While there is ever-growing interest and attention around corporate social responsibility (CSR) today, the idea that “business corporations have an obligation to work for social betterment”[1] has existed for centuries. Dating back to the earliest corporations, around which many small towns revolved and depended, corporate social responsibility has evolved substantially. As CSR programs have become more sophisticated, corporate philanthropy has changed along with it.

While progress doesn’t always move quickly, recent data shows a growing influence of these programs. In 2016, corporations gave $18.6 billion to charity, making up 5% of the $390.1 billion philanthropic pie. Corporate giving increased by 3.5% from 2015 but remained relatively flat over the previous five-year period, growing 0.5%. Cash giving represented 82% of corporate contributions.[2]

Corporate philanthropy, often a subset of the company’s overarching CSR platform, provides corporations with unparalleled opportunities to generate goodwill with their employees and consumers, improve employee retention and recruitment, meet corporate social responsibility objectives, and increase brand recognition. Additionally, different sized companies will approach corporate philanthropy with varying strategic viewpoints.

So, what are the secrets to unlocking corporate resources to help nonprofits fulfill their missions? Below are five tips on successfully securing transformational philanthropic gifts from large corporations.

  1. Conduct research. Research the company’s mission, CSR priorities, and philanthropic giving guidelines to discern if there is alignment with the nonprofit’s mission and programs. Further, learn what is most important to the company. Is it diversity and inclusion? STEM education? By understanding a company’s philanthropic priorities, nonprofits can tailor grant proposals that demonstrate how partnering with their organization will best achieve the company’s strategic CSR objectives. For example, you may find companies with new or formative corporate giving policies may be more flexible in their giving while they shape their philanthropic priorities.
  1. Show ROI. Companies, unlike individual donors or foundations, seek a return on investment (ROI) from their philanthropy. While the return will not be in the traditional financial sense, it can be in the form of increased brand equity, more loyal employees, greater community endorsement, competitive edge, and other intangible returns. Donor recognition is an important aspect of improving brand equity and visibility to a corporation’s internal and external stakeholders, and is an important part of the overall ROI.  A clear articulation of how the company will benefit and be recognized in return for their financial contribution will be critical to making the case.
  1. Engage the board (yours and theirs). Most large corporate gifts require approval from the board and/or CEO; therefore, the more advocates a nonprofit secures on a corporate prospect’s board, the better the outcome at voting time. As a best practice, nonprofit leaders should engage their own board members to identify connections to other corporate executives and board members. CEO-to-CEO gift requests are usually more successful, garner bigger gifts, and follow a shorter timeline. Companies with whom the nonprofit has board linkages should be ranked among the organization’s best prospects.
  1. Articulate impact. There are three primary reasons companies measure impact: 1) to decide which grantees to fund 2) to demonstrate impact to their employees and internal stakeholders and 3) to publicly share their achievements in “doing good.” For example, the number of companies measuring the outcomes or impact of their corporate giving increased from 79% in 2013 to 87% in 2015[3]. Think about the compelling story a CEO can tell his or her employees, customers, and potential customers about the company’s involvement with a high-impact organization. When the impact is clear, the narrative is strong, and the organization will be better positioned for success.
  1. Be patient, but persistent. Getting a proposal in front of the board for approval may take several conversations and iterations of sharing the case and collateral. Sometimes, this means waiting for the board’s next monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual meeting or until their budget cycle renews. In the meantime, cultivate the relationship with the corporate contact like you would an individual donor by sharing good news and progress, and inviting them and their executives for site visits. Think long-term partnership, not just one-time gift.

Moving Forward

It is important to be flexible and creative about corporate support, such as being open to budget-relieving gifts-in-kind or combination gifts.  The industries that have the largest proportions of non-cash giving are communications, consumer staples, and healthcare, with more than one-third of their contributions represented by in-kind products or services[4].

It is also helpful to know that companies often respond favorably as they see their peers and competitors “get on board.” To this end, nonprofits can leverage the corporate names already on their donor list to help open doors and sway peer corporations.

So how do you begin to put these tools into practice? As mentioned, conducting research will help you narrow down your search for the right corporations to approach. You may find corporations whose services/products or employees are in alignment with your organization’s mission. And some of your best prospects will already have donors or employees affiliated or engaged with your organization. From there, stewarding relationships and articulating your story will always be effective strategies to drive your mission forward.

[1] Frederick, W. C. (2006). Corporation, be Good!: The Story of Corporate Social Responsibility. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing.

[2] Giving USA. (2017). Giving USA 2017. Chicago.

[3] CECP. (2016). Giving in Numbers 2016 .

[4] CECP. (2016). Giving in Numbers 2016 .

About the Author

Anna Lee previously served as a Vice President with CCS. Anna led the successful completion of a $300 million campaign to build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016 on the National Mall. Anna’s experience with CCS included driving capital campaigns, working with boards and volunteer leadership, and conducting strategic assessments and feasibility studies. Her work has spanned the secondary and higher education, arts and culture, and social services sectors.