Once upon a time, corporate funding for nonprofits came mainly in the form of sponsorship for special events, such as galas and walks, etc. This “classic” corporate sponsorship model remains the most familiar model to many nonprofit staff and the general public alike, yet it is not actually the preferred method of giving for most companies anymore. Yes, when you participate in a charity event you will still see corporate sponsors; however, these dollars are hard-won as more companies are allocating less to sponsorships and more to partnerships.

What do we mean by partnerships? It is not simply replacing one word for another. Within the last decade, companies have become more strategic with their giving and are now looking to form true partnerships with nonprofits that will help advance company objectives while also making an impact. Below we discuss the first steps to take in switching from a sponsorship to a partnership mindset.

We begin with this key concept: the process of building corporate partnerships is actually no different than building relationships with individual major donors. This is good news! It means your investment in sharpening relationship building skills can be applied to multiple funding streams. As companies have become more strategic in how they give, they are less and less interested in transactional giving. This inherently leads to building relationships that, if done well, can turn into long-term partnerships.

The first step in this process, for individuals and corporations alike, is finding alignment in mission and values. This can be easier to do for a company, as many publicly share goals for corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. If this information is not readily available, you may also make some assumptions about what a company cares about by gaining an understanding of its core business and the various community issues that touch that business. No matter what, you must come to understand a company’s goals in order to form a long-term partnership. Whereas the sponsorship model of funding may be based on marketing or personal relationships, a partnership stems from alignment in goals, therefore, it’s worth spending the time to research and truly understand if this exists.

Once alignment is confirmed, the next step is an open dialogue, which is often iterative and can take months, or even years, before it settles into a mutually beneficial partnership. It is typical in a sponsorship model to present a company with a menu of options, but building a true partnership requires a candid and authentic conversation leading to a creative partnership designed to meet each party’s goals. This process requires the nonprofit team to be open, flexible, and creative – not the traditional way of transacting with corporate sponsors (but again, partnerships are not transactional!). If interested in pursuing corporate partnerships, it’s important to shift your mindset up front and go into these conversations with open ears and an open mind -- requirements in designing options that are mutually beneficial. The uniquely-tailored partnerships that result tend to be long-lasting as your nonprofit becomes part of the fabric of the organization’s culture and less “replaceable” by the numerous other organizations fighting for the company’s attention.

It can take practice to switch from a sponsorship to partnership mindset as an organization. We hope this short discussion helps your organization determine where to begin. We also hope it helps you feel empowered, as this shared-value mindset should position your nonprofit for stronger corporate relationships that reach beyond just dollars to boosting your mission in numerous ways.

We look forward to further discussing how nonprofits can prepare and pitch a partnership in our in-person training, Partner Up! Smart Strategies to Build Corporate Partnerships, at Foundation Center Northeast, a Service of Candid, in Washington, DC on April 4th.

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