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4 Steps Nonprofits Can Take to Establish a Lasting Business Partnership


Both nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and for-profit businesses (FPBs) have long recognized the mutual benefits of establishing cause marketing partnerships:

  • The nonprofit can advance its mission through association and sponsorship by a recognized business, without investing its own limited resources.
  • The business can raise brand awareness, demonstrate social responsibility and boost customer interest in its products or services. In fact, a 2010 Cone Inc. study cites that 80 percent of Americans are willing to switch brands—of equal quality and nature—if a brand supports a good cause.

Here are four steps to help you establish successful, enduring cause marketing relationships.

1. Assess Your Goals

You should first determine your goals for a partnership, which allows you to determine the type of partnership you should seek. Bruce Burtch, author of “Glowing Your Business,” asks, “Is the organization building a new facility, trying to add a new service, hosting an exhibition or an event, or simply trying to raise money for their organization?”

For instance, Trees for the Future wanted to plant more trees in developing countries. The NPO partnered with Celestial Seasonings in a 2009 cause marketing campaign. For each box of tea sold, Celestial Seasonings sponsored the planting of one tree—ultimately leading to more than one million trees planted. This partnership squarely met the goals of the nonprofit, while simultaneously garnering positive PR and sales for the FPB.

2. Develop a Shortlist of Potential Business Partners

A good place to start looking is existing connections within your organization. Lauren M. Marzo, chief development officer at The Viscardi Center, suggests NPOs with a board take a look at the members’ companies, affiliations and corporate prospects. The Viscardi Center’s current partnership with United Parcel Services of America, Inc. stemmed from a board member’s connection.

Josh King, director of business development at Peacock Virtual, also suggests seeking “solid companies that are visible in the community.” He continues, “A company with a positive public presence can help generate good press by association for the nonprofit.”

Catherine Chapman, CFRE at Fullanthropy, suggests seeking shared or aligned interests. “Look for businesses that have commonalities with the organization. They might have the same values or culture, or they might have a similar target demographic with clients or donors,” she says.

Burtch agrees, “Search for organizations aligned with the mission and philosophy of the nonprofit.” As an example, he suggests, “If you are trying to build a homeless shelter, look for construction companies, architects, etc.”

3. Start Some Conversations

Before soliciting potential partners, do your homework. Learn as much about the company as possible. Research their business goals and challenges, so you can identify their needs. If it’s a fit, Chapman suggests approaching a business by “connecting the dots for them.”

It’s also important to approach the right person within the business. Burtch suggests finding someone—a stakeholder or otherwise—to make a personal introduction. “Try to find a champion—someone who can open the door.”

Once the appropriate person is identified, “Clearly spell out how they will benefit from working with you. Be creative,” Chapman says. “Placing a banner ad on your event’s program or on your website is a meaningless ‘benefit.’ If you present it as a benefit, you’ll lose credibility with the prospective company.”

Instead, Chapman says, “If you’re considering a high-end car dealer, indicate that you have ‘this many donors with this level of income and education.’”

4. Initiate and Nurture the Relationship

Like any relationship, a NPO/FPB partnership requires time and nourishment to flourish. “Courting a business can take time,” Marzo says. “While it is a business, you are cultivating a personal relationship.”

Burtch says, “The most successful cross-sector partnerships and cause marketing campaigns do not hit their stride until the second or third year.”

In the meantime, nurturing that relationship is the key to ensuring longevity. Nathalie Sloane, development director of Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, emphasizes the value in keeping a business actively involved in an NPO’s efforts “so they can have a hands-on approach on what happens day to day.”

Burtch agrees that active engagement is key to maintaining mutual interest and engagement. “The employees of the for-profit should work hands-on in the development of any program or projects. This personal touch goes a long way in solidifying a good relationship.”

Demonstrating a return on investment (ROI) is also important. Chapman says, “Track as many benefits to the company you can—so you can prove a strong ROI.”

And communicate those benefits—regularly. In fact, Burtch suggests having a “point person” on both sides of the partnership in charge of managing communications. “Constant, clear, open, and honest communication is critical, he says.”

Establishing a lasting partnership saves a nonprofit a significant amount of time and energy. Rather than seeking assistance each time an organization has a particular need—whether that be sponsorship, visibility, volunteers or other things, a nonprofit can develop a relationship that satisfies its needs on an ongoing basis while also helping for-profits.

Do you have experience building relationships between nonprofit and for-profit organizations? What recommendations do you have for other nonprofits seeking a lasting business partner? Feel free to leave your suggestions below.

Thumbnail courtesy of thetaxhaven.

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Ashley Halligan

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Ashley Halligan is a contributor to Software Advice.

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