This article was originally published in May 2017.
It started with an opportunity for funding. A major corporation had issued a callout for charity partners. The charity I worked for appeared to fit the brief nicely. However, as is often the case, you got the feeling that the things which really mattered to the company had been left out of the brief. It was all about the charity. Nothing about what the corporation was trying to achieve through the partnership.
With no opportunity to talk with the decision-makers provided, it felt like I would be ‘flying blind’ if I were to just fill in the expression of interest.
The company did have three existing charity partners, some of which had been in partnership with the organisation for years. I couldn’t speak with the company itself but what about the other charities? With nothing to lose, I picked up the phone and dialled the corporate partnerships person at one of the existing partner charities.
As it turned out, I got lucky. Over the next half an hour, I learned what it was like to partner with this corporation, the partnership inclusions they saw as valuable and some great narratives to include in my application. The lady at the other end of the line saw that there was nothing to be lost by collaborating in this way and wished me good luck.
It would be fantastic to report that we went on to get the deal. We made the shortlist but ultimately another worthy cause was successful in securing the partnership.
In running a post-mortem with my peer who had been so helpful, she commented: “I’m so pleased you called me. Why don’t we collaborate more in this space? We are all trying to make the world a better place.”
Collaborate we did. My peer and I formed the Charity Corporate Partnerships Group – a group of professionals who are involved in fundraising with businesses and who meet quarterly to collaborate, discuss best practice and benchmark our performance. Member charities take turns in hosting, meaning that the events are free to participants.
The peer-to-peer approach meant that we could be completely candid about what worked and what didn’t – no hidden agendas. Just a group of people committed to creating change. It was liberating!
Three years later, the group is going from strength to strength. It has been an incredible privilege to work with my peers in the sector. The lessons that follow comprise just a part of what I have learned along the way:
1. The business case for cause affiliation is incontrovertible
The world has changed. Doing well by doing good is a proven corporate strategy. Customers, employees and other stakeholders expect companies to be active participants in the communities in which they do business.
Identifying the right game plan, however, does not mean that everyone implements it effectively. My peers in the Group often discuss this as a key area where we can add value to the relationships that we develop with businesses and ultimately raise more funds. Perhaps counter-intuitively, partnerships that link to business outcomes will also deliver more to a charity’s mission. They are sustainable relationships where both partners will bring all of their assets to bear and the company commits to focus on a particular issue or mission. The capacity to lead a business on this journey is critical to success in corporate partnership fundraising.
2. Values count
The astute corporations have realised that linking their community activity to the nature of their business pays dividends. It creates a logical association between cause and company, meaning that charitable efforts are perceived as genuine. Perceptions aside, my peers report that there are some companies that bring a genuine desire to create change to the table and others that do not. The good news is that most companies identify the ability to positively impact the charity’s mission as the most important measures of success in partnership (2015 For Momentum Corporate Partner Survey). The challenge is to keep companies engaged with this objective and provide ongoing evidence of achievement.
3. Time is money
My peers often lament the fact that there are a lot of bad corporate fundraising opportunities out there. Every week they receive dozens of phone calls from businesses wanting to work with them. The sad truth is that the majority of these proposed partnerships will add little value. We often talk about success being determined as much by what you say no to as what you say yes to.
Lead times for development of cause partnerships are also considerable. Initiating a corporate fundraising strategy requires a charity to take a long-term view. My colleagues identify that it can take up to 18 months to secure a major deal (in some cases even longer) with a corporate partner.
Equally, our counterparts at prospective partner companies are time poor. Cause-affiliation is a small component of a much broader business strategy. Effective corporate partnerships professionals solve challenges for their counterparts – helping them to efficiently deliver outcomes. A great example of this is one of my peers who provides information kits and promotional materials to their corporate partner’s frontline retail staff so sales people can deliver fundraising campaigns in stores.
4. Introspection is key to success
Corporate partnerships are not a viable fundraising revenue stream for every charity. I have seen a lot of my peers struggle to establish a corporate fundraising stream for their charities. Not-for-profit boards often covet the diversification benefits that corporate partnerships might add to their fundraising revenue without understanding the organisational commitment involved.
I am amazed by how few charities are actually in a position to articulate their specific mission-related activities that require funding. A strategic partner will want to know how its money was spent and the outcomes that it helped to support. It takes your whole team to deliver that answer – from the people delivering the program to the finance team that is tracking the expenditures.
5. Don’t be selfish
Charities are in the business of compassion. You need to bring that empathy to the negotiating table. At our Group meetings we discuss partnerships with literally hundreds of businesses that are held by dozens of charities. Each of those partnerships has unique objectives, leverage points and styles of interacting. Cause partnership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The charities that are securing more consideration are listening to their partners and delivering on the objectives they identify. They are also supporting companies to own and celebrate their achievements as they attempt to make the world a better place together.
About the Charity Corporate Partnerships Group
The Group is made up of nonprofit professionals from more than 50 participating charities that work in developing, growing and engaging with corporates to build a substantial revenue stream to fund vital services.
Members are dedicated to supporting each other to develop and grow their professional standing as well as helping to build organisational potential with corporate partnerships. To get involved in this group, reach out at linkedin.com/groups/6612210.
Steve Matthews is currently an Account Executive at Salesforce.org. He was previously the National Corporate Partnerships & Philanthropy Manager for Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia.