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What Non-Profits Need to Consider Before Seeking Corporate Resources

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I receive unsolicited proposals from non-profits, their staff and board members non-stop. To be frank, it’s to the point now where I can generally tell when they’ve not done their homework before reaching out. It actually feels more like they’re going through an exercise of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Now, having worked in both the non-profit sector for a good part of my professional life, I can sincerely say I respect the hustle. I get it, I’ve been there. And during these harsh economic times it’s struggle-street for many seeking resources. However, I’m of the belief that this behavior is quietly sabotaging their efforts and others who work in the non-profit sector at large.

Oh of course, you can make a strong argument that there’s some responsibility companies bear in terms of communicating to the non-profit sector how one can gain resources (i.e. monetary and in-kind donations, employee volunteers, advocacy). But, many simply don’t.

To help bridge that gap though, there are membership-based organizations that as a value-added give access to corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals for their non-profit membership. This access of course aimed at giving their non-profit membership insight to how a non-profit can more successfully work with for-profit companies. Unfortunately, many non-profits aren’t members of these membership-based organizations.

Over the years I’ve had an opportunity to share insight with non-profits, membership-based associations and even one-on-one with individuals trying to better understand CSR and how they might gain a company’s resources. So, this post will focus on just that. I’ll share my unique insight to what CSR is, how companies set goals, how non-profits might connect, and of course, if folks want to connect one-on-one with specific questions you know I’m happy to do that as well. So, first things first, we must define CSR.

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What is corporate social responsibility or CSR?

As defined by, CSR is “a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable - to itself, its stakeholders, and the public”. That’s a very simple answer, but truthfully, it’s that simple of a definition. Just understand the term CSR can bear other names, for example, some companies and professionals within the field call it Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Social Impact, Corporate Philanthropy or just Corporate Responsibility. You may even hear people refer to it within the for-profit private sector as just Social Impact, Sustainability, Community Relations, Philanthropy or some variation of these. And to make matters more confusing is that all of these terms are correct. So, for me, in an attempt to be more inclusive with my language, I just call it “Responsible Business”.

Now, while the above is a simple definition followed by some language in how others may talk about it, I also must share that the idea of CSR (as responsible business) is much, much broader than just monetary or in-kind giving and volunteerism. Here’s what I mean. Beyond the act of traditional, episodic or skills-based forms of volunteering, or the occasional in-kind donation of supplies or financial contribution there are so many more categories that fall into what’s considered CSR. For example, CSR also includes practices within human resources to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments for employees and how they incorporate that through their hiring and retention mechanism. It includes employee benefits, wages and policies that create safe, fair and ethical operating and manufacturing practices that can be categorized as labor and human rights. CSR includes how a company sources material for the goods and services they provide to customers. Everything from the natural or synthetic product, from where and how it’s sourced and the carbon footprint associated can fall within the realm of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Just beware that everything described is simply scratching the surface on what a CSR program may contain. Remember, CSR in its broadest form has implications socially and environmentally outside the company, but also within. All of these factors even influence how a company may shape their goals (if they have goals).

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The how and why companies set goals… or don’t in many cases.

This is where things get complicated. I’ll preface this section by saying every company is different.

Everything from the size, industry, collective body of employees, the senior leadership, laws of the land and critical issues in the community shape whether or not a company sets goals and what those goals may include.

And truthfully this often depends on where a company may be with regards to their company’s own social impact journey. Just like each of us as professionals (all of us on differing spectrums of what I call the social impact journey) many companies are on a similar journey. Some of us have been working in the field of social impact for decades, others like myself have spent the greater part of ten years in the field, and others may just be starting.

Companies are no different.

What a company chooses to do to support their community depends on who’s driving this effort, whether they have dedicated staff (who may have subject matter expertise) or whether they’re working with a consultant to help drive this effort. Well, it won’t come as a surprise to hear from me that many don’t have dedicated staff with subject matter expertise, many aren’t working with a consultant and many are frankly winging it being left to their own devices. So, we’ll address two scenarios. The major company with a formalized program, and the small or medium sized business that doesn’t.

Large companies with the resources often times have the basic foundations necessary to create and make progress towards social impact and sustainability goals. In this case these companies are far enough into their social impact journey that they’re closer to what’s called ESG (environmental, social and governance) integration in terms of aligning their social-purpose with their traditional business functions more holistically.

For these companies they often create social impact goals where they more naturally fit and connect with the overall business strategy. For example, if a company is in the information technology industry, they may align their resources as a company to support community-based organizations that have workforce development and training programs for youth who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Or, for companies in the food or hospitality industry, they may seek to support the American foodbank system. For companies within the lodging industry, they may more naturally fit to support those living on the spectrum of homelessness or disaster relief and recovery efforts, simply because they’re better positioned to support those who are displaced.

This is the nexus of where a company’s resources align with the needs of the community. For these large companies their goals may be more focused on outcomes and science-based goals (i.e. number of youths trained and hired, or reduction of company’s overall carbon footprint by a certain percentage).

Now, on the other hand, smaller companies without the requisite resources for a fully-baked social impact strategy, they may operate in a less sophisticated way. For example, they may focus more on the current opportunity in the moment, or perhaps align their support with the passions of leadership or even the employees in a more democratic way. In these instances, the monetary, in-kind and voluntary donations of time may be of smaller values and quantity and less intentional with how it aligns with their brand, company values, or the true resources of that company. It’s often that the goals here may be more simplistic in nature (i.e. the goal is to just complete a set number of community-based activities or a set number of volunteer hours in a year). All of this influences how they interact with and support non-profits. Both current partnerships and those seeking a new relationship.

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Plugging into a company with current partnerships.

This is difficult to answer, mostly because every company is different. Companies differ in terms of the types of resources and amounts of said resources they have. Some companies have foundations with tens of millions of dollars, affording them a capability to issue multi-million multi-year grants for major non-profits. And other companies with lesser a budget may have so little money that they focus heavily on in-kind donations or volunteer support (i.e. skills-based and pro-bono services) to build the capacity of those they’re serving.

The bottom line here is that you truly can’t judge a book by its cover, and the same can be said for most companies. Yes, even those that make millions and even billions in revenue annually. Here’s why. Every company is as unique as the reasons they’re successful based on their business models.

Keep this in mind because a company may have current community-based partners that not just align with their social impact strategy, but they may have current partners who would lose funding if a new partner was brought on. And while that isn’t always the case, some companies (particularly those with smaller budgets) only have so many slices of pie. In instances where they’re pursued for a partnership by new courting organizations, those relationships may only go as deep as is allowable without reducing the support for current partners.

Some may also suggest or say that volunteer engagement opportunities are the best first opportunity to start (like a first date). I think that’s true in many cases. Just be sure the volunteer opportunities align and are accessible for that company’s workforce.

This gets be back to my first statement. Too often I see non-profit organizations throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. And honestly, that’s only doing more harm than good. Be conscious and educated about what you’re offering and who can access it. Here’s what I mean by that. If a company’s workforce is 90% hourly (non-exempt) employees and are customer-facing then it’s likely they have more barriers that’ll prevent participation. They may not be able to leave their place of work, perhaps they don’t have immediate and long-term access to a computer and in order to volunteer time, they may have to forgo a paycheck to volunteer because it’s at their manager’s discretion. All of these characteristics influence whether a company accepts or commits to certain types of opportunities. Whereas, someone that’s salaried (exempt) and works in a cubicle with regular access to the internet may not have the same barriers, allowing them to volunteer during working hours.

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Finding the sweet spot.

What I always share with non-profit organizations and their staff is that you must do your research and really understand where the sweet spot is. And there are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • How do you more effectively help that company achieve their goals?

  • Will this require a company to potentially reduce funding or support from a current partner?

  • Is there a natural fit that doesn’t create a situation where you’re trying to fit a square peg (the company) into a round hole (the non-profit’s programming)?

Understand what a company is seeking, then identify their pain points. What I always share is that if you can make reaching their goals (assuming their goals are in line with the community-based organization’s) easier then that’s a good start. This requires that you understand their goals, know their current partnerships and the challenges they may be facing. For many companies this can be gleaned by doing research about the company, their industry and finding information about who they’re working with in the community. And don’t stop there, if you’re able to help that company solve multiple goals through your programming, that’s even better. Here’s what I mean using an example. Many food-based non-profit organizations have several avenues that allow companies within hospitality and food service industries to achieve their social impact and sustainability goals at the same time.

Through one avenue, a food distribution center may provide the traditional and episodic volunteer opportunities to organize food in their warehouse. Separately, that same food distribution center may also provide education and training for members of that community about healthy eating, recipes to use and also food preparation classes. Which opens up opportunities for skills-based volunteers to not just build that curriculum, but also teach those courses for those who are trained culinarians. And lastly, many of these same organizations also have a food rescue program where they actively take food from hotels, restaurants and grocers that would otherwise toss that food out. Many companies in hospitality and food service industries have goals related to eliminating food waste from their establishments. In this example that single organization can benefit from the expertise and resources of companies within those industries, but in many cases can also help those same companies more easily achieve their social impact and sustainability goals. They hit that sweet spot other organizations should actively research to find.

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But once that research is done, then what?

This is yet another tricky part in that it requires connecting with that company and in some cases their CSR division or unit (assuming they have one). And this I think gets back to understanding where a company is within their social impact journey. Some companies are sophisticated and have a portal where they passively receive proposals. But, many don’t.

In these cases, there are several actions you can take. The one thing I would share is that this doesn’t always have to include the creation of a slide-deck or proposal. I say this because in the case of creating a proposal, that takes time, and I suspect unless you already have an established relationship or rapport with a company’s CSR team, the proposal will be dead-on-arrival. Why you ask? Because it assumes up front the company is at a place internally to accept or even want what’s being offered. It ignores the fact that you must court and go on “dates” like any new relationship.

Avoid all that and just try and get time with a member of that company’s CSR team, or the acting manager who may have that collateral duty for the company in instances they don’t have a CSR team or lead. Make this an exploratory conversation no longer than fifteen to twenty minutes. Why so little time? Well, understand that CSR professionals get solicitations every single day. Sometimes these are solicitations directly to my email, often times it’s directly through LinkedIn, or immediately after a gala, luncheon or other conference. So, be sensitive to that. While many non-profits have worthy missions, CSR professionals often times don’t need more than twenty minutes to know whether a community-based organization fits within their social impact or sustainability strategy. And just as important, they’ll already know whether they’re in a position to enter into a new partnership.

Just be aware that many CSR professionals are hypersensitive to solicitations. Because of that there’s a fair chance you might not receive a response. And while I’m not saying that’s right or wrong for them to do, I share that to say to expect it.

So, I’ve shared a brief overview that describes what CSR is, how people talk about it, how some companies create goals and just as important, how non-profits can connect with a company. But I also acknowledge and understand that this is just my one perspective and variances I’ve seen with other companies, industries and professionals. Care to hear more? Have specific questions? Let me know. I consider myself as someone who has an open-door policy. So, shoot me a note and we can discuss. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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