Let’s stop telling companies that it’s their privilege to work with us for free – and, instead, show them why we are great partners.
I like to consider myself a double-agent. I work for a for-profit company, but I work with nonprofit visitor-serving organizations. I’m trained in nonprofit management – and I am kind of like this dog that was raised by cats and thus thinks he’s a cat. As I hang out on top of this fence, I can see both yards – and there seem to be a few nonprofit assumptions that don’t quite fit with things on the business side.
I get to see the “partnership pitch” from all angles. I work with nonprofits that make these pitches, and IMPACTS works with for-profit companies that get these pitches. Not a week goes by when IMPACTS itself isn’t approached with opportunities for partnership with amazing organizations. But the proposed partnerships in all of these situations often fall short because there isn’t much consideration of how these theoretical partnerships would work from the not-nonprofit side. In order to increase chances of success, nonprofits must consider the perspective of the person at the other end of the phone or email account to whom they are “pitching” the partnership.
Perhaps you’re looking for a for-profit partner to provide food, consulting services, or even to make a donation. Here are three things for nonprofit organizations to keep in mind that will help increase the chances of success when approaching a potential for-profit partner:
1) Consider what is in it for the potential partnering company
This sound obvious, but it very rarely happens. Usually, when a nonprofit organization is asking a company to “partner,” it is code for “I’d like you to do something for free or at a very reduced cost.” There are very few companies with the mission to make a nonprofit successful, so creating a true partnership relies on the nonprofit communicating why this relationship is beneficial to the company. It means speaking their language and articulating how this partnership is not only going to support your mission (this part is usually obvious), but how it is going to help the company succeed.
It is helpful to articulate how the partnership may enhance a company’s profitability – but be careful about what you think benefits of your partnership may be. As a heads up: Successful companies probably aren’t relying on you to market them. Thus, “We’ll market for you!” can be a nice bonus, but it’s a total misread as a driving benefit worthy of partnership on its own merits. Nonprofits often struggle to prioritize marketing investments – but smart for-profit organizations (like the one with which you’re probably seeking to pursue a partnership) generally do not. For what organizations ask a company to invest in the way of sponsorship, a company could likely otherwise achieve a much more effective marketing outcome. The primary benefit of a partnership to the company must be articulated, and indeed, it usually involves connecting the brands. But the primary benefit usually isn’t about the organization doing marketing, it’s about what that partnership means. That meaning is worth directly articulating.
One reliable benefit of a partnership is that it may lend credibility to a company in a specific space or contribute to a corporate social responsibility platform. If there’s mutual benefit, then it’s a partnership. Otherwise, it’s pure philanthropy or the company is a vendor and you should pay them. Organizations may benefit by taking a moment to think through their proposed benefits so that they may speak the same language as the company when pitching a partnership and more directly articulate some of the great benefits that they can bring to the table.
2) What is in it for the company is usually not your mission alone
It’s not enough to simply have a social mission – all companies and organizations seem to have social missions today. And the market is generally sector-agnostic – meaning that they don’t care much whether an organization is for-profit or nonprofit as long as it demonstrates impact.
Moreover, nonprofits are not super good and for-profit companies are not super evil – so approaching outbound communications with this mindset isn’t very helpful. In fact, in my experience, the thought that companies are innately morally inferior to nonprofits resides much more in the nonprofit world than from the for-profit world – and that may be a product of today’s more transparent, social-good centric society.
Not every nonprofit is a good partner, and those that are good partners aren’t necessarily good fits for partnership. Like organizations, companies choose which partnerships they want to form – and having a social mission doesn’t make any organization an automatic fit. For example, if a company wants to support informal learning and that’s what you do, then an organization must be prepared to communicate impacts and demonstrate why that investment is best made in your organization. The company may be your dream partner – but is your organization similarly a dream partner for this company? Even if a company believes in your mission, they may still choose to support an organization that serves the same mission, but may be a better fit for partnership.
“Partner with us because it’s the right thing to do,” is not usually a persuasive primary reason for partnership. Again, that’s philanthropy. Similarly, I’ve seen many emails wherein organizations write something that seems to be saying, “We are X organization! It’s really in your best interest to work with us. Everyone knows we are great!” But it often doesn’t occur to this organization that sometimes your brand isn’t enough, and there’s benefit in being tied to your impact. Impact can be a huge differentiator.
3) Decide to REALLY be a good partner
Especially for cultural organizations, the problem starts here: Many are still elitist organizations. Many museums and cultural centers were founded by wealthy benefactors and seem to operate a bit like elitist social clubs. There are millions of dollars of art hung on the walls of some of these institutions and it’s not unusual for even frontline staff at some cultural organizations to have master’s degrees. We work in important, symbolic buildings, and we work for the good of the people – even though data suggest that we still have real trouble engaging diverse audiences and some popular programs intended to reach these people actually make the issue worse. (I just got real there, but I’m trying to make a point.) Nonprofits often approach companies as if it is a privilege to partner with the organization. The reality is that some of us have a view of ourselves that doesn’t conform to today’s economies or the current social condition – and this view seems to often come out when approaching a potential partner in order to obtain goods or services.
Nonprofits do amazing things – but when we call a not-partnership a partnership (even politely), we look kind of out-of-touch. Instead of going into the conversation assuming that we are worthy of any partnership because of “who we are,” organizations may have more success by pausing to realize that we are approaching this for-profit company because of who they are, too. Partners are equals.
Nonprofits and for-profits love the word “partnership.” (And why shouldn’t we? It’s an important word and concept.) However, many organizations don’t practice what they preach. If we considered that word, we wouldn’t say some of the things we say. We wouldn’t shamelessly ask for services and act like the business on the other end should give us what we want for free or reduced price just because we say we care about something. We wouldn’t say the word so much because we’d realize that sometimes we’re not asking for a partnership at all. We’re asking for a handout.
Nonprofits can be excellent partners that bring credibility and respect to for-profit companies. However, a precedent to partnership must be a willingness to consider the mutual benefits of the relationship and a critical analysis of our own capabilities. Most of all, our actions need to trump our words – instead of telling companies how awesome we are, let’s show them.