit but those donations will be doubled, or even tripled!
In-kind donations refer to companies donating equipment, products, or services, instead of financial gifts.
In-kind donations can be very valuable for nonprofits. Think beyond tech gear here. Maybe you can get free web design or marketing consultancy. All of these are things you’d have to pay for, or maybe wouldn’t even have access to!
A grant is typically defined as a financial donation usually awarded to a nonprofit organization by a foundation, corporation, or governmental agency for a distinct program or purpose. Grants can also be awarded to support a person, a project, or a program. Grants are usually given by organizations and institutions as opposed to individuals.
10. Track, measure, and evaluate.
Across the board, data matters.
This is particularly true when it comes to nonprofit-corporate partnerships. Businesses are committed to quantifying their ROI. Nonprofits (hopefully) quantify success using a variety of other KPIs, including impact metrics.
When it comes to nonprofit-corporate partnerships, all of these metrics need to be taken into consideration in order for the partnership to be beneficial for both parties.
This is why setting goals at the beginning of each partnership is critical.
Accelerist recommends to report on several different types of value:
Business Value - the ability to impact a business goal of your partner's.
Financial Value - the ability to demonstrate a tangible return on their investment or a subsidized expense.
Constituent Value - the ability to engage their consumers or employees, and drive greater affinity and loyalty.
Societal Value - the ability to explain how their support directly impacted your mission.
Note: Especially with nonprofit-corporate partnerships, there can be too much of a drive to measure marketing numbers rather than the impact. Ensure there’s a good balance. Additionally, it can be easy to get lost in cumbersome reporting, losing sight of the real life-changing activities that could be done instead. Stay mindful of this!
Over to you
Creating a successful nonprofit-corporate partnership can be challenging, but the effort is worth it.
If you’re considering partnering with a corporation, or you’re in a partnership you’d like to manage smoothly, apply these 10 tips and you’ll be well-equipped to do so.
As Wharton management professor Aline Gatignon said:
“Leaders who can pull together and work across the private, nonprofit and public sector to forge collective solutions will ultimately come out ahead.”
Note that while corporate-nonprofit partnerships can be very valuable, they, like all other fundraising sources should only be a part of an otherwise diverse fundraising strategy that focuses on individual donors.
To help you out with that, GiveForms lets you create a seamless online donation experience for your individual donors. Use GiveForms to embed a donation form on your website, allowing visitors to donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, our goal is to help you increase your online donations.