I come across a lot of small Christian charities that have never considered the idea of a partnership with a company – mainly because they feel that companies won’t want to have a relationship with a faith-based organisation.
If your charity is strongly evangelical in ethos, it’s true that it will be challenging to find companies with whom you can partner (although not impossible – many Christians run their own small companies). But if your work helps people of all faiths and none, and doesn’t involve proactively sharing the gospel, you should seriously look into corporate partnerships.
I speak from experience. For six years I was a corporate fundraiser for a Christian organisation, and 50% of our total charity income came from companies.
Here are my tips:
TIP 1: Have a clear ethical policy in place at the outset
Are there certain kinds of companies you wouldn’t feel comfortable partnering with, such as tobacco, alcohol or gaming companies or arms manufacturers? Are there certain kinds of fundraising activities that a company might suggest which you would baulk at – for example a sweepstakes event, raffles and prize draws, a sponsored pub crawl?
Draft some simple guidelines for your trustees to agree. Then you’ll know you’re representing the views of your team in terms of what kinds of companies you approach and how you work with them.
TIP 2: Find a personal connection
Do any of your supporters, trustees or volunteers work at a company? That’s a good place to start. Companies are far more likely to support a charity where there is an existing personal connection.
TIP 3: Find the common ground
Is there a creative link between your charity and a particular kind of company? For example, I used to work for an international development charity that helped people living in poverty to build their own simple, decent homes. There was a natural link to housebuilding companies, firms of architects and estate agents. A number of international companies were keen to work with us because we had projects in countries where they had offices.
Next, ask around and see if your trustees, staff or volunteers have any close connections with those companies. As per Tip 1, companies are most likely to support a charity when there is already a personal connection.
TIP 4: Consider what you can offer in return for support
It’s rare for a company to partner with a charity without wanting something back in return. They may want opportunities for staff to volunteer. They may like to meet peers and potential new customers through your supporter events. And they’re likely to want motivating stories about how their support has played a part in changing the lives of your beneficiaries for the better. The closer they feel to the cause and the people you help, the stronger their engagement is likely to be.
Do a bit of research before you approach a company and see if there are clues as to what might be important to them. Their website, annual report, media coverage and social media can all give clues.
Be creative. What could you offer to a company that they might find engaging and attractive? What challenges do they face and what opportunities do they seek which your charity could help with?
TIP 5: Don’t expect companies to just ‘write a cheque’
As with any donor relationship, it will take time for your charity to win the trust of corporate supporters. In the first instance, a company may not want to donate cash to your charity. So consider what other kinds of support you could ask them for that would help you, for example:
- Unskilled volunteers (e.g. to paint a building, stuff envelopes)
- Skilled volunteers (e.g. accountancy, marketing, legal) – even trustees for your board
- Access to a network of potential new charity supporters
- Gift in kind with a direct benefit to your charity (e.g. office or meeting space in their premises, IT or stationery products, printing, training, financial services)
- Gift in kind with an indirect benefit (prizes for a raffle or an auction, a venue in which to host a fundraising event)
- Staff participants for a sponsored challenge to raise funds for your charity
TIP 6: Smaller companies may be better partners for your small charity
When you’re considering companies to approach, don’t make the mistake of focusing on the big well known ones. Now, out of necessity I’m generalising here, but here are some general challenges of working with big companies:
- You’re likely to be up against a lot of competition from other charities, which means you could put in a lot of work for not much reward.
- Big companies can be complicated to work with – you may find that “charity support” is dealt with by a committee spanning several departments, that they have a lot of procedural hoops you need to jump through, and trying to move things forward takes a long time.
- This in turn means that their approach can be rather prescriptive. For example, many big companies ask their staff to vote on which charity to support. If your charity isn’t local or well-known, it’s unlikely to win.
- Many big companies also only have short-term relationships with charities, changing the ones they support quite regularly.
So for small charities, a relationship with a smaller company may be a better match. Even if they’ve never really thought about having a charity partnership before, a small company may be persuaded to support you if you can make a good case – especially if you can win over a senior member of their staff.
In my experience, small companies tend to be less demanding than big companies and the relationship is likely to be more personal, flexible, engaged on multiple levels and enduring.
One of the most fruitful corporate partnerships I was involved with was with a firm of architects with around 100 staff. They supported our charity multiple years, and raised and donated over £100,000.
Another company set up a sponsored challenge event and invited their clients to participate to raise funds for our charity. It was good for the company because it strengthened business relationships and good for our charity because they raised funds and some of their customers went on to support our charity in other ways too. The CEO of that corporate supporter became chair of the charity’s trustees and that corporate partnership has endured for ten years now.
TIP 7: Create a funding ‘product’ for smaller companies
If you can come up with a creative, scalable concept, it will set you apart from other charities, and can make it easier to build partnerships with a number of companies.
When I worked for Habitat for Humanity GB, we identified that the average cost of building a home in the developing world was £1200. Around this we created Hopebuilders, whereby every time a company raised or donated £1200, they received a special recognition. Hopebuilders proved to be a hit not just with small companies, but with donors, schools, colleges and churches.
We also created our own weekend-long sponsored event for our corporate supporters – Hope Challenge (held appropriately at Hope Valley in the Peak District). Participating teams had to bring along their own ‘salvaged materials’ to build a shelter in which their team had to sleep. Over the weekend, they then undertook a walk involving various challenges along the way. They all had a lot of fun, raised tens of thousands of pounds, and this became an annual event. (A word of warning – an event like this requires a big investment of time and money, so get a company or several to sponsor it. And it also takes several years to really build.)
TIP 8: What can go wrong and how to avoid it
Not all corporate relationships run like a dream. Here are some of the things that can go wrong:
- The company starts trying to influence your projects – how and where you run them, who you help – and your charity starts getting mission drift.
- The company won’t invest time in the partnership – you do all the running, and you just don’t have the time or resources.
- The company offer volunteers, but no money. Managing volunteers can eat into the time and energy of your charity staff. You may have to explain this to your corporate partner and negotiate a fee including a donation, or you may want to walk away. Partnerships have to be win-win to be worth pursuing.
- The company expects their staff to raise funds for you, but offer no matched funding. This can result in their staff resenting your charity, which is negative PR that you can do without.
- The person you’ve been dealing with at the company leaves – and you’ve not got a relationship with anyone else at the organisation and no written commitment, so the partnership grinds to a halt.
- The company wants to do a fundraising activity you’re uncomfortable with (see Tip 1).
Think carefully through the potential pitfalls of any corporate relationship and how you might mitigate the risks at the outset. Consider drawing up a partnership agreement (see next tip), ensure both parties have a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, what is and what is not acceptable, and a process for assigning who will do what by when. Don’t agree to a partnership from which you’ll gain no apparent benefit!
TIP 9: Have a written partnership agreement
You might not feel it’s necessary with every company – it depends on their size and the nature of your relationship. But if the relationship is complex or likely to be longterm or particularly valuable to your charity, you want to be sure that the roles and responsibilities of each party are clearly defined at the outset. This can stop a lot of the issues outlined in Tip 8 from arising.
TIP 10: Some companies will give unrestricted or core cost funding
It’s always a challenge, raising funds towards running your office, paying your staff and marketing your charity – your core costs.
Don’t presume that if you want a donation from a company, they’ll only ever provide restricted funding for a project. That isn’t necessarily so.
Companies are often quick to understand, once you explain it to them, that you have to invest in core costs or there will BE no projects.
Nevertheless, they will want to have a sense of connection to your beneficiaries, and of how the company’s contribution has helped to change lives. And provided you can give them this sense of engagement, you may find they are open to negotiation on how you spend their donation.
The Hopebuilders product I outlined in Tip 7 did just this. It was essentially like a ‘big scale’ appeal – it demonstrated that £1200 was enough to build a house, but the funds donated were actually unrestricted and could be used wherever charities had the greatest need.
If you’ve not considered developing corporate partnerships before, I hope this has given you some food for thought. If you’d like further advice, or practical help in developing strong corporate partnerships and campaigns, do get in touch – contact Emma on 07775 733010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.