Attracting Corporate Support: One Nonprofit Leader’s Approach
Corporate grant makers and marketers channel billions of dollars to nonprofits each year. But it can be hard to connect with companies and secure a grant, especially if your nonprofit doesn’t have a relationship with an employee.
Plus, since 2020, the corporate giving landscape has shifted as many businesses changed the causes they support and the ways they work with grantees in response to the crises.
To help you navigate this terrain — and raise more money — the Chronicle gathered tips and lessons from Lauren Reilly, who spoke at a recent
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Corporate grant makers and marketers channel billions of dollars to nonprofits each year. But it can be hard to connect with companies to secure a grant, especially if your nonprofit doesn’t have a relationship with an employee.
Plus, since 2020, the corporate giving landscape has shifted as many businesses have changed the causes they support and the ways they work with grantees in response to the crises.
To help you navigate this terrain — and raise more money — the Chronicle gathered tips and lessons from Lauren Reilly, who spoke at a recent Chronicle webinar and is executive director of SuitUp, a nonprofit that pairs corporate employees with middle-school and high-school students in business competitions. SuitUp has significantly expanded its corporate support since 2020 as it has broadened its reach — and its volunteer opportunities for companies — through virtual programming.
Here’s what Reilly says.
Create an “internal champion” at the company. Once you’ve identified a potential grant maker, use social-media sites like LinkedIn to find an employee who seems interested in your cause and start a conversation. Ask the individual to meet you for coffee — in person or online — and try to get him or her excited about your mission.
Don’t ask for a donation, Reilly says. Instead, ask whom you should contact at the company to discuss a potential grant. Even a junior employee should be able to point you in the right direction and may be willing to provide an introduction.
This approach works well for SuitUp, she says. Corporate grant makers probably get hundreds of emails a day from nonprofits asking for something, so having an employee personally advocate for your organization increases your chances of getting a foot in the door.
Make this contact before applying through a company’s online portal. “Very rarely will those deliver anything unless you have a personal connection and they’ve asked you to apply,” Reilly says.
Encourage donors to participate in corporate gift-matching programs. Many companies offer these programs, but their employees often don’t know about them, she says. It’s worth designating someone at your nonprofit to focus on raising awareness among your donors. Have this person contact people when they make a gift to see if their company will make a match.
Even if a company doesn’t have such a policy, an inquiry from an employee could prompt it to consider matching a gift or learning more about your organization. “But if you don’t ask, they’re not going to organically do it on their own,” Reilly says.
Each year, SuitUp hires an intern who asks donors to request a match at their company — and offers to help them secure one. For example, the intern may offer to contact the company’s human-resource department for the donor or provide an email template for such an inquiry. Many donors would be willing to ask for a match but don’t have time, she says.
Be sure your employees have strong professional skills when interacting with corporate grant makers. “Every single day they are used to working with consummate professionals,” Reilly says. So they will be looking for that same level of professionalism when assessing your nonprofit as a potential grantee. Communications should be timely and appropriate, she suggests, and any materials you share with the company should be polished. The more your organization mirrors the professionalism these grant makers see in their day-to-day work, she says, the more you’ll seem like a safe bet for support.
Don’t hesitate to follow up. It’s OK to check in with a grant maker if you don’t get a response after a couple of days, Reilly says. Corporate social-responsibility departments often are the least-funded part of a company. Even corporations with tens of thousands of employees may have only a few staffers in that department, she says. So understand that these people are busy.
Don’t stray from your nonprofit’s mission and values. If a company wants you to take a different direction or do something that doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. “No amount of funding is worth giving up your integrity,” Reilly says. While it’s hard to turn down a grant — especially in the face of economic uncertainty ― you have to be able to sleep at night. “Walking away from funding is just as important as figuring out who to get funding from,” she says.
Develop a pitch that is aligned with the company’s values and interests. When approaching a potential grant maker, Reilly says, develop a “value proposition.” In other words, figure out what your organization can offer — such as volunteer or pro bono consulting opportunities for corporate employees — that would benefit both the company and your nonprofit.
Look at the corporate foundation’s website to understand what values and causes are important to the organization, she suggests. Then think of engagement opportunities you could provide that fit in with those priorities. For instance, if you are working with a financial-services company, you could see if they have junior employees who would be interested in helping your nonprofit with accounting for the year. “It has nothing to do with your mission, but it allows a couple of employees to truly give their expertise to your organization,” she says.
Position your organization as integral to reaching the company’s business goals, not just their philanthropic objectives. This is especially important in turbulent economic times like these, Reilly says, when some corporations may be considering reducing their giving.
For example, SuitUp recognizes that many companies are prioritizing efforts to diversify their employees so the nonprofit is highlighting how its programs help foster a diverse work force. “Now, instead of just going to [corporate social responsibility departments], my team is talking to the head of operations or HR and saying, ‘Hey, we are a solution to your talent pipeline problem,” Reilly says.
Create volunteer opportunities for junior employees. Many early-career corporate employees want to get involved with nonprofits but don’t know how, she says, so that’s a big opportunity for fundraisers. SuitUp has had a lot of success engaging these employees in activities such as career coaching or mentorship for its own junior staff.
Once you’ve engaged early-career employees, consider creating a junior board. SuitUp’s junior board has 30 members, whose gifts provide an important source of revenue. But the employees also feel like they are making a difference and can add the experience to their résumé, Reilly says.
Offer ways for employees to volunteer online. After Covid hit, SuitUp adapted its programming so it could provide virtual, in-person, and hybrid activities for corporate volunteers. That way, the nonprofit could cater to any company that was interested regardless of where its employees were located, Reilly says. And they plan to keep offering virtual volunteer opportunities.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. “There’s no secret sauce,” Reilly says. “A lot of it is trial and error and figuring out, ‘spaghetti to the wall,’ how do I get these people to give me money?” Simply try a lot of things and see what works for your nonprofit, she says.