By Sachin Shenolikar
Once upon a time, it was common for non-profit organizations to be run by a couple of people with an extreme passion for a cause. They would be grassroots efforts — family and friends were often recruited to help out. Corporations would be approached for financial support but not much else. While the mission had a lot of heart, there often wasn’t a strong game plan in place that could lead to massive success.
Things are vastly different today. As the nature of business has transformed over the past decade, it has impacted the way non-profits are run. Many — even small ones — are complex, structured, and hyper-organized. The mentality of for-profit corporations has shifted as well. They have realized that social responsibility is not just about throwing money at causes. Being engaged in those causes is an important factor in the success of their business.
Simply put, non-profits and corporations have become intertwined in the ways they operate. Real Business spoke with leaders from both sides to learn more about how they work together.
Starting on the Right Note
A successful partnership begins with non-profit leaders understanding the areas of interest of the corporations they want to partner with — and being sure that their mission lines up.
“Partnership is the key word,” says Sue Dishart, vice president for marketing and development at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“We always look to identify companies that share our goals and values. It’s such a value to our non-profit when a company can share their intellectual capital, volunteer time, or make donations. We also want to be sure we can offer opportunities to meet some of their needs too, whether it’s education of our mission or employee engagement.”
Keeping the initiatives of the partnership broad and deep is crucial, adds Jason Shaplen, the CEO of Inspirica, a non-profit that provides services for homeless people in Connecticut. “We look for a relationship where [corporations] are engaged with us across multiple platforms: volunteering, board participation, financial support, serving as our ambassadors, and spreading the word about our work,” he says.
Of course, money is a major part of the relationship for both sides. For the non-profit, consistent sources of funding help it accomplish ambitious initiatives (not to mention stay in business). For corporations, tough economic times have meant dwindling budgets, resulting in them being choosier about where they donate.
So, when should a non-profit organization ask a corporation for funding? “It depends on the relationship,” says Mark Conlin, vice president of Corporate Citizenship at Xerox. “If it’s a not-for-profit that we’ve invested in for a while, have seen good results from the work they do, and are familiar with the leaders of the organization, then the [early] conversation around money is fine.”
Shaplen recommends waiting for a while before asking. “It’s not like we see [a company] and say, ‘Look, there’s a little ATM!’” he says. “That’s a huge mistake. Support can come in many forms.”
“The thing to do is build an authentic relationship that’s no different than you’d do in business with your customer, with your staff, with the people who report to you.”
When it comes to making the funding request, Conlin recommends keeping it short and to the point. “Be specific in what you’re looking for, be specific in the types of results that you believe these funds can generate, and then give an idea of what [amount] you’re looking for,” he says. “Everyone has to put a proposal in at some point in the process.”
Corporations should also be clear about what they’d like to get out of the partnership. “Are you looking for team building? Are you looking for [improving employees’] leadership skills?” says Shaplen. “We can fit in almost any of the non-financial things that they’re trying to get from the volunteer activity.”
An ‘All-For-One’ Mindset
Conlin is seeing first-hand how the modern business climate is changing the groups he works with.
Not-for-profits have become more sophisticated in how they run their organizations,” he says. “They realize that they need to run it like a business with measurable results.”
Shaplen agrees. “These two worlds are merging completely,” he says. “Corporations are learning that social responsibility is not just vital to their reputation —it’s vital to their growth and attracting [customers]. And we have a bottom line that is absolutely measurable. We think of ourselves as a business that happens to be in social services.”
In today’s fast-paced business world, time is precious and manpower is at a premium, so both corporations and non-profits must recognize the importance of planning, maximizing resources, and aligning on shared goals.
“If the connection is a struggle on either side, it will be a distraction,” adds Dishart. “It’s beautiful when it works and everyone can celebrate the collaboration and success.”
(This article was published on Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision-makers in business and government.)