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Philanthropy
May 26, 2021

5 Steps to Build a Successful Charitable Partnership for Your Small Business

Post By:
Abigail Axelrod-Wunderman
Founder and Chief Insight Officer
Useful Views Philanthropy
Guest Contributor:

Charitable partnerships have been used as a strategy to help humanize brands. The connection between nonprofit and business builds positive change in the world, improves company morale and workforce productivity, and continues to promote goodwill across the public. When looking at the media promotion of charitable giving or partnerships with businesses, however, more often than not, you read about these huge corporations, with lots of resources, who are making huge waves with their charitable giving. I'm here to tell you that you do not need to be a big corporation to build a meaningful and lasting partnership with a nonprofit. You simply need to have the right mindset and strategy for doing so.

Now I use the word "successful" because this is the most critical point that I often see first-time or laid-back philanthropists, miss. For a partnership to be successful, it has to be mutually beneficial. That means you must think about how you want to help the nonprofit and how it will fit into your business' long-term plan. Yes, that's right, charitable giving is one thing, but a charitable partnership is much more.

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Charitable giving in the nonprofit space is about giving money to a nonprofit, often for the primary purpose of helping the donor. Sometimes this is referred to as surface-level philanthropy – and watch out because this is something that consumers are often unimpressed by and likely even consider a shallow partnership. Charitable partnerships build a philanthropic strategy and lasting relationships to help further a particular issue area (e.g., climate change, education, racial justice, women & girls, etc.). Therefore, when looking into the future for the well-being of your business, I always recommend to my clients to build Charitable Partnerships, not simply charitable giving.

Now you may be thinking that even if you give money to an organization, you are still helping, and that is correct. You are supporting vital work in your community. However, would it not be so much better to share with your consumers that you are not only giving financial support to a cause but that you: 1. Have a goal in mind about what success looks like, and 2. Understand why you are so dedicated to pushing the needle forward on a particular issue area? Knowing why you commit to something in business is essential, so should it not be the same idea when building a charitable partnership?

Get your team involved in the process. The best businesses have the best leaders, and the best leaders understand how to make the entire team part of important pivotal issues surrounding the well-being of the company. So as you are building your charitable partnership, get your staff's feedback on what's important to them in the community. Understand what causes, or issue areas are they already involved with (as this could help your business develop immediate relationships with nonprofits) and acknowledge what skillsets they believe the company has and what they have that could contribute to the success of this partnership.

Let's look more closely at the biggest pitfalls businesses (large and small) can fall into when building a charitable partnership with an organization.

Thinking you can or should only give money.

As mentioned, it benefits both your business and the nonprofit so much more if you are committing more than monetary support to an organization. Think about the products your company sells or the skillset you offer in the marketplace. Do you think a nonprofit (or social impact organization as they sometimes like to be referred) would be interested in the same skillset? Why not offer these in-kind/ pro-bono services to the social impact organization? See if there are ways you can develop your business model (i.e., try out a new product or consulting idea) with an organization and ask them for feedback. You are beta testing your ideas while helping your community, the organization and gathering invaluable input for your business. A win-win-win!

Committing more than you have.

I see this a lot with smaller business owners. They are passionate and understand that making a difference requires dedicated hard work, and they want to commit to being part of considerable change. However, those commitments come at a price – often a personal and professional cost. The business owner signs up to help an organization with consulting at once per week for one hour. By the second session, the call ends up taking two hours, and it continues this way for a couple of months. Then you promise to deliver some data collection and reports to help the organization present some information to its Board. The Board is so impressed that the organization asks you (the business owner) to join the organization's Board because the work you are providing is imperative to the organization's current success and future growth. While on the Board, in the first month, you sign up to run the event's committee, and then a couple of weeks later, you are chairing the annual fundraising event for the entire organization. Now your four hours per month has quadrupled to 16 hours per month, and it is digging into your paid consulting time, strategic planning for your business, and time with your team. The partnership is benefitting the organization but not you and your business. It is better to start small for at least the first 12 to 18 months of the collaboration, as there will always be time to increase your workload. However, you and your business need to move at a pace that also supports your current success and future growth. Your business shutting down won't help the nonprofit. After all, your business-savvy skills got the organization interested in the charitable partnership in the first place. So, take stock of your resources (time is the biggest and often most undervalued one) and determine where you can start giving and growing the partnership. I've found talking it out with a trusted co-worker or professional consultant can help you visualize the workload and flow much clearer.

Choosing the first nonprofit that comes your way.

Do you remember that funny childhood saying, "first is the worst, second is the best…"? Well, it applies here. You don't have to be afraid to go with your first choice. Still, you need to do your due diligence and research to rationalize why you and your business choose to partner with a particular charitable organization. You collect data on your consumers, products, geographical locations, operations, etc., for your business, and you needn't stop here. Especially when you are about to build one of the most meaningful partnerships of your company's lifetime.

Getting in your own way.

As a business leader, you've probably had to be both the problem solver and the doer for many years. This can lead business owners to get in their own way when it comes to forging a partnership with a charitable organization. Business leaders arrive at a nonprofit with all these ideas of how to "fix" things without understanding the entire operations. Often, nonprofits already know how to solve the issues they are working on, as they are the "boots on the ground" workers day in and day out. They interact with residents, community leaders, government, and other funders on an ongoing basis at this specific focus area. And just how you would not want someone coming into your business and telling you how to run things, nonprofits are the same way. They see themselves as social and environmental entrepreneurs who are helping to make the world a better place. Don't walk all over them with your business advice. Instead, lean into their work and see how you can work together. It would benefit your charitable goals and your company's partnership if you start by asking the nonprofit what they see as the biggest challenges in their field. Ask them about who is involved and what is working or not working. Learning about the scope of the problem and the underlying politics or situations that impact decision-making will help you understand how you could positively influence the organization's work.

Not setting goals.

Do you want to do good? Do you want to make an impact? But you don't want to get goals?! I see it all the time. Businesses large and small tell me, "we just care about the community and want to support the philanthropic work." Well, that's great, but you are not doing anybody (especially the nonprofits) any favors by having no goals. Without goals, nonprofit leaders do not know if you are a serious supporter of their work. And if you are not a serious supporter of the work, then why would they want to formalize a charitable partnership with you and your business? The bottom line, you set goals in business, so you should continue to set goals for charitable partnerships. Setting goals will also help you follow up with company stakeholders and share exactly what impacts your business has had on the community and how you plan to continue to be a leader.

When you sit and think about it, taking your charitable giving one step further and embracing important causes by forging charitable partnerships should not be seen as a burden. Instead, it is an opportunity, perhaps THE opportunity for your business to forge a charitable partnership that aligns with your company's values. The partnership has the power to strengthen your mission, foster a philanthropic spirit among staff, and may even turn your once-in-a-while customers into longer-term loyalists.

Simply rewording the pitfalls, I share with you the 5 steps to building a successful charitable partnership:

Understand your budget.

Know there is more to business than money, and there is more to charitable partnerships than money as well.  

Acknowledge your resources.

Everything from time and money to workforce skills, office space, and connections are all resources you should consider as you begin to build your charitable partnerships.

Do your nonprofit research.

There is a myriad of resources to do your own research on nonprofits in your area. Check out Charity Navigator or GuideStar. Likewise, every state has its own nonprofit council or resource hub where you could reach out to a representative and ask for assistance finding nonprofits that match your interest areas. With a few web searches, you should see a few sites to help with your research. And if you are feeling stuck, reach out to me! I'd love to get to know your interests and see how I can be of assistance.

Ask for feedback.

Ask for feedback from everyone—Board, staff, nonprofits, community leaders, peers, friends, and even family. The more information you gather on your charitable partnerships, the better equipped you'll be to handle opportunities as they arise or pivot when the situation calls.

Have goals!

Have big goals. Don't be afraid to have a vision for your local community. I guarantee there is a nonprofit organization working towards that shared vision as well. When you find each other and exchange your hopes for the future, that is the start of a successful charitable partnership.