Build a Robust Corporate Giving Program for Impact and Sustainability
I wasn’t surprised when I saw the latest Giving USA statistics surrounding corporate philanthropy. Of the $499.33 billion that Americans donated to charity in 2022, only 6% came from corporations.
Since this seems like a relatively small percentage, nonprofit leaders and fundraisers alike are still questioning whether it is worth their time to focus on corporate fundraising. Even in 2020 – at the height of the pandemic – my answer was a resounding YES.
I think back to my early days as a fundraiser when most of the corporate fundraising I did was straightforward: unrestricted gifts with no required reporting. Not surprisingly, as time went on, partnerships became a bit more complex. Marketing teams on both sides began joining most of our meetings, while longtime corporate donors drastically narrowed their giving priorities.
Even with this evolution, not only is it possible for organizations to build a thriving corporate program, but it is also strategic to do so. Beyond immediate dollars, here are several ways that corporate fundraising can accelerate your long-term growth, along with a few pointers to keep in mind when evaluating your program’s potential.
Develop a Pipeline of Volunteer Leadership
As I build fundraising plans for GG+A clients, I always give a lot of thought to how various revenue streams can work together in harmony to strengthen an organization’s overall fundraising performance. In this case, a strong corporate program can identify candidates for volunteer leadership roles and serve as a valuable pipeline for individual donors.
Here’s an example from my own career. One of my favorite periods as a fundraiser was when I managed a corporate partnership program at an art museum. The program itself was simple, yet effective: member levels ranged from $1,500 to $100,000+, with benefits such as discounts on event rentals, personal memberships for partner employees, and early access to exhibition openings. Corporate partners were invited to place an executive on our Corporate Partnership Council (CPC), and we subsequently created an Emerging Leadership Council (ELC) to serve as our pipeline to the main corporate council.
Mission alignment was a key element of the success of these partnerships, combined with the resourceful use of existing assets and underscored by a strong value exchange.
I started the ELC by creating a one-page job description that I sent to all of our corporate partners, asking them to nominate a rising star at their company for ELC membership. We felt assured that the members would be responsive and productive (after all, an executive at their employer had nominated them), and so we made them eligible to move on to the CPC following a couple of years of service. Now, a decade later, that pipeline is still working as intended: several ELC members have joined the CPC, and members of the CPC have become trustees on the museum’s board.
Additionally, we invited our major gift officer to join a couple of CPC meetings. Not only did this provide an opportunity for our committee members to learn more about the museum’s giving society, but ultimately, it also allowed us to earn CPC members’ support in three different ways: their volunteer service, a gift from their company, and a personal gift.
Identify Mutual Benefits That Align with Your Mission
Dan Lambe, CEO for the Arbor Day Foundation, wrote an article in Forbes about the importance of alignment in corporate and nonprofit partnerships.
“Finding the right corporate partners to help accelerate your nonprofit’s mission and work comes down to fit for both sides, and frankly, taking on all sponsors and dollars is not necessarily the way to grow your organization’s operation,” he noted. Advising leaders “to never sacrifice your organization’s core values and culture for the sake of corporate investment,” he encouraged them instead to “investigate, vet, and determine a culture fit” before agreeing to accept support from corporate donors.
My work with The Gotham Film & Media Institute, a valued GG+A client, further illustrates the importance of achieving symbiosis. The Gotham has a smaller fundraising team that is primarily focused on securing sponsorship for the Institute’s programming, with a popular awards ceremony that serves as its primary fundraising event. The team also produces Gotham Week, a weeklong symposium that connects talent in film, TV, and audio to industry decisionmakers. Along with serving as a valuable talent pipeline for corporate partners, the corporate-sponsor-led sessions directly support the Institute’s programming. It’s a mutually satisfying, fruitful partnership.
I achieved something similar with an organization’s corporate partner program earlier in my fundraising career by emphasizing the benefits that created value for our partners. We developed a Corporate Partners Weekend, during which we hosted all of the employees of our corporate partners. Guests received a drink ticket during check-in, we planned a special activity for kids, and everyone received a ticket to our current exhibition. The weekend was always a hit, and during my tenure, I was able to quadruple the attendance to nearly 4,000. What’s more, in our yearly feedback survey, the weekend was consistently one of our highest rated benefits. It was a practical way to serve our partners while deepening their engagement with our organization.
In the examples of both The Gotham and my former employer, mission alignment was a key element of the success of these partnerships, combined with the resourceful use of existing assets and underscored by a strong value exchange.
Be Mindful of Your Capacity
For organizations seeking to develop and strengthen their corporate programs, particularly by engaging corporate partners in volunteer or leadership roles, here are a few helpful recommendations, based on GG+A’s work with organizations of all sizes and missions:
Create prospect lists. When I initiated a corporate giving program on a former team, I started by building a prospect list of our vendors and employers of board members. It was far more manageable and realistic than cold-calling the area’s largest corporations.
Start small. Do you have any volunteer opportunities connected to an upcoming event? Pull together three to four different tasks and offer volunteers opportunities to serve in two-hour blocks, then photograph and highlight their participation on social media. If you have a core group of corporate volunteers, consider starting a limited-time committee tied to an event.
Plan ahead. Teams are stretched thin; it is important to allocate your time wisely. When I started a new committee at a former employer, I spent a few weeks attending to tasks one might otherwise address later in the process: creating collateral, drafting email templates, and engaging potential sponsors. At the first meeting, I was able to share this progress with our core members, and we were off and running with positive momentum.
Focus on leadership. As a fundraiser managing volunteers, my most successful volunteer groups have had strong leaders who were able to take tasks off my plate. Typically, within boards, a small number of members will self-identify as “leadership material” through their level of responsiveness and their willingness to complete duties on your organization’s behalf. Learn more about their workstyle and provide them with all the tools they need to be successful. In my case, that meant creating outreach email templates, simplifying prospect lists to reflect their own networks, and the like. Anything you can do to make these leaders’ jobs easier will pay off in the long run.
Be creative. Try to keep volunteer tasks fun and engaging, yet productive. No one wants to sign up to volunteer and feel like they didn’t accomplish anything with their time. Consider each volunteer’s strengths and interests and make sure to provide roles that align with them, which will reduce the potential for dissatisfaction.
With these keys in mind, engaging corporate partners in philanthropy can be a win-win for both sides, promoting the sustainability and longevity of your organization and extending its impact.
Jarel Loveless, Vice President, partners with an array of nonprofit organizations across the higher education and arts and cultural sectors. His expertise includes corporate fundraising strategy, major gifts, donor stewardship, and board development and management. To connect with Jarel about your organization’s fundraising objectives, email email@example.com.