Nonprofits and Corporate Partners: Adding Value Is the Big Payoff

There is no doubt that in this sluggish economy, nonprofit organizations are grappling with how to successfully reach their objectives amid budget-cut threats. Want proof? According to an April study on the nonprofit sector by the Urban Institute, government contracts account for 30% of the 33,000 nonprofit health and human services agencies budgets. As state nonprofit funding is being slashed, nonprofits have been forced to look for new ways to make ends meet.

And one way is through corporate partnerships. Nonprofits have long depended on relationships with their for-profit counterparts for infusions of dollars, but the nature of those relationships is changing, says Lori Weintraub, VP of marketing and communications at the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation. Corporations—many subject to budget cuts themselves—are demanding more of a return from their investments in nonprofits. “There must be some tangible benefit—hard, fast metrics that show ROI,” say Weintraub.

Which makes it critical for nonprofits to consider corporate partners as more than just a revenue source. “Look instead at what both parties want to accomplish,” says Weintraub. “One should open the door for the other.” And vice versa.

And despite the challenging economic environment, more doors should be opening in the future, says David Neff, cofounder and director of Lights. Camera. Help. —which encourages nonprofits to tell their stories through film and video. Despite cost-cutting measures, businesses are getting more involved in cause initiatives and corporate social responsibility campaigns, “Businesses are seeing CSR as a smart move,” says Neff. And nonprofits should be quick to capitalize on that demand.

Capitalizing means getting rid of old mind-sets, continues Neff, who is co-author of a new book, The Future of Nonprofits (Wiley, May 2011). “Some nonprofits still have the idea that having a corporate partner is like asking Uncle Bill for $500,” says Neff. But today, smart nonprofits must go much further than that. Corporations today want to see deep marketing and communications packages that include PSAs, video, tweets and more. In turn, says Neff, a corporation will take that package and communicate it via their channels, making the partnership a win-win.

At Lights. Camera. Help., Neff has seen partnership success with small start-ups to big technology organizations. And it’s not all about money. One large tech company wanted to give their employees volunteer opportunities, so instead of cash, the company offered Neff volunteers.

Meanwhile, at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC), partner relationships and expectations have changed quite a bit over time, says Patricia Washington, the organization’s VP of cultural tourism. While corporations are still looking for local visibility, it’s not about displaying a logo at an event. “They are looking for a human connection,” says Washington. And GPTMC can offer that kind of connection, particularly when a corporation is interested in tapping diverse populations.

Case in point: Heineken was attracted to Philly’s cool factor and its vibrant African-American community. GPTMC tapped into major influencers and their social networks to promote the brand. “They saw us as a great outlet,” says Washington.


Which brings up a key strategic step that nonprofits sometimes ignore, says Holly Potter, VP of public relations at Kaiser Permanente: Identify what value your organization brings to the partnership table. “You’re not asking them for a donation,” says Potter. “You’re bringing value to their brand.”

The problem, says Weintraub, is that some nonprofits feel inferior in the value department. “It’s important to have a checklist regarding how you are providing value, and what value you’re receiving from your partner,” she says. (See the sidebar for Weintraub’s list of “don’ts” in a corporate partnership.)

In the case of GPTMC, its value to partners has been clearly identified, says Jeff Guaracino, the organization’s VP of communications. “We have the ability to put a product or sponsor in front of eyeballs, and to create an experience in which they can share information—via social media or events,” he says.


While PR may or may not be intimately involved with corporate partner negotiations, Weintraub says PR pros are uniquely qualified to enhance and realize partnership value. For example, while corporate PR may have better national media contacts, a nonprofit with local or regional contact may be able to tap more targeted, and effective media outlets.

PR is also critical in keeping a nonprofit’s message and mission from going astray in a partnership initiative. That’s particularly key when a company has something to promote. “We have great relationships with influencers in the blogosphere,” says Weintraub. “We can shape the message in a way that is not promotional.” That skill is important, because a nonprofit’s message must stay true to its mission, regardless of a partnership.

To get the most out of a partnership, the GPTMC’s Robinson recommends the following for communicators:

• Do analysis of your assets, and negotiate from strength.

• Make your programs creative, even experiential.

• Be patient. Partner relationships are cultivated over time.

Perhaps most importantly, despite their tax-exempt status, nonprofits shouldn’t sell themselves short. PRN


Lori Weintraub,; David Neff,; Patricia Washington,; Holly Potter,; Jeff Guaracino,