Corporate-nonprofit partnerships in the land of impossible expectations

5 must-haves to fortify partnerships against the elements

By Diane Knoepke, Vice President, Alford Group  Read Diane’s Bio

Almost every company is a good fit for at least a handful of nonprofits, and every company is a bad fit for quite a few nonprofits. The inverse is also true: almost every nonprofit is a good fit for at least a handful of businesses, and every nonprofit is a bad fit for quite a few companies.

With increasingly discerning audiences, a volatile political climate, blurred lines that used to seem bright, and the unprecedented speed of change and information, what must nonprofits and companies do to successfully partner with one another?

How to fortify partnerships against the elements

Any partnership without a little bit of risk is also likely a partnership without any value or interest. Of course, we all know there are good risks and bad risks. Below you will find ways to make sure the risks you take are planned and smart and likely to have great returns. Here are the five must-haves for a successful corporate-nonprofit partnership:

#1 Inclusionary criteria: the WISH LIST 

These are the positive indicators of a good fit. Your respective current and/or target audiences match up in interest, consumption habits, lifestyle, or other priorities. Your inventory and goals are complementary: you have content, they have distribution; you have the purpose, they have the reach. You train people, they need talent; they want to showcase their technology, you have a living laboratory for technology-enabled design. And so on. These are the reasons you put potential partners on your wish list.

#2 Meaningful purpose: the WHY 

Thoughtful, strategic partnership elements take the relationship beyond a transaction. This is about creativity, customization, and deep understanding of what success looks like for each of you. What are you each trying to accomplish, and can you help each other do that? If you can, are you willing to do so? Designing a partnership in response to these questions is where we really find whether partnerships are good matches that can drive social and business value simultaneously. Then even if some audience members don’t like the partnership, each party has a clear story to tell about why the partnership is in place and what you are working on together.

#3 Exclusionary criteria: the NOPES

This next one is a topic that keeps us all on our toes. Name almost any company in the world, and while the proportions may be different, there will be a group that thinks the company is terrific and a group that thinks the company is evil. For many years, nonprofits listed a few “sin categories” (tobacco, gambling, spirits) or, based on their particular work, some controversial categories (oil and gas, pharma, fast food) that were not good fits based on their missions. And certainly companies list types of organizations that are ineligible for partnership – perhaps religious organizations or political organizations in some cases.

While some of those category restrictions still exist, the category or type of organization is rarely the real thing anymore. So, we are advocating for guidelines that aren’t just about industries or sectors but include solid measures to determine whether the partner is in “good standing” based on criteria that are meaningful to the audience. Maybe it’s that they haven’t had any environmental violations, maybe it’s that they are actively promoting diversity and inclusion and meet certain criteria to demonstrate that.

#4 Scenario planning: the PREMORTEM

No matter what guidelines and guardrails are in place, things can always happen in the midst of a partnership. That’s why I like premortems. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s an exercise invented by psychologist Gary Klein where you imagine yourself in the future, after the project (partnership) you’re considering has ended in spectacular failure. We’re assuming the partnership has died, it’s over, and the end result is a disaster. Our nightmares came true. So, from that perspective, we think of all the reasons why this failure happened – what went wrong? And then, once we’ve listed all the reasons it died, we think of ways we can avoid the failure.

At last week’s IEG Sponsorship Conference, I facilitated a couple of roundtable sessions on this topic and we crowdsourced a partnership premortem. The results of that premortem, (1) all the spectacular failures that could kill a partnership and (2) some of the key ways to prevent those failures, are in the image below. This is a great exercise to do with a facilitator in your organization, and a terrific way to get your internal skeptics engaged in fortifying your partnerships.

#5 Out clauses: the EJECT button

Finally, occasionally those failures do happen despite everyone’s best efforts, and you need to be protected. Every organization should have agreements with their corporate partners that include a mutual out clause in case the company – or the nonprofit – hits a snag that could reflect poorly on the other partner. Don’t go in without installing an escape hatch just in case.

Because they’re worth it….

Meaningful corporate-nonprofit partnerships are, in some ways, harder than ever to build. And since the audiences for the partnership ultimately determine the success and sustainability of the partnership, they need to buy in to, and ideally even like, the partnership.

And those audiences who notice what nonprofits are doing related to corporate partnerships may be concerned about inappropriate corporate influence, or the charitable organizations they support “selling out,” or they may say they don’t want to see company logos or promotions alongside the good works of their beloved nonprofit.

We have seen a lot of scrutiny of companies, their business practices, the organization’s behavior and even the personal attributes of the company’s CEO. And the same is true for nonprofits as they are under increased scrutiny and many are stepping forward and “getting political” where they have avoided strong positions for fear of controversy in the past. So stepping forward in partnership and finding a good fit can feel daunting.

But many private and social sector organizations are doubling down on corporate partnerships right now because well-designed partnerships between companies and nonprofit organizations have greater potential to drive social and business value than they have ever had before.

So sure, it can be tough out there, but the rewards are worth the struggle.