Navigating the Win-Win Road: Creating Successful Corporate/Nonprofit Partnerships

Building beneficial partnerships with nonprofit groups, such as consumer, patient, seniors, environmental, community, multicultural or faith-based advocacy organizations, government agencies and educational institutions, can provide strategic advantages for a company and positive benefits for a brand through cause-related marketing programs.  Well-matched partnering initiatives also bring vital resources to support a nonprofit’s missions and goals.

This article provides an overview of the public relations discipline of advocacy and ally development and its value as a tool for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and business strategy. Corporate/nonprofit relationships should create win-win propositions for all parties involved.   For a company, those partnerships help to:
•    Enhance its reputation for CSR leadership and attract influential allies in the communities it serves;
•    Inform key audiences about the company’s mission, products, services, new developments and positions on public issues;
•    Increase sales, reinforce brand awareness and build customer loyalty;
•    Cut through bureaucratic and regulatory red tape;
•    Provide credible third-party allies to voice support for mutually beneficial public policies and regulatory changes, as well as product benefits;
•    Design, conduct and recruit participants for proprietary product research related to its business and marketing objectives;
•    Diffuse critics by building a base of third-party allies to disseminate positive, accurate messages about the company’s contributions and positions on critical and/or controversial issues to the media, legislators and other important stakeholders;
•    Provide volunteer opportunities for employees who want to give something back to their communities in ways aligned with the company and their careers. 

    Nonprofit organizations seek opportunities to build successful relationships with corporations that help to:
•    Provide educational grants, sponsorships and other targeted resources for funding programs that support the group’s mission;
•    Increase awareness about the group’s cause, social contributions and issues, the results of new research and/or other significant developments among priority audiences; 
•    Expand access to influential business, professional, political and community thought leaders, additional sponsors, donors and volunteers;
•    Collaborate on the development of educational and multicultural materials, web sites, chat rooms, videos, call centers and other resources that support the work of the group and provide services to its constituents;
•    Provide needed in-kind human resources, volunteer leadership, office supplies, building materials, equipment or technology support that enhance the group’s mission, infrastructure and operations beyond its budgetary limits.

Advocacy Done Right
Years ago, the only connection non-profit organizations had with corporations was through donation checks. There was no other role for the group to play with the contributing enterprise, and no anticipated ROI for the company from the donated funds. Those days are long gone.
Today, it’s more complex, with higher levels of communication, negotiation and cooperation required to find common ground, understand boundaries and build trust for maintaining a positive partnership.  Many companies still see it as good for business, but need to know the rules for engaging in cause-related marketing programs with receptive and relevant groups. Some have their brand managers handling the relationships.  More sophisticated companies have dedicated communications professionals focused on advocacy relations or hire their PR agencies to help build those connections.

The nonprofits have come a long way, too. More are savvy about leveraging their position or organization’s “brand” and know how to ask to gain needed corporate resources, while protecting their independence and credibility.  Some even hire marketing staff or consultants to weed through private-sector partnering proposals and help select the best for the organization.

On either the corporate or PR agency side, the communications professional can be key to forging successful alliances.  Following are the recommended steps needed for best results:
•    Do the homework. Set realistic criteria for selecting the groups, based on the company’s  business and marketing plans, cultural values, community presence and  budget.  Know in advance the company’s expectations for such a relationship.  Conduct research to identify the right types of third-party groups.  Based on the criteria, narrow the list down.  From those prospects, get a sense of each organization’s leadership, size, services, projects, reach, prominence in the targeted universe, biases, partnerships with other companies and media savvy.  Create a wish list of the best prospects.
•    Arrange and conduct meetings.  Meet with the leadership of each prospective group, including the paid and volunteer executives, relevant committee chairs and staff.  Take time to learn as much as possible about the organization structure, mission, goals, constituents, politics, strengths and weaknesses, positions on controversial issues, communications strategies and channels, and their track record and comfort level partnering with corporations.
•    Listen, be respectful and learn. Think of the groups as prospective customers and partners, not as vendors.  Listen carefully and respond respectfully to the group leaders’ questions, needs, concerns and issues.  Be sensitive to any controversy, multicultural concerns or biases.  Don't expect agreement on everything.  Look for areas of common ground, and the right fit, but expect to negotiate.  Don't over promise what the company will deliver.   Be sure to clarify all terms agreed to at the meeting in a letter of agreement or contract.
•    Be transparent about the company's commitment and objectives.  Discuss upfront everything the company seeks from the partnership and be clear about expectations.  Be honest about what’s realistic for financial and in-kind support available from the company over what time period.  Go into the meeting knowing that the company’s senior management will support the relationship and any terms discussed.  Explore opportunities for other ways the company might get involved.  Often, such add-ons seal the deal and can provide positive publicity for the company. 
•    Start small and think long term.   Discuss the company’s plans and timetable for the first  project.  Seek the partnering group’s input.  Earn their trust over time.  Discuss the idea of Including them in media coverage, as appropriate, getting clearance in advance.  After one successful project, seek feedback from the group.  Share ideas for future projects.  Maintain contact to solidify the relationship. 
 These steps should ensure quality collaborations -- founded on transparency, common ground, commitment and trust – that will make great strides for business and society, one project at a time. 

This article was written by Teri P. Cox, president of Cox Communications Partners, LLC. It is currently running in the 2008 PR News CSR Guidebook. To learn how to order a copy, go to