Social Services Agencies and Other Nonprofits Struggle to Build Relationships with New Corporate Partners, but Deeper Levels of Engagement Extend Beyond Hard Dollars

The Boston Herald

October 29, 2012

Making the first key outreach to potential corporate partners is the biggest challenge for nonprofits in Massachusetts, according to a survey released jointly today by the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network and Natixis Global Asset Management (NGAM), one of the 15 largest asset managers in the world.

The challenge is particularly daunting for nonprofit human service agencies, which need creative ways to stand out amidst competition from larger arts and cultural organizations.

More than half of the 103 Massachusetts nonprofits surveyed said they were “least effective” in making “initial contact” with potential business partners and identified that as the most difficult part of getting support from the business community.

“Breaking the ice is hard in any new relationship, and it’s particularly challenging for human service and other nonprofits pursuing corporate partners in an increasingly competitive landscape,” said John Hailer, president and chief executive officer of NGAM – The Americas and Asia. “Nonprofits are an essential part of our community fabric, delivering services that provide a safety net and help fuel our economy. Those that provide critical human services are too easily overshadowed by large cultural organizations and brand-name arts and humanities nonprofits.”

Even after contact is made, demonstrating the value proposition for a potential corporate partnership is daunting. More than 35 percent of survey respondents rated “identifying how businesses will benefit from partnering with my organization” as one of the things at which they are least effective. Compounding the challenge is fierce competition from others in the nonprofit sector, including well-known arts and cultural organizations. In fact, nearly three-quarters (almost 74 percent) of organizations surveyed believe it is more difficult for nonprofits that focus on core social services to gain corporate support for their organization.

“The private sector can be a powerful partner to nonprofits and, as the survey illustrates, it is often under-leveraged by human service organizations,” said Rick Jakious, CEO of the Massachusetts

Nonprofit Network. “Human service organizations can benefit from the time, talent and treasure of the private sector. It is critical, however, that they understand that strong corporate engagement must be based on real partnership, not just checkbook philanthropy.”

Several of those surveyed said their most effective partnerships were with corporations that took time to learn about the organization they were supporting and who understood the significance of its mission. Many also reported that corporations are increasingly expressing a desire to take an active role in the work of their nonprofit partners. Other organizations said businesses are demanding “accountability” on the part of the non-profits and evidence of positive outcomes that result from their work.

“A plaque at a homeless shelter doesn’t reach the same number of eyes as a sponsorship ad at a musical program or a fundraising gala,” Hailer said. “But the relationship created offers a different – and often deeper – kind of experience. Both parties benefit from that.”

Jakious observed that while “marketing and brand visibility” are key metrics by which corporate funders evaluate potential partnerships, there are other measures which play better to the strengths of human service organizations. Chief among them: the opportunities a partnership provides to engage employees of the company.

“Employee engagement, when executed well, is a win-win for the nonprofit and its partner. And it can come in the form of one-day or ongoing volunteer opportunities,” Jakious said. “Increasingly, employers are seeking out skill-based volunteer opportunities. This can be a source of crucial expertise to a nonprofit, such as legal support, financial guidance, marketing expertise and so forth.”

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