Grow Your Nonprofit Community With Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives + Tips From An Insider

Tina Jepson
Tina Jepson

As nonprofit professionals, we spend a lot of time thinking about building our community of supporters. We prepare elaborate donor engagement calendars. We formulate plans to connect with volunteers.

We’re always searching for the next board member or team of loyal advocates.

We are always thinking about relationship building.

But sometimes, we overlook an entire segment of supporters: businesses.

The for-profit world is responsible for roughly 5% of all nonprofit donations, and the total amount of donations from corporations rose 3.5% from 2015 to 2016.

That, my friends, is good news for all of us, even if you don’t live near the headquarters of top corporate contributors like Wells Fargo, Walmart, and Microsoft.

Businesses of all sizes and focuses often commit to support the “advancement of social good.”

All jargon aside, corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives benefit everyone involved. They offer *potentially* great publicity for the business, a way to positively engage employees, and, at the end of the day, the community benefits with the addition of all these added resources.

Have I sold you yet? Well, before you start knocking on doors, it’s important to understand how to find the best businesses to partner with.

After all, these strategic partnerships are not just about your cause–as noble as it is. You have to find businesses that align their CSR initiatives with what you do!

Of course, there’s no better way to understand the world of CSR than to speak with a professional. That’s why I connected with Susannah Berry, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at Jackson.

She provided invaluable insight on topics like: Where do you find businesses to connect with? How do you develop the relationship? What are businesses looking for in a nonprofit partner?

Let’s dive head-first into the world of CSR.

What Do You Want? What Does Your Business Partner Want?


Just because your nonprofit is improving the world, that doesn’t mean that every business (or person, for that matter) is ready to jump on your cause bandwagon. In fact, one of the most important considerations is alignment.

What You Want: First, determine what YOU want from your relationship with a business. Are you looking for volunteer help? Do you want them to sponsor a specific initiative or event? Have a clear idea of what you’re looking to get from the partnership before you start courting.

What They Want: On the flip side, businesses also have goals.

They don’t just want– they deserve to get something out of the collaboration. So, as soon as you know what you want from the partnership, determine what prospective business partners want. Search their website, talk to people in the community who work there, and clarify, before you even make the first contact, that you’re a good fit for one another.

According to Susannah, “When I look for a cause to support, the most important factor is the alignment with our company’s philanthropic goals. Specifically, Jackson looks to fund organizations that support strong families and create economic opportunities. Working on partnerships within these priorities areas helps Jackson make a meaningful impact that we can measure and evaluate from year to year..”

In this case, a nonprofit working with animals or the environment may not fit into Jackson’s CSR plan, which is nice to know upfront, right? Thankfully, their philanthropic focus is clearly outlined directly on the Jackson website under the tab “In the Community.”

It’s always nice to know what a business focuses on before you hit them up with an offer.

In addition to meeting the company’s CSR-specific goals, managers like Susannah also consider other factors.

I also look for opportunities to engage our employees in the work or cause,” she told me.

She asks questions such as:

  • Will this event or cause resonate with our employees?
  • Do we already have employees engaged in this work?

These help her determine if the nonprofit is a good fit for their company and employees.

The Do: Before you reach out to a prospective business partner, learn about their affinities and carefully consider how your organization aligns with them. While you’re at it, educate yourself on the business’ values and mission, their work, and their employees. The more you know, the better you can create an offer that matches their needs.

Relationship Building 101


Let’s assume you’ve found a business to reach out to. Your nonprofit or charity aligns with their goals, and you’re ready to start building a relationship. Great!

Start by scheduling a meeting with the employee responsible for community engagement.

In some cases, a company hires an employee to perform this job (such as Susannah), but other times, it’s the salesperson, human resources, or someone else who has another role in the company.

Prepare for the meeting by learning even more about the business. Then, jot down a few notes regarding the alignment of your goals, noting how and why the partnership will work. Susannah appreciates when a nonprofit does research ahead of any contact.

I’m always impressed with a nonprofit that is well informed about our current work, focuses and funding priorities. When I get asked to sit down with a nonprofit to hear about their work and they don’t even know our focus areas, which are easily available on our website, I can tell they haven’t invested much in trying to develop this relationship.”

When it comes time for the meeting, arrive on-time and ready to go with any information you want to share with the business.

You may choose to present them with an “offer,” which usually takes one of these forms:

  • A donation: Either a monetary or in-kind gift
  • An opportunity to engage employees, such as a volunteer project

Having an idea of what you want to get from the relationship helps keep your end-goal top-of-mind, but this “offer” route isn’t your only option. You could simply ask your point-person about what areas they’re hoping to expand on, such as employee engagement or corporate sponsorships.

While both parties most definitely have separate goals, there should be some common ground to start from.

Before the meeting adjourns, go ahead and make a “next step” plan. Schedule a volunteer day. Invite them on a tour of your operation. Don’t leave the meeting without a plan in place for moving ahead, even if it’s a small step.

Go into this partnership with the understanding that the transition from occasional collaborators to true teammates takes time or years, in many cases.

Development managers should also expect a reasonable timeline to build a relationship that results in a significant partnership. Significant partnerships require a good deal of trust, and trust takes time to build.After we do one volunteer project, that doesn’t mean we are an ideal prospect to be the title sponsor of your gala. We look to build significant relationships with nonprofits after successful grants, volunteer projects, employee engagement over several years,” Susannah explained.

To Do: Plan before your sit-down with your targeted business. Understand their focuses and determine how you can align yours with theirs. Discuss options for engagement and partnership and then, by the end of the meeting, come to a conclusion regarding next steps.

A Final Note: Standing Out in a Busy, Competitive Environment

It’s a competitive world out there, and chances are, numerous nonprofits are reaching out to the same businesses as you. You have to stand out!

Susannah knows this firsthand. She told me,

Nonprofits that stand out to me are ones that are creatively engaging business in their work and are looking for partners, not just table sponsors for a gala…Most businesses don’t want another table to fill. But they do want to make an impact on your mission, while elevating their brand presence. Nonprofits that can think creatively about how to engage businesses, and their employees, in their work stand out from the rest by leaps and bounds.”

So brainstorm potential employee engagement projects and other ways the business can get involved beyond just money. It’ll benefit your partnership in the long run.

To Do: Stand out. Before you start asking for money, think about ways you can engage the company. Over time, and with the right nurturing, your partnership can grow into so much more.

Building corporate relationships takes time. Research. Plan. Talk. Do. Stand Out. Prove your value to your for-profit partners and, if you play your cards right and really think through how your partnership can benefit both parties, you’re well on your way to a long-lasting symbiotic union.

To learn more about creating strategic partnerships, check out our eBook: Working with Partners & Brands.

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