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Developing Effective Nonprofit – Corporate Relationships

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by Mary Deacon

Deacon 150x226The world is facing challenging economic conditions.  Charities are proliferating to meet the needs created by less funding from governments and traditional philanthropic sources and are faced with more competition for seemingly fewer resources.  Traditional sources for philanthropy are still giving but all are demanding more from the charities they choose to support.  And corporations, one of the “go- to” sources for philanthropic support are giving less and expecting more from their community investments. How can charities maximize their potential for success given these challenges?

Having worked in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors I have perspective from both sides of the fence – as a fundraiser for over 25 years and now as the Chair of Bell’s mental health initiative – a unprecedented corporate investment in Canada’s $50 M investment in mental health.

While many charities seek and are successful in securing philanthropic support from corporations, most, at best, have a small handful of significant seven figure (plus) gifts.  Securing these gifts require a commitment on the part of the charity to build and sustain multi-layered, multi-dimensional and long-term partnerships.  While these partnerships are envied and sought after, they are few and far between, and require a commitment by the charity to embrace and excel at a number of fundamental practices.

Relationships 

Relationships are at the core of successful corporate partnerships and this means that the charity must invest in understanding the reasons companies give and what their needs are. This can be challenging at times because the nonprofit and corporate worlds are very different.  If a charity wishes to secure corporate partnerships, it is incumbent upon the charity to understand their potential corporate partners and go more than meet them half-way.

Charities need to be business-like in order to successfully partner with business. Nonprofit organizations are powered by passionate people doing important work with dedication and single-minded purpose.   Quite often, people who work in nonprofits have done so all their working lives and therefore may not be familiar with the workings of other types of enterprises.  Similarly, people employed in corporations may have little exposure to the nonprofit world other than as a volunteer. This can create a classic scenario where two parties “just don’t understand each other;” a situation that leads to relationship break-down and with it the failed prospect of funding.

Speed, quality, flexibility and excellent customer service

Understanding why companies give illuminates the road to success. Traditional “cheque book” philanthropy has, for many companies, been replaced by strategic partnerships that do good in the community while also helping the company to do well.

Companies give to build strong and healthy communities. This is good for business. But, companies also (and importantly) give to reinforce their brand and reputation; to differentiate themselves in a competitive market place; to build positive relationships with clients and customers; and to help recruit and retain employees.  At various points in the relationship and over time, the order of priority of these objectives and needs can change.

Outcomes and measurement

In choosing charities in which to invest and partner, corporations look for organizations with excellent reputations and sound financial management as a baseline.  Potential partners also need to:

  • be organized and strategic to deliver high quality work on time
  • understand the importance of, and then actually deliver, benefits to the company
  • be very rigorous in measuring results and impact

Businesses use numbers and data every day to measure progress and results and are very good at uncovering weak, exaggerated and/or unsubstantiated numbers.   Charities will benefit greatly from following suit, tracking performance and returns on investment, be it in number of clients served, patients treated, etc.

Communications and public relations 

For my own nonprofit experience I know that resources are always scarce and often result in available dollars being invested in fundraising staff (sometimes at the expense of communications and public relations capabilities).  Resource allocation will always be a challenge but it is important to understand that if strategic corporate partnerships are one of your priorities for fund development, communications and public relations expertise must be on hand, and of high quality.

Corporations are efficient in executing plans and usually have well-honed sophisticated capabilities in these areas. Making the gift decision is only the beginning of the relationship in a sophisticated multi- dimensional partnership. Much of the ongoing work is in the form of leveraging press conferences, recognition opportunities, meaningful engagement opportunities and much more.  Missteps in these areas can create ongoing points of frustration and friction for your corporate partner.

Ultimately, success depends on the charity understanding and respecting the needs of the corporate partner.  This may sound one-sided but really, with few exceptions, the pool of potential partners for corporations to support is much wider and deeper than the pool of potential corporate partners for a particular charity or charity project.

Charities need to be: organized and strategic, efficient in their communications, able to embrace the pace and quality expected by a corporation and willing to invest in, and value, the public relations needs and expectations of the corporation. When objectives align, when expectations on both sides are clearly defined and when there are clear measurement plans, a strong relationship between the parties can form and impactful things can happen for the greater good.

Mary Deacon is Chair of the Bell Mental Health Initiative. The Bell Mental Health Initiative is a $50 million commitment that encourages Canadians to be part of the conversation about mental health, while supporting practical projects in the community and workplace leadership.  It is the largest corporate commitment to mental health in Canadian history. Mary holds a BA and is a Certified Fund Raising Executive. Contact her at mary.deacon@bell.ca.