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Jennifer Jones, MBA, Director, Indigo Love of Reading Foundation

I recently was on a panel at an AFP session on the topic of what corporations are looking for from their charity partners. The room was full which was a pleasant surprise and yet, also disappointing. It’s 2014 – why are we still learning to navigate these critical relationships? Building successful partnerships is hardly a new concept yet it was a lively discussion. Here are some of the key insights.

Charities, follow the process: If a corporation asks you to follow a specific process to submit a grant or a sponsorship request, please do that. We’ve given this process a lot of thought. When you honour it, you have the opportunity to put your best foot forward. And maybe, as you start the process you’ll realize how poor a fit the partnership would be and you’ve saved yourself – and me – time. And that’s a good thing considering how time strapped we both are. There’s a misconception that corporations have big teams and big money but believe it or not most of us run really lean – I run Indigo’s social responsibility portfolio as a team of two.

Leverage relationships: Sure, you can use your network to jump the queue – maybe one of your Board members knows my CEO – in fact, that’s very smart. But it’s not a guarantee. Thankfully most executives these days understand we have a strategic focus, which isn’t overridden because of relationships. Our cause is children’s literacy and no matter how much an executive might love dolphins, we’re not redirecting funding for dolphin research! What that introduction will do is expedite the conversation and we’ll both figure out, probably with a quick phone call, if there’s a potential partnership to explore.

Date 1 introductions: If we meet in person to dig a little deeper, please don’t come with what you believe is the solution for how we’re going to work together. Slow down, after all, this is only our first date! Show that you’ve done your research about our organization, as I have done about yours. This is the time to really understand each other’s business goals and how working together can be mutually beneficial. This is the time for both sides to come with thought starters and have the other react to them. This is the time to decide: do we go on date two?

Date 2 and beyond: Assuming our goals are aligned, we’ll keep dating as we dig deep to develop our goals and strategic plan. You’ll have to trust me to sell it internally so we get the resources we need to be successful. After all, as a team of only 2, or 4 or 5, corporate foundations and CSR teams lean heavily on the corporate resources to run a successful partnership.

A beautiful marriage: When we’re committed partners, like in any relationship, the work isn’t done. There needs to be clear and consistent communication on progress and results as originally agreed upon. And if all those criteria are met, then this could turn into a beautiful marriage. After all the time and effort put into the partnership, that’s what we really hope for. It’s way more productive than always being on date number one!

Corporations, pay it forward: if your first date doesn’t work out, consider introducing the charity to organizations you think would be a good fit. If I don’t have anyone in mind, I often suggest a quick brainstorm session over the phone to identify untapped opportunities. Yes, it reflects well on me and Indigo but it also is just the right thing to do and it’s one more way I can pay it forward.

Lastly… I just received this question from the organizer of an event bringing together a NFP and its charity and corporate partners.“What changes have you seen in the role of partnerships between nonprofits and corporations, and what in direction do you see these partnerships heading?” My answer? As charities are increasingly able demonstrate their social impact I feel the power imbalance between charities and corporations is slowly starting to equalize. And I’m all for it.

Jennifer spent her early years in marketing communications, across industries in Toronto and Asia. She worked at CIBC Small Business marketing and sponsorship and then joined the CIBC Corporate Sponsorship team to run the CIBC Run for the Cure and Weekend to End Breast Cancer. Jennifer joined Indigo six years ago with responsibility for Indigo’s social investments, overseeing the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation and the launch of Adopt a School, Indigo’s first cause marketing program, which unites stores, schools and their communities to puts books into the hands of children across Canada.