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How to forge successful corporate-nonprofit partnerships

Partnerships between corporations and nonprofit organizations are often the backbone of a good corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, or citizenship program.

But what does partnership look like? How can companies get the most value out of a partnership with a nonprofit, and in turn provide the most value to them?

To answer that question, I spoke with someone who knows a thing or two about partnerships between corporations and nonprofits. Frank Wrenn is a corporate development officer for Habitat for Humanity International, one of the world’s preeminent nonprofits.

Wrenn is responsible for forging partnerships between Habitat for Humanity and corporations. He has also sat on the other side of the table, working in community relations for Delta Air Lines.

The Benefits of Partnership

A recent article in Forbes by Ryan Scott asked the question, “Are you defining CSR success all wrong?” It’s a good article that concludes…

“When companies are able to develop true partnerships with nonprofits and create a strategy for the goals and needs of all involved, that’s when we see the kind of meaningful impact that reminds corporate leaders why volunteer and giving programs are so important to the vitality of their organizations.”

A true partnership, of course, is important to the success of most any collaborative endeavor, especially between a corporation and a nonprofit.

Wrenn said that partnering with a nonprofit is a good way for a company to generate goodwill. “There are expectations among customers and employees for companies to do more social good,” he said.

Nonprofits make it easy for companies to have an impact. Because they are associated with a cause, they lend instant credibility to partner corporations. They also already have “boots on the ground,” so companies don’t need to figure out the logistics. They can just plug in.

But for a partnership to truly work, Frank says seven things need to be in place.

Develop the Right Focus

Before the partnership even begins, before the first contact between partners even occurs, Wrenn says the company needs to have a clear focus on what’s important to them. “It’s important from the start to examine (what causes) make sense for the company and concentrate on those things,” he said.

This has a number of benefits. First, it allows the company to have a bigger impact on one or two issues, rather than spreading their philanthropy too thin. It also makes it easier for companies to say no. “Companies can get hundreds of proposals per month,” Wrenn said. “Having a focus makes it easy go through them and save yourself a lot of time.”

Ideally, the focus should be germane to the company’s business, Wrenn added. He gave the example of Coca-Cola. Because the company uses a lot of water in its products, the Coca-Cola Foundation makes access to clean water and water conservation a priority focus.

Choose the Right Partner

With a clear focus, it also makes it easier for companies to choose the right nonprofit partner, which is crucial to creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It has to make sense,” said Wrenn. “Otherwise, to consumers, employees and other audiences, it can seem inauthentic.” He added that an unnatural, inauthentic partnership can actually have a negative effect, making the company’s support seem self-serving.

The right partnership can benefit both parties. A company working with a large, well-known organization like Habitat for Humanity can benefit from the brand equity of the nonprofit.

It can also work the other way. Companies might choose to work with a fledgling nonprofit or a regional organization for geographic reasons, or to differentiate from other brands. Whatever the reason, it can give the nonprofit a big boost.

But it has to be the right fit. “If it’s aligned with the mission of the company, then it makes sense,” Wrenn added.

Find Your Space

Whatever nonprofit a company partners with, Wrenn says it’s important for them to find their niche with how they work with them. This is especially true when partnering with large charities that have multiple corporate sponsors, potentially competitors.

Habitat for Humanity is one of the most well-respected nonprofits in the world, and it attracts partnerships with competing companies quite frequently. In every case, however, the companies find a way to make the initiative unique to them. “The opportunity is to be part of something very specific and you can own that piece of it,” he said.

A good example of this is home improvement retailer Lowe’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity for National Women Build Week, which highlights homeownership challenges faced by women. During the annual event, held the week before Mother’s Day, women across the country are encouraged to devote at least one day to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity construction sites. Lowe’s Heroes employee volunteers are among the expected 15,000 women who will be helping to build or repair decent, affordable in their communities.

Involve Employees

Today’s workforce, according to Wrenn, wants more than to just go to work, do a job, and go home. “People want more meaning out of what they do for a living,” he said.

Partnering with a nonprofit, and involving employees through a volunteering and/or a matching gift program, is an outstanding way to get employees engaged. “It provides companies the opportunity to tell the story of what they do, more than selling a product or service,” Wrenn continued.

If employees feel more connected to a higher purpose and have the opportunity to give back through the company, they generally are more satisfied in their jobs. Employee volunteerism has other benefits, including team building, skills development and leadership development. “I’ve heard a lot of people say volunteering beats a day out on golf course,” Wrenn added.

But employee involvement doesn’t just happen on its own, which brings us to the next step…

Communicate with Employees

Wrenn said that communication, internally and externally, is vital to the success of any partnership. It’s especially important internally, as it helps to spur employee involvement. It starts with making employees aware of opportunities to volunteer or contribute, and it continues with telling the story after the fact.

Particularly in the case of volunteering, there are numerous opportunities to tell stories after the build day. Employees who volunteer are full of pride and self-satisfaction, and are itching to tell others about their experiences. Wrenn says companies often miss that opportunity to build enthusiasm for volunteering in the future.

“Telling the stories, you can leverage it for the next time, so people hear what’s going on and get excited to participate,” he said.

In the absence of an ongoing approach to communicating to employees, companies run the risk of declining participation. “If you’re not communicating it well, it may become just a one-time thing, rather than becoming ingrained in the company culture,” Wrenn added. The company loses the opportunity to build its reputation as an employer and get the most out of the partnership.

Work Cross-Functionally

Another missed opportunity, according to Wrenn, lies in getting multiple departments involved in the partnership. This is especially a problem in large companies.

“A lot of companies can struggle with organizational silos,” he said. He added that nonprofit partnerships are often managed through human resources or corporate social responsibility, but other departments, like marketing or corporate communications, are not involved. “Getting everyone at the table is key to success.”

Wrenn encourages anyone managing a nonprofit partnership to bring a cross-functional team together as soon as possible, allowing everyone to see the possibilities. “There is an opportunity at the front end to get everyone engaged and talking about the partnership,” he said. By doing that, the company will be able to better leverage the dollars spent on the partnership, making it more successful on multiple levels.

He also stressed that companies also involve the charity itself at this stage, as they are usually aware of unique opportunities for promotion and storytelling, which brings us to the final step…

Tell the Stories

The final piece to the partnership puzzle, Wrenn says, is another that companies too often miss - telling the stories.

This was mentioned in the section about communicating to employees, but it bears repeating. “Storytelling is becoming more important,” he said. It’s about more than just giving the facts and particulars, but the emotional, human element of the partnership.

One of the best avenues, and easily accessible for companies, is to tell the stories through employees, both internally and externally, especially if it involves volunteering. “Personal stories are what resonate with people,” he said. “When you see the impact volunteering has on an individual, those are the stories that get read and shared.”

Some companies, according to Wrenn, use that storytelling approach to generate an esprit de corps amongst employee volunteers. “Delta Air Lines calls their employee volunteer workforce the ‘Force for Global Good,’” he said. This approach creates pride among employees and leads to nearly unlimited storytelling opportunities, both internally and externally.

Increasingly, according to Wrenn, companies are facing expectations from customers, stakeholders, employees and even prospective employees to do more to have a positive social impact. By partnering with a nonprofit organization, companies can achieve that goal almost instantly, but it’s important to take a comprehensive view of the partnership to be sure it’s being leveraged to its fullest potential.

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