How Can Nonprofits Secure Corporate Social Responsibility Funds?

When seeking out financial sponsorship from corporations, nonprofits should avoid making initial inquiries with a financial wish list.

"The first thing you should do is not go in talking about money," says Eric Phelps,executive director at the New Art Center, a cultural/educational institution in Newtonville, MA.

Phelps is no stranger to coordinating nonprofit PR and fundraising endeavors. In his work at New Art Center and in his former leadership roles with three Atlanta-based nonprofits—as executive director for IMAGE and VSA Arts of Georgia and as the development director for the Atlanta International Film Festival—much of his time is spent communicating with the corporate world to secure sponsorships.

For nonprofits seeking backing from the corporate world, Phelps advises that nonprofits have a realistic view of their target. "The biggest mistake is thinking that corporations have a heart of gold," he says. "Even if you're say, the Kidney Foundation, it's not enough to go to the corporations and say: 'You ought to.' There are a lot of groups knocking at their door."

Phelps acknowledges he fell into another common mistake among nonprofits in search of CSR funding: Promising too much but not being able to deliver. Phelps recalls VSA Arts received funding from the Turner Broadcasting Co. for the creation of a youth video program. "Unfortunately, we did not produce one watchable video," he notes. "We were lucky they stuck with us."

So what is the secret to Phelps' success? It is all a matter of perception. Since he is dealing with businesses, Phelps thinks like a business executive and not like a nonprofit executive.

"When I go after corporate dollars, I go after the marketing people first," he says, noting that marketing and PR departments are heavily involved in CSR activities and thus make a natural entry point. "I look carefully at what causes they give to.  Here at New Art Center, I have a database of 375 corporations with a major presence in the Northeast. I know where they are headquartered, what their pet causes are and what audiences they're trying to reach."

Reaching these companies is not difficult, once you know where to connect. Phelps recommends nonprofits getting in touch with the United Way, which runs a service matching nonprofits to corporations, and local chambers of commerce. "A lot of chambers have nonprofit rates for joining," he adds.

While Phelps' expertise in his field has helped keep his nonprofits running, he acknowledges that many smaller and start-up nonprofits face acute difficulties in getting their missions publicized to the CSR point people. "That can be a tremendous challenge, espeically for many nonprofits without development people or a staff to get a foot in the door," he says. "And if they do, they may not know what to do once they're in the door."

This article originally appeared in the 2007 PR News Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility. The 2008 edition will be published in February 2008. For information on how you can order either edition, go to