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4 simple steps to help attract the right corporate partners

By Kate Brierty, Consultant, Hedges

It might sound like the makings of a great nonprofit fairy tale that out in communities right now there is a large group of people actively looking for causes to support and nonprofits to fund. These people are in every town, available across the country, and can even share your story with global audiences.

This isn’t just a nonprofit fantasy but the current reality of Corporate-Nonprofit partnerships in the United States. Having an effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy has been a clear priority for many businesses over the past few decades. Companies have developed volunteer programs, provided resources for community groups, helped sponsor events, provided pro-bono services in their field of expertise, and even given direct financial support.

Recent studies show that corporate participation in this wide range of CSR activities is only growing:

  • The vast majority of corporations are thinking about community impact.
  • Companies are being held accountable for “doing good.”
  • More corporations are becoming funders.
    • Giving by corporations totaled $20.05 billion in 2018, which is an estimated increase of 5.4% over the previous year (Giving USA 2019)

This growing focus on effective CSR strategy has solid logic behind it. Studies over the past decade have shown that a strong CSR program can increase employee engagement, decrease turnover, increase productivity, attract applicants, increase sales, boost company reputation and a lot more. And, lucky for nonprofits, the easiest way for a company to design that strong CSR program is to align itself with an organization already doing amazing work. Corporations seem to have noticed that pursuing a partnership program with a nonprofit makes good business sense.

For nonprofits, this means there is a pool of potential corporate partners looking for the right nonprofit for them. It also means that if you are not currently engaging with these corporations, you are missing a substantial opportunity for partnership that could potentially provide support through provided services, access to resources, financial sponsorship, and whole new audiences to serve as your future volunteers, donors, advocates, board members, or staff.

However, there is a caveat — not all partnerships are created equal and not all of them will lead to that long list of positive results for both parties.

With so much opportunity, it’s important to be discerning and strategic with who and where you choose to engage.

So, how do you engage in ways that maximize benefits and minimize risks for everyone involved? There is no perfect answer but taking these four simple steps at the start can set up for the type of successful partnership that creates a mutually beneficial relationship between your nonprofit and a corporation.

#1: Start with clarity on your brand and purpose

Corporations are looking for nonprofit partners that will be a good fit for their mission, brand’s reputation, and business interests. That means they are going to prioritize aligning themselves with organizations that have already demonstrated a strong value add to the community and have a history of results. In order to show them you are that perfect community partner, start by getting crystal clear about the importance of your work and how amazing you are at doing it.

Make the time to sit down with your team and talk about the concrete things you want to message to partners:

  • What makes your organization such an integral part of your community?
  • How you would describe your mission to potential partners?
  • What companies would also benefit from your vision being reached? How you would describe your work to each of them?

Then consider your own purpose in approaching corporate partnership.

  • Are you looking for volunteers to help expand your program reach? Then you might not be looking for a small startup without employee hours to spare.
  • Are you searching for a partner to sponsor a new pilot program? Then you might be looking for someone with technical expertise to lend their services or someone with the ability to fund big projects.
  • Are you trying to expand your own audience through their employees and customers? Then you’ll probably want to be thoughtful about approaching partners with mutual interests that are more likely to have an audience that is responsive to your message.

There are a lot of amazing things a corporate partnership can do for your organization, but your resources and time are far too important to be spent fully engaging with any partnership offer that comes your way. Get specific about why you are putting your energy into a partnership so everyone on your team can easily say “yes” to the right opportunity and “no” to the wrong fit.

#2: Take time to build the relationship

Once you have message clarity, decide who needs to hear it. Many organizations already have some relationships built with potential partners. Maybe you have a local business that is consistently a table sponsor at your annual gala or your board member’s firm has mentioned how they’re looking for new ways to give next year. That’s great, but don’t jump to the ask just yet.

Building a true partnership with a corporation requires a bit more of a commitment from both sides than an annual donation or a single event sponsorship. Your approach needs to reflect that deeper commitment. Being a strong partner means you are sharing the message of your vision, mission and goals with corporate partners. Let your potential partners know what you’re about, so they can decide if your particular brand and impact works for them right now.

Then ask them to answer similar questions to confirm it’s the right fit:

  • Why is the nonprofit partnership a priority for them?
  • What missions are attractive to them and how are they uniquely positioned to benefit those missions?
  • Get technical and ask about the benefits they want beyond the good feelings. Are they looking for employee engagement opportunities? Are they hoping to strengthen their connection in the local community? Are they looking to invest in an innovative new program that will highlight their name?

You can’t craft a strong partnership (or even choose a strong partner) without both parties openly sharing what motivates them and what goals they have for the relationship. Start here with every potential partner!

#3: Have an idea of what you want, but be open to co-creation

While you should enter into your partnership conversations with an idea of what type of benefits are worthwhile, you should not approach your partners with a rigid list of options and corresponding partnership levels. Partners want this process to feel easy and to feel like you have an idea of where they might fit. Most partners also want to feel like the plan is a co-creation that includes their insights and wishes. There needs to be a balance.  

You and your team should consider your full range of opportunities and specifically name where partnership could be a benefit.

For example, if your program involves providing a lot of community trainings consider how partners could help you expand your reach by: providing free space, sponsoring transportation for participants, volunteering as trainers in their expertise, or holding an employee fundraising campaign to cover participant costs.

This is the time to get creative and consider how partnership could help you pilot new programs, reduce the burden on your staff, or reach entire new audiences. Just be sure all the partnership options you are creating would push you closer to your goals without creating more of a burden than it is worth.

By the time you create a plan with an identified corporation, you should know them well enough to understand what type of work your partner is looking to do and what benefits they are hoping to receive. The proposal you bring them should feel tailored to their expressed desires and needs. Then together you can talk about what appeals to them and make edits or adaptations until the proposal is a perfect fit for both teams.

Important note: Proposal perfection is not possible unless the right people have a voice in the design and decision-making.

  • Is your partner trying to create a workplace-giving option that will increase employee engagement? Then there is definitely a need for employees to help design that experience.
  • Are you looking for partnership that will decrease your program staff’s workload? Someone from the program team should certainly be a part of preparing the plan.

Ensuring you have the diversity of perspectives from these beginning stages will help you craft a much stronger partnership plan that is inclusive of the very people that will be making it all happen.

#4: Know your worth

For any corporate-nonprofit partnership to be successful, there must be mutual benefit. As we already mentioned, nonprofit partnerships and CSR programs can have enormous benefits for corporations. They are not simply doing you a favor. Working with the right partners should feel like you’re doing business together in pursuit of a shared vision.

A few dos and don’ts to help ensure you are building an equal partnership:

  • DO get to know some of the statistics about the benefits of a strong CSR program, and share the relevant ones in your partnership conversation.
    • Are they worried about attracting top talent? Share that Cone research from 2016 found that 58% of all job candidates and 79% of millennial job candidates consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work.
    • Are they trying to increase employee engagement? Let them know in 2019, Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship reported that 95% of companies with volunteer programs report a positive correlation between volunteer participation and employee engagement scores.
  • DON’T be shy about advertising the specific benefits your organization brings to the table.
    • Do you have a large number of community connections in the spaces where their employees live and work?
    • Are you a trustworthy connector for interns or future employees for their corporation?
    • Can you co-create social media content with them that will reach a wide audience?
  • DO ask for the specific benefits you are looking for from a corporate partner and DON’T be afraid to walk away if a partner isn’t a good fit.
    • Never design a partnership plan that won’t help you reach your goals.
    • Always avoid providing benefits that create more work than the benefits you receive in return.

The benefits for true partnerships between corporations and nonprofits are getting stronger every year. Once you find the right partner to work with you, both of your teams can start to see the real impact of those benefits. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s just good business.


Kate Brierty is passionate about asking the right questions to help individuals and groups have conversations and make decisions that will create real impact for the people they serve. In all her work as a consultant at Hedges, she is focused on pursuing meaningful results while keeping people at the center of her work.

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