Nonprofit chief executives and executive directors know the situation all too well: A board member says it is a great idea for you to contact a major corporation or professional sports team for support. You are reminded about how much money these potential partners make, how it is important for them to look good in the public eye, and how they will definitely support your organization given the impact you are having. The board member may even suggest a certain player who might want to get involved with your charity.
What to do?
First, thank the board member for the suggestion, but caution that thousands of organizations probably contact these big targets for support and it might not be as easy as it seems. You also ask them if they or anyone they know has a high-level contact within the organization or if they know that player or their agent personally. Before contacting any prospective partner, it is critical to set expectations and understand the competitive landscape. A common mistake is taking on an "entitlement" mindset—we deserve support, our mission is worthy—that leads you to look at the prospective partner through your eyes only and makes your partnership development plans destined for failure. To be successful, you should take on a "value-added" mindset.
What is a value-added mindset?
A value-added mindset acknowledges the following:
1. Prospective partners have limited resources to provide to charitable organizations annually and choose carefully.
2. A large number of organizations request support from partners each year, so they say “no” a lot more than they say “yes.”
3. You need them much more than they need you.
4. Most high-profile companies want to be good corporate citizens, but they are risk-averse and don't want to affiliate with the wrong charitable partners.
So how do you succeed?
The best way is to understand how you can deliver real value to the partner and to ask for things that are easy for them to provide (spoiler alert: it is not money). This value can be manifested in several ways.
First, you can deliver a product or service or access to a specific demographic that these partners can't access effectively on their own.
Second, you can deliver content—pictures, stories, transformational impact—with which they would like to be associated. These partners all have multiple social media and other platforms and they need fresh content to keep these channels relevant. When you ask for their support and engagement on social media, you are asking for something that doesn't impact their charitable budget, making it easier for them to say “yes.”
What else do you need to be successful?
Beyond a promise to deliver an audience or service that the partner can't deliver on their own and beyond the fresh content you will bring, what else is needed to succeed with a prospective partner? You will need at least these two things:
1. Alignment between the impact your organization is making on its clients and the giving priorities of the prospective partner. If their giving focus is centered around equity and inclusion and your organization doesn't have a legitimate impact claim that incorporates equity and inclusion, you should probably not waste your time or theirs.
2. You need to be able to make a case for why the prospective partner should work with you and not another charity in your same space. If there are 10 organizations that do work to reduce food insecurity, why should they choose yours? Do they already work with an organization that has a similar mission? If so, your climb becomes extremely steep.
What to do when you connect with a decision-maker?
You typically get one shot to get in front of the right people. Do everything you can upfront to increase the likelihood of making that meeting worthwhile from their perspective and getting you the information you need to show them that your organization is worthy of their support.
When you do get a call with or, better yet, a meeting (post-Covid) with a decision-maker, be more focused on asking questions and listening than rambling on about your organization and your good works. Yes, you should have an elevator pitch ready about who you are, the impact you are having, and other partners you work with, but use this time to learn about the funder. How do they make funding decisions and what do they value?
Ask these questions
1. Can you describe a successful partnership? The answer to this will give you a sense of either what they desire or what they are worried about. They might say they want a turnkey solution or a chance for their employees to get involved. Regardless of their answer, these themes are themes you will need to underscore in whatever proposal you end up creating for the partner.
2. Are you open to talking about this partnership on social media? Most organizations have social media teams, video production, and editing capabilities. This partner may have a social media audience 100 or 1,000 times bigger than your organization. Don't underestimate the value of awareness building in your ask and also understand that it is easier for companies to give away social media mentions than it is to give away large grants.
3. What kind of financial support do you historically give to new charitable partners? This answer is important and will give you a sense of the typical support range you could ask for in year one of a prospective partnership. If you "need" $50,000 and their typical new grantee receives $5,000 to $10,000, then you will likely get zero if you ask for $50,000. The most important aspect of a new partnership is to get in the door with something. Once you are in the door in year one, there is a chance for you to prove yourself to the funder and to enable the possibility of a bigger ask in year two and beyond.
4. What was it about the organization that made them want to learn more about your work and got you some time on their calendar? Getting a meeting with a team or major corporation is an accomplishment in itself. Maybe they are having trouble reaching a certain target audience that you serve or maybe they saw what you did on social media or with another partner that intrigued them. By getting them to reveal what it was about your charity that sparked their interest, you will discover another important piece of information or theme that could shape a future proposal.
5. Is OK for you to get back to them in two to three weeks with a specific proposal for how you might work together? Express that because you now have a clearer sense of what they are seeking from a charitable partner, you can bring them a proposal that best meets their needs. If they are focusing on employee engagement, then that needs to be front and center in any program you are hoping to achieve with them. You can also bring them a proposal that falls within their comfort level for a new grantee as well as any other information you gather from this first meeting. By asking for permission to come back to them, you demonstrate a listening mentality and maturity about creating value for both sides in the partnership.
Don't ask these questions
Now that we have outlined a few critical questions that you should broach in an initial meeting, what are topics to avoid?
1. When dealing with a professional sports franchise, do not ask for access to a player or another key member of the organization. Teams get surprisingly little access to their players for charitable work that is not connected to a major sponsor. And during the season, this is almost impossible. By steering clear of this topic, you will demonstrate an understanding of their limitations and not give them an easy reason to say "no".
2. Don't ask for them to move quickly. Teams and other partners will want to control the relationship, especially with a new charity partner. While you are still trying to gain their trust, let them set the potential timetable for a year one activation.
How do you define success?
Success in a new partnership is any program or activation that they are excited about and that you can confidently deliver. The program must be on strategy for your charitable organization, but ultimately you just want to get your foot in the door. Even if you are in search of a transformational relationship with this partner, the relationship will likely be more transactional in the first year. That's OK. They are kicking the tires on your organization and you need to gain their trust. Once that is accomplished, other aspects of a deeper relationship become possible.
The most successful partnerships that I've developed took multiple years to get started and three to four years before they became truly transformational. You have to play the long game. Patience in partnership development is key. If you can deliver real value to the partner, then the sky is the limit and the wait will be more than worth it for your organization.
David Rhode is the founder of Dot Dot Org, a nonprofit consulting firm.