When Partnering with Companies, Communication is Key

Editor’s note: In honor of VM Summit 16, which is all about corporate/ nonprofit collaboration, this series of volunteerism-related blog posts will take one topic and explain how it’s relevant to both groups. Today’s topic? Communication in Corporate/ Nonprofit Partnerships. Check out our other blog, Volunteering is CSR,  for the same topic from the perspective of corporate volunteer program managers.

Communication is the single most important part of any relationship, including the relationship with your corporate partner.

When companies partner with nonprofits, communication is key.Yes, I have a degree in public relations with a minor in communication theory. Yes, I sometimes volunteer to help nonprofit organizations with their communications strategy. Yes, I revel in wordsmithing and strive to find perfect content that resonates with my audience.

But I promise I’m not only a little biased when I say, communication is paramount in your corporate partnerships.

Why is communication so important?

Imagine this scenario: You are approached by a well-known company who is interested in partnering with you. They seem very excited about the possibility — your mission aligns well with their corporate values, and they think their employees can rally around your cause.

You begin imagining the potential. Aligning yourself with this company could increase your reach and give you some of the volunteer and monetary support you’ve been lacking — finally!

The corporate rep immediately starts sharing ideas on how their employees can help:“We want to send a large group of our employees for a day of service.” or “We have an excellent marketing team that can help with your communications strategy.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly what your nonprofit needs (at least not now) — you’d benefit most from smaller groups of volunteers working with your clients one-on-one. However, you’re afraid to say no to such a big opportunity, and you figure you can work through the specifics later.

I bet you can guess how this turns out. You end up shifting your nonprofit’s priorities to accommodate the company’s requests. In the end, you’ve created a partnership that looks good on paper but measures short in terms of impact.

If you had honest communication before embarking on the partnership, both parties would have saved a lot of time and energy. Maybe that would have meant saying “no” to the partnership altogether, or maybe it would have meant creating shared expectations so that you both get exactly what you need out of the relationship.

Creating Shared Expectations

It’s great to hear ideas and suggestions on what a company thinks they can offer you, but the conversation shouldn’t end there. Set aside some time to have open, two-sided dialogue. And during that conversation, tell them what you need. From there, you can determine together if what you need aligns with what the company can offer.

Here are some more helpful questions for setting up shared expectations that both parties should answer:

“What would a successful partnership look like to you?”

“What do you envision as the endpoint of this partnership?”

“What methods of evaluation will we use?”

“Do you have any hesitations?”

You’ll want to document the expectations of both parties before getting started: say them out loud, write them down, share them with other stakeholders, etc. Having a reference point to benchmark alleviates misunderstandings, reminds you of the “why” behind the partnership, and helps you recognize if and when the partnership steers off course.

Continue the Conversation

Pick up the Phone!It’s not enough to foster open communication solely at the onset of your partnership. Make it the norm for the duration of your relationship and into future partnerships.

Defining communication channels at the beginning can help with this. Be sure to ask questions such as,

“Who is my main point of contact at your company?”

“Who do I reach out to if they’re unavailable?”

“Do you prefer updates by email or by phone?”

You’ll also want to schedule regular check-ins to ensure things are going as planned, while addressing any issues or complications that may arise.

All this conversation — especially at the beginning of a new partnership — can feel like a lot. And honestly, it can be. However, having these conversations upfront (and hosting regular check-ins) will ultimately create efficiency and increase the level of impact the partnership has on your nonprofit’s mission.

After all, that’s the point, right?

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