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How nonprofits can build partnerships with businesses

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When it comes to increasing visibility and funds for a nonprofit, it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. From social media marketing to email campaigns and in-person events, your nonprofit has undoubtedly run the gamut to find what works and what doesn’t. But for many nonprofits, especially smaller ones with few volunteers or support staff, business partnerships are an often-overlooked or underestimated avenue for growth.

In reality, building a relationship with a for-profit business can be beneficial for both the business and the nonprofit in ways you may not have anticipated. However, the first step—asking businesses if they’re interested in a partnership—can be the roadblock that prevents both businesses and nonprofits from reaping the rewards. That’s why we’re sharing what nonprofits have to offer partners, as well as how nonprofits can take the first step in seeking beneficial partnerships with for-profit companies.

Nonprofits have a lot to offer businesses

One of the most common obstacles a nonprofit group encounters when considering business partnerships is plain old confidence. Nonprofits have a lot to offer a business, even if they’re small. How? It comes down to sales, corporate social responsibility, employee satisfaction, marketing, and implementation.

Sales

An increase in sales, better shareholder returns, and an improvement in return customers are all possible with nonprofit partners. That’s because studies show consumers want socially responsible businesses and will actually choose these companies over their competitors. They may even seek out responsible products and services as alternatives. Up to 66 percent of consumers are willing to pay more to a company that reflects these values. By teaming up with a nonprofit, a business can sell more products, engage more of those elusive customers, and be more competitive in a flooded market. Sharing similar statistics with businesses when your nonprofit is seeking a partner can appeal to the social and fiscal sides of the company.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a policy that businesses can put in place to decrease the social, financial, and environmental effects of “traditional” operations. By establishing these policies, businesses work both internally and externally to be more responsible stewards. Because consumers are demanding more transparent and responsible products and services, more businesses are creating corporate social responsibility policies. This means a nonprofit could actually help a business become more profitable and attractive to consumers through partnership.

Employee Satisfaction

There’s another unexpected benefit to business partnerships between nonprofits and for-profits: employee productivity. In a world where employees feel disengaged and disconnected from their work, volunteering and giving back in the workplace can actually improve feelings of engagement and loyalty. This, in turn, decreases turnover, increases productivity, and builds company culture. Also, Millennials—currently the largest workforce in the U.S.—are highly motivated to give, making a nonprofit partnership a great way to attract these highly skilled workers. Because a company’s employees often execute partnerships, this is highly valuable information to bring into your outreach.

Marketing

With marketing, a business and a nonprofit will likely see a boost in brand recognition and overall visibility—and they might not even have to pay for it! Because consumers want to see businesses supporting social causes, it’s possible that a partnership could lead to media attention, social media engagement, and a better “word of mouth” reputation. This level of recognition can help attract new customers for the business. It can also increase donations and engagement for the nonprofit. Focusing on this potential byproduct of a partnership is great motivation for both the nonprofit and the business.

Implementation

Small nonprofits seeking business partners may feel especially ill-equipped to find them, but they’re often more valuable to businesses than they realize. Small nonprofits offer a “foot in the door” that many larger operations do not normally provide. Businesses actually have to jump through a lot of hoops—or donate a lot of money—to get into partnerships with large nonprofits (e.g., Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). With a smaller, more agile nonprofit, businesses are able to kickstart the partnership with much more ease. They’re also able to make more of a difference immediately.

Of course, when deciding to partner with a nonprofit, businesses want to know they’re going to see returns. This is why it’s important that nonprofits know how to approach a business with a mutually beneficial offering.

How nonprofits can find business partners

To find a business partner for your small or medium-sized nonprofit, start by looking for a business with values that align with your mission. Small and medium-sized businesses in your local area may be open to partnerships, as they likely haven’t formed other partnerships themselves. To start, run a quick internet search for businesses in your area and find contacts to email or to call. Human Resources, Employee Relations, or Community Engagement titles may be your best bet. A combination of Google search and LinkedIn is a great way to do this.

Not sure what to say to a business once you’ve found the contact?

“Tell a story that will resonate with this particular business partner,” says author of Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for NonprofitsJulia Campbell. “Find out what they have invested in previously, where their interests lie, and what other organizations they are involved with.” This doesn’t have to require a lot of upfront work. Simply search for small to medium-sized businesses and look at the About and Mission pages on their websites. This will tell you in quick time whether or not their values align with your own.

When reaching out to companies of any size, smaller nonprofits (or even large nonprofits unfamiliar with partnerships) can highlight how they are:

  • Aligned with the business’s values
  • Able to help boost sales, visibility, and employee productivity
  • Ready to get started/implement a partnership
  • Able to engage with the business one-on-one
  • Positioned to strengthen the business’s local reputation

Focusing on businesses that are a) strongly aligned with your values, b) local to the community you’re working in, and c) both local and aligned will help exponentially with your outreach. Once you’ve contacted the right person (anticipate a couple of forwarded emails), you can start cultivating a partnership that is great for both organizations.

Building strong business partnerships

The first step after pitching a potential partnership is to get clear on what both parties expect or want from the arrangement. Julia recommends, “Get them involved in organizing the partnership. This will ensure ownership from both sides and make the partnership stronger over time.” When both organizations understand how a partnership will support them over time, it will be easier to target the next course of action. To kickstart a partnership, Julia says, nonprofits should “ask [the business] how you can help them. Perhaps you can connect them with civic leaders, other community partners, other resources?” This way, nonprofits (especially those that are most worried they don’t have anything to offer) can establish their value right out of the gate.

Once both parties establish those ground rules, it’s time to rock and roll!

The future of your business partnerships

Gaining a partnership and maintaining one are not the same thing. To ensure that your business partner is happy with the outcomes of your arrangement, make sure to schedule frequent check-ins or events where you can touch base. Companies want to see proof that the partnership is providing at least some ROI, whether through reporting methods (number of events, social media metrics, increased donations, etc.) or through stories of impact. Thanking the business for their help in improving your community programs, or for making a new venture possible for your nonprofit, is a great way to reaffirm their decision to partner with you—even if there aren’t tangible benefits to their bottom line (yet).

“Partnerships are like gardens, they need tending and they need attention,” Julia shares. “You can’t simply set one up and walk away. Be grateful, understand how the partnership benefits both sides, and acknowledge their involvement frequently.”

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  • Udhyam says:

    December 29, 2022 12:16 am

    Thanks for sharing this information, wonderful post, very useful blog

  • NGO business partnerships says:

    November 28, 2022 6:19 am

    Heyy, we are an NGO Udhyam aims to raise awareness about NGOs and organizes annual conventions for the purpose, as well as other events such as workshops, seminars, and fun activities.

  • Kathleen McCuistion says:

    January 13, 2022 10:01 pm

    Very good ideas. Thank you for the advice. I wondered if we could ask a food market

    to donate to us but I never thought of a partnership. We could recommend a doctor to

    new residents who need a doctor.

  • Molly says:

    January 7, 2022 2:53 pm

    Hi Stuart!
    I would like to know what you have heard thus far. I too am looking at this as a potential for what sound like a similar program you have.

  • Stuart Ross says:

    November 18, 2021 3:41 pm

    We have a 501(C)(3) social enterprise for employing people with disabilities in food service, and we promote an inclusive community of people with and without disabiities.l We have so far operated only at public markets and at private events. A local cafe is interested in our mission and is willing to help. The idea is that our employees could operate their shop after their normal closing, under a different name. We would pay rent; only our employees would be doing the work; we would sell some of their inventory as well as some of ours. So in a general sense the work would fulfill our mission. But we are not aware of any nonprofit doing such a thing. What guidelines and boundaries have to be observed?

  • Michael Steinberger says:

    October 31, 2020 10:21 pm

    we have strategic alliances with other non profits... and are beginning to work with for profit organizations but feel that we need to distinguish our non profit alliances from for profit and wondering how to best do that

  • suzanne says:

    September 15, 2020 9:33 am

    Hi, Kathi,

    Your state nonprofit association may be able to direct you to an attorney or tax expert who can answer this question. You can find a list of state associations at https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/find-your-state-association

    Regards,

    Suzanne Coffman
    Editorial Director, Candid

  • scott doniger says:

    September 14, 2020 11:55 am

    great article, latasha. one question -- do you know of any nonprofits that have launched their own services marketplace? the idea here is to offer partners a portfolio of added value (e.g., services) they can choose from to augment, accelerate, and generate greater value from the partnership -- such as certified consulting / consultants who can help the partner optimize the nonprofit's value for the org, software tools to help implement the nonprofit's value, etc. let me know if you know of any nonprofits that have built marketplaces, like the apple app store. thanks!

  • Kathi Dominguez says:

    September 12, 2020 9:27 pm

    Can my non-profit garden club make a donation to a for profit business as a public relation gesture

  • Shamim says:

    August 20, 2020 4:03 pm

    My not for profit organisation is just 4 months, thank you for this article. Now I can begin on the partnerships.