The Secret to Landing Corporate DonationsJanuary 14, 2014 by Wes Eichenwald
Although corporate donations account for only a fraction of what most nonprofits receive each year—they made up 5 percent of all donations in the U.S. in 2011, or approximately $14.5 billion—securing corporate donors has significant non-monetary benefits. The publicity afforded by corporate donations can provide much needed exposure to your organization’s mission, which helps ensure a steady flow of individual donations continues to stream in.
Professional fundraisers seeking corporate donations must do much more than hold out a metaphorical collection plate. They must position their organization’s campaign to align with the company’s brand, employees’ interests and community goals to form a mutually beneficial and lasting partnership.
Here, we identify four steps any savvy fundraiser should take to successfully solicit donations from a corporation.
Identify the Company’s Mission and Donation History
Companies are more likely to donate to campaigns that mesh organically with their brand, which means knowing the corporation you’re targeting inside and out is essential.
Familiarize yourself with the organization’s mission, past accomplishments and future goals, and look for any mentions of them in the news. For example, an oil company responsible for a recent offshore spill might want to contribute to preserving wetlands to show consumers they’re working to offset the damage caused.
You should also carefully research the company’s donation history. This can tell you what types of organizations they’ve given to in the past, how much they usually donate, whether they donate to local, national or international organizations and if they participate in employee volunteerism. All of this information is essential to determine if the company is a good fit for your organization’s cause.
“Companies align with certain causes because it just makes sense,” says Rachel Hutchisson, director of corporate citizenship and philanthropy for Blackbaud. “A pharmaceutical company might choose a medical cause to be aligned with, and Anheuser-Busch used to have a very strong alignment with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Every company is different, which is why you really have to do your research [before making a request].”
Focus on Employee Interests and Needs
“Employee focus” is a buzz-worthy phrase among fundraisers. It refers to a type of corporate giving that’s driven by either the immediate needs or interests of a company’s employees, and it can be a highly effective way to solicit donations.
“Engaging the employees of a company in your [charity’s] work is an excellent way to increase that company’s involvement with your organization,” says Leslie Peters, CEO of Elements Partnership, a St. Louis-based consultancy for nonprofits. “It’s a strategy that works very well for nonprofits and their ability to generate financial support from companies.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters, for example, reached out to Hutchisson to tell her that 20 Blackbaud employees were already volunteers, which prompted the company to donate a gift in their honor. “That employee focus is important today, more than ever, because [companies] want to recruit and retain good people, and they do care what your company does,” Hutchisson says.
Kimberly McKinney, CEO of Habitat for Humanity St. Louis, says she stresses the benefits of team building when pitching to major local donors like Anheuser-Busch and Wells Fargo. “We talk a lot about it being very tangible,” she says. “Having associates come out to a Habitat build means that at the end of the day, they’re going to turn around and say ‘I framed that wall,’ or ‘I hung those kitchen cabinets.”
Corporate volunteerism can also increase employee interaction across different departments. “It’s a way for companies to level the playing field,” McKinney says. “There’s hierarchy within the corporation, but once they’re all on the Habitat build site, that all goes away.”
Aligning your nonprofit’s mission with employee interests can also lead to happier, more engaged employees, which encourages companies to invest in—and continue—a partnership with your organization.
The Home Depot Foundation, for example, is the philanthropic branch of The Home Depot. It enlists the help of Home Depot employees to renovate the homes of disabled and elderly military veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion halls and transitional housing for homeless vets. All projects are conducted via partnerships with local community nonprofits.
Joe Wimberley, Southern Division field manager for the Home Depot Foundation, says the focus on helping veterans only gained momentum when company executives were alerted to the fact that over 35,000 Home Depot employees were vets themselves.
The results have been extremely positive. “Our associates taking on this mission has become very personal for them,” he says. “We have seen a lot of great stories come from this, and a lot of camaraderie has emerged around our associates in giving back.”
Leverage the Importance of Community Contributions
According to a recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, 50 percent of all charitable donations over $1 million between 2000 and 2011 were given to organizations within the donor’s home state, and 60 percent were within the same geographic region. Put simply, people tend to give where they live, and corporations are no different.
Local initiatives resonate not only with local customers, but also with employees who live in the area and already participate in its culture. “Most companies are very community-focused and want to contribute, as do their employees,” says Amanda Ponzar, communications director for United Way Worldwide. “It’s just about finding the right project or focus that maximizes the company’s strength and interests.”
“Companies grow up in communities,” elaborates Hutchisson, who points to Blackbaud’s relationship with Communities in Schools (CIS), a charity that focuses on preventing student dropouts in Blackbaud’s home city of Charleston, SC, as an example.
“This relationship is special to us because it encompasses both financial support and skills-based volunteerism,” she says. “CIS has actively sought our employees as skilled volunteers and asks for advice on how to implement programs in their growing organization.”
Wimberley says that volunteering on a community level enables Home Depot employees to connect directly with local nonprofits. The next time they want to volunteer, employees know who to contact, while the nonprofits have a volunteer contact list for future projects. “We view it as a two-way street,” he says, “and phenomenal relationships have been formed as a result.”
The City Garden Montessori School is a public nonprofit charter school credited with helping revitalize a previously declining urban neighborhood in St. Louis, MO. It moved into a newly renovated building last year with the help of state and federal tax credits, a nonprofit community development loan and the cooperation of site developer and design/builder Urban Improvement Co. (UIC), which was already building new houses in the neighborhood.
These forces combined to invest a total of $5.2 million in the renovation, and the opening of City Garden’s new facility has helped revitalize the surrounding area, attracting families for the first time in decades.
“When private and nonprofit entities collaborate, we end up creating great things for our community and having a tremendous impact,” says City Garden’s executive director Christie Huck. “To put St. Louis on the map as a place where people will want to move to, live and work, education is essential to continued community growth. It makes sense for business owners to invest in education.”
Use Shared Goals to Develop Lasting Partnerships
One-time donations are great, but what most nonprofits want is a lasting partnership that will help ensure the continued success of a campaign. In order to accomplish this, the one indispensable skill a fundraiser needs is knowing how to listen to what a corporation wants to accomplish not just now, but in the future, Ponzar says.
“When we approach a company, it’s to talk big-picture about their dreams for the community, for America and for the world, and where we have mutual points of intersection,” she explains. “We don’t want to just come in and talk about money. Our goal is to find alignment with the company’s interests—whether it’s employee engagement, philanthropic and business priorities, foundation focus areas, etc.”
To this end, The United Way has teamed up with Target to improve education, and partnered with Wells Fargo to help educate people about their finances and become more financially stable.
These partnerships are successful because the organization and the corporation are working towards shared goals. Target, a well-known supporter of improving education, has already pledged to give $1 billion to education programs by 2015, and Wells Fargo developed their Hands on Banking program to educate families about financial responsibility.
“These are the kinds of partnerships that work best and capitalize on our strengths,” Ponzar says.
Wimberley agrees. “For [The Home Depot], our goal is to give our associates the opportunity to get out and give back to their community,” he says. “We provide funds to remove barriers that stand in the way of these goals, so when a nonprofit comes to us, we look for that understanding, because it helps us better serve their organization.”