Three Questions Nonprofits Must Ask Corporate Sponsors

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Keefe Harrison

Every nonprofit’s survival depends on having enough resources to solve the problem the organization was created to address. With the federal government taking an increasingly smaller role in solving social and environmental problems, nonprofits are turning to a source few would have thought of just a few years ago – companies.  

The benefits of teaming up with big brands, retailers, and manufacturers are easy to dream up. From a nonprofit point of view, it seems that they must have deep pockets, wide reach, and many are vocal about their social and environmental commitments. Corporate social responsibility is on the rise. More companies are becoming part of movements like Conscious Capitalism and Certified B Corporations that are committed to elevating humanity through business. An increasing number of corporations are using their power and influence to make an impact on controversies previously avoided for fear of alienating part of their audience. Consider how Viacom and other media outlets withdrew from a Saudi conference after the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Nike picked Colin Kaepernick as their spokesman. Patagonia directly challenged President Trump’s decision about national parks. Things feel different now. So what do we nonprofits do about it?

At The Recycling Partnership, we have more than 40 business sector funders – from retailers like Amazon and Target, to consumer goods companies like PepsiCo and Unilever, and many more. Each day we work to turn corporate dollars into community change. And that means we need strong answers to hard questions, questions maybe you, your staff and your board are also asking. Would accepting money from a corporate-driven entities tempt us to stray from our mission? How would we manage it if competitive companies were on the same board? How does a nonprofit manage expectations from a large single funder?

Strong partnerships are built through honest relationships and communications. In order to create this kind of relationship, nonprofits need to ask three questions of any potential funder before the relationship begins.

  • Do you believe in our mission? Before asking this question, nonprofits need to know what their own purpose, goals and core values are. Take a look at your mission documents and ask yourself if they are clear from a future-funding partner perspective. How do we best accept money from a corporate-driven entity while staying true to our mission? This needs to be written down, discussed, and shared with every member of the organization. But think beyond a purpose statement to what is at the core of your work. What are the core values that define not WHAT you do but instead HOW and WHY you do this good work? They shape every decision that is made, and every relationship that is managed. For instance, one of the core values of my organization include embracing change and driving action. Another is acting with intention and integrity. Together we hope these show our staff and funders that we are mission driven change agents, purposefully working in a thoughtful and reliable way. Establishing them allows your organization to protect your space and be mission driven. When talking to prospective partners, state your mission clearly and definitively in language that is consistent with their values and goals. This not only allows you to maintain your integrity, but shows that you understand who they are and what they value.
  • Will you fund our mission? In 2016, corporations donated nearly $19 billion to nonprofit organizations in the U.S. alone. Any prospective partner needs to be ready to go beyond words to financial action. So what can you as a nonprofit leader do to be ready to accept their contribution? A key element of this is that they need to be ready to trust your organization to spend the money as you see fit, while being the change agents on the issues that drew them to you in the first place. Think about what drives a potential corporate funder and then consider how you can frame your work in their terms. Ask questions about their goals, their key performance indicators, and then listen to the words they use and observe the measurement mechanism they put forward. How can you use those terms to help facilitate an understanding about the importance of your work? Take a look at your monthly or quarterly reporting scorecard and consider if it reflects the type’s assessments they’ll be looking for. Remember, you don’t want to change the type of good work your organization does, but you may need to change how you talk about it. Once granted, you have the legal right to consider a corporate contribution that of your organizations. Contributors also need to know you will be transparent about how the money is being used and the results you are getting.
  • Do you play well with others? Collaboration is key to every partnership. Good collaboration is built on a foundation of respect. Both sides must be honest in their behavior, action and words. They must listen to each other and celebrate victories and find solutions to problems with equal enthusiasm. They must be confident, but never arrogant and ready to embrace respectful challenges and differing opinions. Treating everyone from partners to employees to community leaders the way you want to be treated creates a productive working relationship. That can also mean that as your funding list grows, you may have competitive companies funding your nonprofit. There may be a time that you need to remind them that while they may fight for sales, when it comes to solving social and environmental problems, we’re all in this together. 

At The Recycling Partnership, we have taken those three questions and turned them into successful relationships with more than 30 U.S. high profile companies including Coca-Cola, Target, P&G, Heineken, and PepsiCo. 

Partnership is part of our name for a reason and our work shows that carefully navigating the world of corporate funding can make a difference. In four short years, The Recycling Partnership has worked with more than 900 communities across the nation by providing tools, resources and technical support. We have placed new recycling carts in nearly 500,000 US homes, reaching another 40 million households with stronger recycling programs. Together we’ve enabled companies and communities to invest more than $32 million in the US recycling infrastructure. The results of these on-the-ground projects are remarkable: 164,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases have been diverted. That’s the equivalent of removing enough cars from the road to circle the globe, and then some. 

Partnerships allow The Recycling Partnership to be an action agent for thoughtful, positive change. Corporations can be the engine to get your organization to where you want to be … if you just know what to ask.


Keefe Harrison is the CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization that leverages corporate partner funding to transform recycling for good in cities and towns all across America.

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