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Corporate-nonprofit partnerships in the land of impossible expectations

5 must-haves to fortify partnerships against the elements

By Diane Knoepke, Vice President, The Alford Group  Read Diane’s Bio

Almost every company is a good fit for at least a handful of nonprofits, and every company is a bad fit for quite a few nonprofits. The inverse is also true: almost every nonprofit is a good fit for at least a handful of businesses, and every nonprofit is a bad fit for quite a few companies.

With increasingly discerning audiences, a volatile political climate, blurred lines that used to seem bright, and the unprecedented speed of change and information, what must nonprofits and companies do to successfully partner with one another?

How to fortify partnerships against the elements

Any partnership without a little bit of risk is also likely a partnership without any value or interest. Of course, we all know there are good risks and bad risks. Below you will find ways to make sure the risks you take are planned and smart and likely to have great returns. Here are the five must-haves for a successful corporate-nonprofit partnership:

#1 Inclusionary criteria: the WISH LIST 

These are the positive indicators of a good fit. Your respective current and/or target audiences match up in interest, consumption habits, lifestyle, or other priorities. Your inventory and goals are complementary: you have content, they have distribution; you have the purpose, they have the reach. You train people, they need talent; they want to showcase their technology, you have a living laboratory for technology-enabled design. And so on. These are the reasons you put potential partners on your wish list.

#2 Meaningful purpose: the WHY 

Thoughtful, strategic partnership elements take the relationship beyond a transaction. This is about creativity, customization, and deep understanding of what success looks like for each of you. What are you each trying to accomplish, and can you help each other do that? If you can, are you willing to do so? Designing a partnership in response to these questions is where we really find whether partnerships are good matches that can drive social and business value simultaneously. Then even if some audience members don’t like the partnership, each party has a clear story to tell about why the partnership is in place and what you are working on together.

#3 Exclusionary criteria: the NOPES

This next one is a topic that keeps us all on our toes. Name almost any company in the world, and while the proportions may be different, there will be a group that thinks the company is terrific and a group that thinks the company is evil. For many years, nonprofits listed a few “sin categories” (tobacco, gambling, spirits) or, based on their particular work, some controversial categories (oil and gas, pharma, fast food) that were not good fits based on their missions. And certainly companies list types of organizations that are ineligible for partnership – perhaps religious organizations or political organizations in some cases.

While some of those category restrictions still exist, the category or type of organization is rarely the real thing anymore. So, we are advocating for guidelines that aren’t just about industries or sectors but include solid measures to determine whether the partner is in “good standing” based on criteria that are meaningful to the audience. Maybe it’s that they haven’t had any environmental violations, maybe it’s that they are actively promoting diversity and inclusion and meet certain criteria to demonstrate that.

#4 Scenario planning: the PREMORTEM

No matter what guidelines and guardrails are in place, things can always happen in the midst of a partnership. That’s why I like premortems. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s an exercise invented by psychologist Gary Klein where you imagine yourself in the future, after the project (partnership) you’re considering has ended in spectacular failure. We’re assuming the partnership has died, it’s over, and the end result is a disaster. Our nightmares came true. So, from that perspective, we think of all the reasons why this failure happened – what went wrong? And then, once we’ve listed all the reasons it died, we think of ways we can avoid the failure.

At last week’s IEG Sponsorship Conference, I facilitated a couple of roundtable sessions on this topic and we crowdsourced a partnership premortem. The results of that premortem, (1) all the spectacular failures that could kill a partnership and (2) some of the key ways to prevent those failures, are in the image below. This is a great exercise to do with a facilitator in your organization, and a terrific way to get your internal skeptics engaged in fortifying your partnerships.

#5 Out clauses: the EJECT button

Finally, occasionally those failures do happen despite everyone’s best efforts, and you need to be protected. Every organization should have agreements with their corporate partners that include a mutual out clause in case the company – or the nonprofit – hits a snag that could reflect poorly on the other partner. Don’t go in without installing an escape hatch just in case.

Because they’re worth it….

Meaningful corporate-nonprofit partnerships are, in some ways, harder than ever to build. And since the audiences for the partnership ultimately determine the success and sustainability of the partnership, they need to buy in to, and ideally even like, the partnership.

And those audiences who notice what nonprofits are doing related to corporate partnerships may be concerned about inappropriate corporate influence, or the charitable organizations they support “selling out,” or they may say they don’t want to see company logos or promotions alongside the good works of their beloved nonprofit.

We have seen a lot of scrutiny of companies, their business practices, the organization’s behavior and even the personal attributes of the company’s CEO. And the same is true for nonprofits as they are under increased scrutiny and many are stepping forward and “getting political” where they have avoided strong positions for fear of controversy in the past. So stepping forward in partnership and finding a good fit can feel daunting.

But many private and social sector organizations are doubling down on corporate partnerships right now because well-designed partnerships between companies and nonprofit organizations have greater potential to drive social and business value than they have ever had before.

So sure, it can be tough out there, but the rewards are worth the struggle.

One Key Practice of Today’s Leading Cause Marketers

Feature Image 5 Midway through last week’s Cause Marketing Forum (CMF), during Katrina McGhee’s great talk on personal branding, I noted that a significant number of the CMF presenters—representing both causes and companies—were explicitly emphasizing one key practice. These cause marketing leaders focus on their strengths. They understand their organizational strengths and partner with others to mitigate their organizational weaknesses. In contrast to the trends earlier this decade when it started to feel like major cause marketers were shifting to owning self-made cause platforms over building partnership portfolios, this strengths-based approach is facilitating significant creativity and impact.

Instead of adopting a certain trend in structure or activation, today’s cause marketing leaders are focusing on what will work for them. For some, that is creating an owned national platform with local and agency partners providing support. For others, it is forging one or more partnerships of complementary opposites who each bring what the other needs. Through collaboration, they are then able to achieve the business and social impact results that they could not have achieved on their own.

Four Examples from Cause Marketing Forum 2016:

A few examples (of many, many more) that I found particularly instructive from last week’s event:

Youth1) Aria Finger, CEO of DoSomething.org, highlighted how they use their deep understanding of what makes young people tick to ensure that their partnerships are meaningful (and hip).

  1. 2) Ido Leffler, Co-Founder and CEO of Yoobi, spoke of Yoobi’s core competencies (product, design, and creativity) and their need to find retail and cause partners to bring their vision for business and social impact to life, saying “We do what we do best and we partner with others to do the rest.”


3) Michael Meyer, Vice President of Donated Goods Retail and Marketing at Goodwill Industries International, spoke about how the organization is using its brand strength and retail footprint to provide value for partners, in return for the new audiences and distribution channels that partners like Uber and The Container Store provide.

4) 2016 Halo Award Best Digital Campaign Gold Winners Samsung and Autism Speaks Canada provided countless examples including the profound use of Samsung’s technological strength along with Autism Speaks Canada’s expertise and credibility in serving families living with autism. Together, they created and promoted an app that uses the rear-facing camera on a mobile device to help children with autism practice working on eye contact.

Whether we are designing a platform, portfolio, or single partnership, we must first get real about the strength of the currencies, competencies and capabilities that we have in the context of what we want to accomplish. Then, we need to fill the gaps through custom alliances that both expand on others’ strengths and fill a gap for them.

Thanks and kudos to each of the phenomenal cause marketers who presented and won awards at last week’s event.