2012 VolunteerMatch Client Summit Insights: How to Partner with Smart Nonprofits

At the 2012 VolunteerMatch Client Summit in San Francisco we welcomed a handful of experts and thought leaders in the fields of CSR and employee engagement to hold “Best Practice Café” sessions with our client attendees. Stay tuned as each Café leader posts recaps and additional thoughts to help you internalize and implement what they shared at the Summit.

Eighty-seven percent (87%) of global consumers believe that business needs to place at least equal weight on society’s interests as on business’ interests, but less than a third believe business is performing well in addressing societal issues.

- 2012 Edelman goodpurpose Global Study

Guest Post by Megan Strand, Cause Marketing Forum

Pairing a company with a cause is no longer a new and novel marketing strategy but consumers and employees worldwide have spoken: authentic cause-related partnerships are now considered a crucial business practice.

Often when companies are asked about the business objectives of these partnerships, the default answer is “societal benefit”; an appropriate response for corporate philanthropy, but not for a strategic partnership.  But how is a company to define strategic objectives?

The first step? Clarity about your objectives for entering into this partnership.  What market segment are you trying to reach? What are the main objectives for the brand/company? What new products/services are you promoting? What benefits are you most interested in receiving?

Similarly, it’s important to understand where the nonprofit is coming from objective-wise. Smart nonprofits will always put their organizational mission first, probably followed closely by monetary donations to support that mission.  But smart nonprofits will also work with companies to determine how to best use company assets for mutual benefit.

A strategy often overlooked by companies is to form alliances with other companies to benefit a nonprofit organization.  Alliances such as this campaign from Groupon, JP Morgan Chase and DonorsChoose.org demonstrate how powerful these campaigns can be.  Some companies chose to flip this alliance equation by forming umbrella campaigns incorporating multiple nonprofit organizations like Walk with Walgreens.

Megan Strand

Megan Strand presents at the 2012 VolunteerMatch Client Summit

During our Best Practice Café sessions on partnering with smart nonprofits, mostly business and a few nonprofit participants traversed the ins and outs of strategic corporate/nonprofit alliances.  Discussions among our savvy group members discovered the following:

Frameworks are Critical
The concept of having a solid framework emerged as a recurring theme.  When a company takes the time to establish a solid framework for their nonprofit partnerships, it makes identifying smart nonprofits simpler.  Parameters might include cause areas of focus, budgets, mandatory volunteer components and assets available for in-kind donation.  Without this framework, many companies struggled with ‘being all things to all people’ resulting in an unclear message to consumers and stakeholders about what, specifically, a company stands for.  With proper frameworks to point to, it also makes saying ‘no’ seem kinder and less personal.

Our participants stressed the importance of nonprofits having frameworks as well.  Many of these companies were astonished by the lack of basic frameworks on the part of smaller nonprofits (with whom they’d love to partner), even items as basic as proof of insurance.  This lack of a framework makes these partnerships too risky for many businesses, especially if they plan to send employees or customers in to volunteer.

Strategy and Personal History Sometimes Conflict
Several businesses expressed frustration in trying to incorporate more strategic focus into their nonprofit partnerships because they felt they were competing with organizational history and, typically, one executive’s way of handling charitable initiatives. A ‘proof is in the pudding’ methodology was offered in suggestion by other companies who had experienced a similar dynamic. Establishing and closely tracking partnership metrics and then sharing those metrics with senior leaders was a strategy to bring more systematization to relationships with nonprofits previously established on a wink and a handshake. Clearly communicating with all nonprofit partners about upcoming changes to long-standing relationships was also strongly advocated.

Boards Hold Key Clues
Another theme that surfaced during discussions was the importance of a solid nonprofit Board. Many companies looked to the health and involvement of a prospective partner’s nonprofit Board as a key criterion of any strategic partnership. Is the board a ‘rubber stamp’ board, there only to approve whatever is presented to them? Or are Board members notable members of the community served, active in both financial contributions and actions in support of the organization’s mission?

Again, the distinction was made between a simple transactional corporate donation and a true strategic partnership. In the former, the level of due diligence is not nearly as critical as in the latter.

Partnerships Evolve
As in any relationship, there is an evolution and a maturity that settles into the most stable partnerships. The best are marked by constant communication and re-evaluation. The weak often wither without this continual vigilance. To be certain, as we discovered in our Best Practice Café sessions, turning to peers that have ‘been there, done that’ is often the best place to receive valuable guidance and, perhaps more importantly, a wider perspective about the evolution of these important partnerships.  Kudos to VolunteerMatch for bringing together a group of savvy, like-minded professionals to provide this very opportunity.

Megan Strand is the director of communications for the Cause Marketing Forum (CMF). At CMF, she sources and produces quality content for cause marketers via the company’s website, blog and social media outposts. Prior to CMF, highlights of Megan’s career included stints as director of operations and marketing for a continuing education company, internal communications specialist for a local government; marketing manager for a mid-sized non-profit and Peace Corps volunteer.

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