The last ten years I have been “all about” strategic business nonprofit partnerships. I first truly became committed to this topic as a result of my consulting work with the national network of Governors’ Commissions on National and Community Service and the AmeriCorps programs they fund in their respective states. In trainings I give on performance measurement and evaluation, I always find myself up on a soapbox telling program staff they HAVE to measure their impact –for decision-making and continuous improvement of their programs and to share with community stakeholders (including businesses) to leverage additional resources and grow their support base.
However, as I am playing cheerleader promoting a can do attitude, I often hear loud laments from nonprofit staff about the difficulty of connecting with businesses even when they have personal connections and strong data to show why supporting their AmeriCorps program was a good investment and added value to the local community. I could see clearly the value of the work they were doing – because I helped them measure it – and I knew that added resources would allow them to expand and deepen what they were doing – serve more people and insure a strong enough “dose of services” to insure a positive impact. So…clearly something wasn’t clicking with the businesses they approached or was somehow “missing in translation.”
While I have heard great stories from initially exuberant nonprofit executives about how they got a $500 check from Business XYZ, I have also heard how they never got another penny in subsequent years. Or how after sending out a hundred solicitation letters asking for donations, they got no responses – leaving some nonprofit staff feeling discouraged and that the business sector does not care. So I began wondering, what is REALLY going on if good programs aren’t able to connect with businesses with whom there should be an affinity and that I knew believed in being good community citizens and were willing to step up and get involved.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that one problem was that many nonprofits were trying to connect with businesses like yours basically by begging for donations. If there were no dollars available the conversation was shut down; combined with so many needy and worthy nonprofits out there also making requests, their voice was lost in the crowd. To address this issue, I designed a new training curricula for state service commission board members on how to develop strategic partnerships with businesses with Eileen Sweeney, former head of United Airlines Foundation and now with the Motorola Foundation. We focused on shifting the old checkbook philanthropy paradigm to weave business and nonprofit interests together for mutual benefit. Our joint work proved very successful. The nonprofit staff and board members “got” the distinction and many retooled their asks to present themselves as assets helping companies address their goals, while contributing to their communities.
Since those early days, I’ve continued to hear success stories about connections with businesses from nonprofit leaders I have trained. However, I still hear a lot about the challenges, as well. Clearly, there still is work to be done on both sides. Nonprofits need to learn how to stop begging and think about mutual benefits so their business supporters benefit from the relationship, too. Companies, especially smaller ones, need to learn about effective strategies and approaches for their business giving to insure impact! Mutually beneficial business-nonprofit relationships are NOT a “no brainer”; they require intentional strategies that build on both organizations’ strengths, connections, and needs in order to make a real difference in the community and grow the business bottom line.
So I founded my business to provide training and consulting to help both types of organizations work more effectively and impactfully together. My first business name was Hyatt International, Ltd. After several years I finally got the message that the business name did not help people understand what I am doing and I was so often confused with the hotel chain. My name brings that issue up anyway but the straw that broke the camel’s back was at the San Francisco Green Festival where I had a booth four years ago during a hospitality industry strike. I had so many activists come up to me totally mad and confrontational because they though I was affiliated with the hotel. I left my booth unguarded for a few minutes to hit the rest room and came back to find someone had stolen all my collected business cards. Enough of that. I changed my business name to Business Nonprofit CONNECTIONS, Inc. Much clearer now…
Thanks for reading my story. Writing it was a great reminder for me how deep my commitment is to business philanthropy and partnership with nonprofits that is strategic, intentional, makes a REAL difference and is win-win with benefits for all.
Let me know how I can help your organization engage more effectively in this important endeavor!