The Art and Science of Great Nonprofit Partnerships

Relationships with stakeholders are the cornerstone of any good CSR program. For many corporations, nonprofits represent a major community stakeholder. For that reason, most CSR programs include financial support for nonprofits. These programs can take many forms. But working in CSR means you’ll work with many nonprofits. Some will see you as the “lady with the money.” Others will approach your relationship more in a more holistic way.

Developing great nonprofit partnerships is much bigger than “giving.” Great partnerships benefit both the nonprofit and the corporation.

Consider these tips in developing great partnerships that stand the test of time:


The “Thrill of the Chase” Shouldn’t Exist Here

I made my living as a fundraiser for almost a decade. It’s easy for those who have never worked in that kind of job to think a fundraiser’s job is to “chase money.” It’s not. There are a healthy number of money chasers in the nonprofit sector. And while they’re not exactly ambulance chasers, the same generalizations apply. A person like this hears about a corporation who gives, let’s say, $20 million a year in grants. They’ll think to themselves, “How do I get a slice of that?!” This happens all the time, and for the most part, it’s innocuous. But a good fundraiser asks a different question. “Is my organization a good fit for that organization’s priorities?” Chasing down a funder and hounding them with calls and emails will not work. Nonprofits must ask strategic questions to find the fit. If the fit isn’t there, let it go.

The same goes for CSR professionals. It’s tempting to just go “chase down” a nonprofit that fits in your giving guidelines and dole out the money. But that isn’t a partnership. It’s a gift. And while it might be helpful to the nonprofit short term, it doesn’t help anyone in the long term outlook. A nonprofit fitting in your guidelines doesn’t mean it’s the right partner. What are their philosophies on partnership? How do they measure success? Does their financial outlook look the way you’d want it to as a partner? These are all more important questions than whether they fit your guidelines.

Good partnerships should happen naturally and most of the time slowly. The “chase” might be thrilling, but it’s not strategic..

Communication Counts

I once heard Dr. Phil say that the key to any good marriage lies in 4 minutes. What happens in the 4 minutes when a couple comes back together at the end of a day? Do you yell at each other? Do you complain about your day? Or are you gentle and loving and kind? It might seem like a strange analogy, but it’s an important one as well. No CSR professional or nonprofit employee can talk to their partners every day. But communication – good communication – is key to a great relationship.

Think about those first 4 minutes you spend with a partner after you haven’t spoken for a few weeks or a few months. What happens in that time? For nonprofits, do you try to prove your worth in those 4 minutes? Do you jump into “highlights”? Or do you immediately talk about what’s wrong and where you need help? For funders, do you start conversations talking about grant reports or next year’s funding? These kinds of conversations are just like spouses complaining at the end of a long day. Avoid them!

Try to communicate often and build the relationship. Nonprofit partners, read up on your corporate friends and their company’s priorities. Did the company recently go through a difficult quarter? A merger? A leadership transition? Ask about those things. Don’t just frame them in the context of what it means for you. How does this affect your partner? Their strategy? Their jobs? CSR professionals, do the same for your nonprofits. Perhaps you didn’t get to the recent event they had. Ask how it was. Ask about staff members and transitions. Get to know the organization as best you can.

These simple  communications tactics will build partnerships between organizations. They also breed good partnerships between people. Which brings me to my next tip…

Get Personal

Providing funds to a nonprofit can be a personal experience for a CSR professional. CSR professionals discuss funding with Boards of Directors or leadership teams. In some cases, external stakeholder groups even vet partnership requests. They have to want to fight for your cause. It’s not enough for that individual to feel the organization is a good fit. They also have to believe that you (yes, YOU!) are going to be a good steward of that money.

In my job, I may love an organization. I may want to see them succeed in their mission. But what usually sells me is the people of that nonprofit. I fight for a partner when I believe its people are the best equipped to do the job. For this reason, you must be willing to get to know your partners as individuals.
I’m not saying you should Facebook friend them, don’t get me wrong. There is a line in the sand of professionalism at some point just like there is with your boss or coworkers. But letting someone get to know you, getting to know them, builds good partnerships.


There are many ways to build good partnerships. These are just a few tips to get you there. Remember, partnerships are two way streets. They’re about hand shakes, not hand outs. Keep that in mind, and you will do well.

Posted in: CSR

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