Moving from corporate fundraising to strategic corporate partnerships

Should charities and small NGOs  rethink their approach to corporate partnerships in a competitive, dynamic marketplace where access to corporate funding is finite?. Yes, if they are to survive in the long term.


I see an increasing number of recruitment ads where the title says ‘corporate partnerships manager’ but the copy further down says “seeking an exceptional corporate fundraiser”  and uses language which is more akin to managing corporate sponsorships and relationships. The language of partnering is used interchangeably to describe what is more about corporate fundraising and sponsorship. It maybe a matter of pragmatic expediency to do that but it has wider consequences for the substance of the relationship.

It is understood that charities and small NGOs need funding to operate. And do so by pursuing a transactional, philanthropic relationship : a discrete time, issue or programme related effort with an emphasis on financial contribution, employee volunteerism and public relations. Philanthropic partnerships typically draw in one or two core partner competencies.  They may involve minimal complexity but bring short term gains to both partners. They can be risky. If the charity or NGO  is perpetually preoccupied with fund-raising, it may fail to see the bigger picture and its strategic place in it.

The reality is that transactional corporate -non-profit sector partnerships operate in a world which is changing.

On the one side are societal pressures. Emerging geo-political, social, environmental, technological and economic trends will change priorities for governments, businesses and the civil society. This will affect the dynamics of future cross-sector collaboration. It will be about delivering  more joined up  systemic transformation and less about piece meal change driven by parochial interests of individual organizations or sectors.

On the other side is an increasingly crowded, highly competitive marketplace. There may be close to 40,000 major NGOs in the world. Charities, non-profits and community-based organizations number in their hundreds of thousands.  It is not uncommon to find several NGOs and charities going for the head, heart and pocket of the same company.  In the ensuing competition for executive attention and cheque books, knowing how to stand out from the crowd with a more compelling case becomes critical. The reality is that however important or high profile a cause or how established the contractual relationship or how big the PR effort, economic realities will eventually favor the survival of the smartest.

Corporate funding is a finite pot. Companies face increasing pressures on their discretionary budgets. The need to link their social investment more closely to the core business and value chain, and provide evidence of impact of such investment will push many companies to take a more considered and critical look at their options. I have certainly been at the receiving end of the revolving door syndrome  in my corporate career and have always chosen to go for the organization and programme that had the closest link to our core business. A strategic and transformational partnership paradigm was more attractive than an opportunistic philanthropic one.

Differentiate through strategic partnerships

NGOs and charities have some choices. They can continue with the status quo around philanthropic and opportunistic partnerships. They can increase their PR and campaign spend to reach  a wider donor pool.

Or they can break away from tradition and differentiate themselves by creating more strategic and content-rich partnerships with the corporate sector. This includes not feeling constrained by having to target only global businesses but also seek out  small and medium-sized or regional companies for local mutually beneficial partnerships.

Strategic partnerships will involve more effort. But, when effective, they will yield significantly higher benefits than a philanthropic partnership. By tapping more smartly into the core competencies, skills and know-how of all partners –resources and assets, local presence , technical expertise, marketing know-how, advocacy and convening power, supply chain and distribution networks etc – the partnership can deliver more substantive outcomes for the partners and its beneficiaries in the community.

The more entrepreneurial NGOs, non-profits and charities can move away from short term expedient thinking and a legacy way of working (especially where it has been conditioned by risk aversion, strategic gaps or a scarcity of the right kind of resources and competencies) into a more innovative space.  In time, as the transformational partnerships movement grows, such entities would be well positioned to facilitate systemic change around cross-cutting challenges across the globe – whether it is access to health care or clean water or energy, gender equality, child poverty or youth skills.

All of this means NGOs and charities will need to develop a broader range of skills.  And specialized resource to help identify scope, build and manage effective partnerships with the corporate sector as a critical component of their strategy. What they should not do is to expand the role of an existing fund-raiser/relationship manager to do the strategic partnering work.   He/she is likely to have a very different set of skills, experiences and attributes when compared with a professional partnership broker/ facilitator. However good the person might be in raising funds, you cannot assume they can make the leap into partnership facilitation and management. It may do more harm than good if the partnering process fails to achieve its ambition because of a poor partnership brokering approach.

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