The Secret to Targeting Businesses for Cash Donations

In 2004, I moved to India to help start a new research lab in Bangalore for Microsoft. With the move I made a conscious shift in my own career. Whereas I previously did technical computer science research, in India, I turned to explore the application of technology to social causes – innovative software for education, mobile services for healthcare, digital video for agriculture, and so on. And that shift caused me to go out in search of partners who were experts in serving communities: nonprofits.

Before I got far in my search, though, I found that nonprofits came looking for me. Some were curious about our research, but for the most part, they were interested in donations: Could I get them free software? What did we do with our used laptops? And, any chance of a cash gift?

Since then, I have worked with a wide range of nonprofits– as volunteer, advisor, consultant, or board director – and I’ve found that even in the best of circumstances, collaborations between civil society and the private sector are full of misunderstandings. But, the misunderstandings can be mitigated with a little mutual knowledge. In this article, I focus on what nonprofits need to know when interacting with corporations as potential donors.

The most important point is that raising funds from corporations is not that different from raising funds from other sources: personal relationships matter a lot; knowing their giving strategy and process is important; different organizations require different approaches; regular acknowledgment and reporting can strengthen relationships; and it’s good to have a crisp message about what your nonprofit does and how it aligns with their interests (both as the representative of the larger organization and as an individual).

But, there are also a few differences…

First, because private firms are not primarily in the business of giving, they often don’t have a unified, publicly articulated giving strategy, nor a clear path to engaging with them. You have to work harder to understand what their giving interests are, if any.

Second, businesses can be both carefree and narrowly quid-pro-quo about grants. The same company that casually tosses a few thousand dollars to one organization might demand an exact accounting of how they benefit when supporting another organization. From the nonprofit’s perspective, it helps to be clear about donor benefits, in any case. A default option is to claim PR value, but there may be creative ways in which you can return the favor in more concrete ways.

Third, there are many ways in which a business might make gifts. It’s worth approaching different groups within the company, not just the most obvious one. And, each might require a different approach.

What does this mean practically?

The first thing, of course, is to go to the company’s website and see if there are any corporate social responsibility programs. Larger companies will be sure to advertise their CSR work. The sites can be heavy on the marketing, but they will give you a sense for companies’ CSR priorities.

Corporate websites, however, rarely offer obvious ways to apply for grants. Microsoft’s corporate citizenship site, for example, mentions support in the form of software donations to nonprofits; youth programs; and work in disaster relief. But, while it’s easy to apply for software donations, it’s much less clear how a nonprofit might apply for funding: “Our cash grants are limited and typically result from an invitation to apply for a grant.”

Still, this is far from saying that grants don’t get made. They do. There might be many paths to a donation:

  • Corporate social responsibility. If a company has an official CSR group, it is often run like a nonprofit foundation and can be approached in a similar way. CSR advisors generally recommend that giving programs align with the corporate brand, so look for businesses that are related to your cause, or fill your specific need – pharmaceutical companies for your public health program; software donations from a software company; pro bono legal services from a law firm; etc.
  • Employee giving. Many companies encourage employees to make charitable donations, and some match employee gifts and volunteer hours. If you can get a group of employees excited about your nonprofit, they could rally support among their colleagues. There may also be a time of year when the company runs an employee giving campaign – just before or during, have someone on the inside host you for a brown-bag presentation.
  • Business development. Your extended network of donors, supporters, volunteers, and beneficiaries might be exactly the customers that a corporate sales team is chasing. If so, they might sponsor events you host that put them in front of potential customers.
  • Client relationships. Firms that provide professional services to other companies – legal, consulting, accounting, etc. – sometimes donate to causes championed by their clients. If any of your board members work with such services in their day job, they could hit up those they contract with for donations.
  • Relevant units within the company. Large companies tend to serve many different types of customers, and different sub-units have different priorities. Even if you have no luck with a company’s formal CSR group, it may be that their education-focused team would support your non-profit’s work in schools. When I was with Microsoft Research India, what I sought in nonprofits was research partners – our budget wasn’t structured to give away a lot of funds, but when we made grants, it was to nonprofits who worked with us on research. Seek out every possible point of connection.

All of this reinforces the need for strong fundraising fundamentals. Large organizations are rarely the monolithic fortresses they appear to be from the outside; they are a society of smaller groups, each with their own goals and budgets. So, it helps if you build multiple relationships – you can often “snowball” from one point of contact; employees tend to trust their colleagues’ referrals. Good personal relationships are the best way to get the inside story, to hear about unadvertised opportunities, and to build the trust that any donor wants in a grantee.

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