How Nonprofit Leaders Can Strengthen Bonds with Corporate Donors

Corporations used to donate to nonprofits primarily to build positive PR in the community. Some occasionally wielded their influence on community issues: At a local hearing on the construction of a factory, for example, a company might have provided a chapter-and-verse recitation of the community groups it supported. Yet, for the most part, companies stayed in the background when it came to the work of the organizations their money supported.

Nonprofit leaders need to strengthen bonds with corporate donors.Companies now want a much more active role in the organizations and causes they support. They seek organizations whose work directly influences the work of their enterprise, which has important ramifications for nonprofits. Just as corporations have become more selective in supporting causes and groups that align with theirs, nonprofits must now be more strategic about where to look for funding — and creative in making their case for corporate support.

Seeking synergy

One of the strongest examples of the new approach to corporate partnerships has emerged from technology-oriented companies. Such firms depend heavily on a steady stream of well-educated job candidates and often bemoan the lack of them in the communities and states where they operate.

Savvy companies have joined forces with educational organizations, both public and private, providing funding for school programs that equip youngsters with stronger STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills, for example.

Corporations have also funded programs of study at community and four-year colleges — and even at the graduate level. What’s more, forward-thinking companies will always provide a host of job-internship programs. Today’s intern or co-op student will be tomorrow’s job candidate.

Other philosophical linkages are possible. An organization that operates early-childhood programs, for example, might find an eager corporate partner in a company that makes gear for infants and children: clothing, car seats, strollers and so on. Likewise, a group that works to battle prostate cancer might seek support from companies that make men’s sportswear.

The best partnerships go beyond financial support. For instance, an entire line of Hanes socks and women’s underwear has the signature pink ribbon of the Susan G. Komen organization, which fights breast cancer. With Hanes and its numerous other corporate partners the Komen organization also sponsors a full range of events to promote cancer awareness, research and healthy lifestyles.

A consumer trend

A growing contingent of today’s consumers want to buy from companies that engage in ethical business practices and overtly support programs that will make the world a better place to live. Accordingly, many companies actively seek nonprofit partners for cause-related marketing programs. In fact, it has become unusual to go into a retail store and not encounter a poster for a cause supported by that store or one of its suppliers.

Such partnerships are not risk-free, however. For starters, these initiatives will require your staff’s time and energy and there’s always the risk that they’ll fail to catch on. In addition, any controversial activity your corporate sponsor might undertake later on can affect your organization as well.

Look beyond the money

Corporations aren’t just cash cows for nonprofits. Ideally, they can supply a host of other forms of support for your group. For instance, many corporations encourage employees to volunteer for the organizations they support financially. Corporations also can supply cadres of volunteers to work on special projects, such as constructing a Habitat for Humanity house or repainting an Audubon learning center.

Although shirtsleeves assistance is great, it need not stop there. Corporate volunteers can provide assistance of a higher level as well, advising your organization on accounting issues, for example, or helping your marketing team build a better website.

A model for success

The pay-for-success model is a recent development in service delivery by nonprofits. Contracted service delivery is not new but in contrast to delivering a volume of service, pay-for-success seeks an agreed-upon result. Traditionally, state and municipal governments have launched these initiatives, but recently private donors and corporate sponsors have joined in.

For example, Bank of America recently joined forces with the state of New York and Social Finance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, on a program for 2,000 ex-inmates from in the state. The $13.5 million program helps these people re-enter the work force.

Such programs benefit nonprofits by providing an infusion of capital that enables them to accomplish their mission of serving people. They also can provide struggling nonprofits with a well-needed boost: With the accomplishments of these programs under their belts, these groups develop the skills, knowhow and confidence to tackle similar projects of a larger scale.

One drawback is that pay-for-success grants often do little to address an organization’s infrastructure needs. These might include direly needed building improvements and adoption of new technology.

The solution? Be bold, and make these important needs part of your nonprofit organization’s next grant request. If you’ve been successful at the work you’ve been paid to do by the corporation, you should be able to make the case that such improvements are vital to future service delivery.


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