Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Ebony R. Lincoln, a 15-year corporate communications and philanthropy veteran who has worked on the teams deciding on and directing corporate philanthropy with major corporations, including State Farm, Ameren and Lundbeck Pharmaceuticals. Ebony had some tips on building strong relationships with your corporate donors and we added some of our own.
Remember that corporate giving is driven by relationships… the same as any giving relationship. Too often, we hear the misperception that corporate giving is simply a well in which the not-for profit world needs to dip a bucket. (For more on a creating a balanced portfolio, check out this post by my colleague, Laura.)
1) Make it make sense!
Get to know the company by reading its website, annual report and press releases. Ask yourself; “Does my organization align with the company’s values, mission and giving objectives?” You must know the answer to this question before seeking to establish a partnership. Corporate donors are looking to connect with organizations that can relate to their services or products. For example, it makes sense for a science-based company to partner with an organization delivering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs that work to support teachers and students. Once you know the company and understand their philanthropy objectives, guidelines and criteria present initiatives or programs (new or existing) that connect with the company. If it doesn’t fit or make sense, don’t force it.
Then go beyond to ask: what problems or challenges does this company have that we could help solve? A company that requires a strong, entry-level workforce who is drug and alcohol-free may seek out investment in an organization that provides prevention or treatment programs. A corporation facing increasing health care costs, or absenteeism due to health problems in their workforce gets returned value when supporting an organization tackling research and treatment, or focusing on building health and wellness in the community.
2) Develop an authentic relationship resulting in a true partnership.
Checkbook philanthropy generally only works for the short-term. While this approach will support your bottom line, it creates a situation that allows the company to walk away whenever times get hard. Go beyond the funding application and the company’s financial support: giving motivation is part of the equation but not the whole thing. Go deep to uncover the values of the company and help to fulfill them. Anchoring your relationship in their values makes your organization a partner at their corporate table.
If a company is passionate about being green or service-learning, determine if your organization can align to those topics and then make it your mission to infuse that into your partnership with them, and report back to them through your stewardship. When you seek to connect with the company on a deeper level, you are telling the company that it is important enough for you to make an investment that supports the relationship and understand what values matter most to them.
3) Provide meaningful opportunities that allow all levels of the company to be actively engaged and long term fixtures with in your organization.
Yes, employee engagement may feel like the “hot, new topic”, but it, too, has long been fundamental to strong corporate relationships. Not only do opportunities for employee engagement raise morale, it enables you and your corporate donors to leverage all the assets they have available. Meaningful opportunities can range from having someone at the company serve (not just “sit”) on your board, or speak at a career day or awareness event at your organization. Short on marketing expertise or resources? Tap into the corporate marketing department. Need human resources expertise for an on-going project or short-term advice? Get to know a corporate partner’s professionals. Need some laptops and networking expertise to ease registration and check out at your gala? Ask for help from the IT department of a corporate sponsor. Look for ways to get as many employees as possible from every level of the company (not just executives) more involved and invested in the work of your organization. Your goal is to create true champions of your organization who live within the company. These champions can play a key role when it’s time for the company to make a decision about continuing funding to your organization.
4) Build for mutual success and be accountable.
Non-profits can ensure success by developing multi-year initiatives that are mutually beneficial in partnership with the company. Approach your relationship from a long-term perspective and know what your non-negotiables are. Make the partnership easy for the company by doing the “heavy lifting” for the company, whenever possible. For example, if the company is involved in your organization’s mentoring program, take the responsibility for managing the match process and report on the success and impact in a way that can easily be communicated throughout the company. Most importantly, be accountable to your corporate partners in when things go well and when things go awry. By being willing to have an open, frank and candid relationship with the company – talking about how a program has succeeded, how things have gone differently than anticipated, and what the organization is doing to “fail forward” – you build TRUST. Every company is intimately familiar with “productive failures” and may prove to be a valued partner in helping solve your challenges. And, of course, provide timely reports on progress as you promise… under-promise and over-deliver.
5) Drive exposure and recognition.
Companies don’t want to be seen as self-serving but they do want a return on investment. PR from non-profits gets picked up quicker than PR from corporations. Look for ways to recognize and acknowledge corporate contributions, initiatives and partnership success regularly. For example, develop a PR plan when a new, significant program is created with a corporate partner or when a company participates in your organization’s major programs or awareness events. (Not sure how to do this well? Ask for their help and expertise in building the right PR campaign that meets everyone’s needs!) Your goal is to demonstrate and promote your partner’s outstanding corporate citizenship, whenever possible.