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Strengthening Your Company's Image through Non-Profit Partnerships
by Beth Armknecht Miller


Developing a relationship with a non-profit partner can provide your company with a number of benefits; one is an enhanced and more visible image within your community.

The public's desire to support companies who back social causes has been on the rise during the past several decades. Last fall after the tragic events of September 11th, this desire was at an all time high with 92% of Americans having a more positive image of companies and products that support causes - up from 81% in March 2001 as measured by the Cone/Roper 2001 Corporate Citizenship Survey.

These statistics can't be ignored. But it is important not to rush into a non-profit partnership (NPP) just because it will help your company image. A partnership is only successful when both sides benefit from a sincere desire to assist each other. There is great risk if the public perceives a company's community efforts as self-serving and not sincere. Also, careful management of a partnership is required for ultimate success: a stronger company image.

How does a company demonstrate a sincere desire to help a social cause?

Developing a Social Responsibility Statement, which documents a company's social values, and why it supports a specific cause, will communicate to company stakeholders the relevance of your partnership. Sincere desire is also demonstrated by a significant resource commitment by a company, which includes: executives' leadership, employee volunteer time, and cash and/or in-kind donations. Research has shown that cash alone is viewed as self-serving and won't provide the improvement of your company's image you are looking for. Finally the length of the NPP is an important component in demonstrating to the public your sincere commitment to a specific non-profit organization. It is very common for corporations to partner with nonprofits for three years or longer.

What Non-Profit Organization should you partner with?

There are thousands of non-profit organizations in the world. Based on the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Guide, five key areas need to be evaluated to determine the right partner for you. They are: mission and values of the organization, financials, board governance, operational efficiency, and organizational strength. Companies will generally create an employee volunteer team to conduct the evaluations, which in itself can have hidden benefits of increasing employee morale and developing team-building skills. Below is an evaluation checklist that an employee team can use.

  1. The organization's mission and values should match with your social responsibility statement.

  2. If they are a partner with the United Way or receive funds from a major national foundation, then they have met a very extensive set of guidelines and you can move to step #5.

  3. A review of their financial statements should meet the following criteria:
    • At least 50% of total income from all sources should be spent on programs and activities directly related to the organization's purposes;
    • At least 50% of public contributions should be spent on the programs and activities described in solicitations, in accordance with donor expectations;
    • Fund raising costs should not exceed 35% of related contributions;
    • Total fund raising and administrative costs should not exceed 50% of total income;
    • Have net assets available for use in the following fiscal year not usually more than twice the current year's expenses or twice the next year's budget, whichever is higher; and
    • Not have a persistent deficit in net current assets.

      If they are not found in either website, they may be a young organization with little financial history. Ask them for their IRS form 990 to determine if they have IRS 501 (c) (3) status. If they will not share their 501 (c) (3) status information or they don’t file, then you can stop researching. If they do file or provide you with documentation of their tax status, then continue on to the next step.

  4. The board should have the following:

    • An independent, volunteer membership,
    • A minimum of 5 voting members, with specific terms of office for its officers and members,
    • In-person, face-to-face meetings, at least twice a year, evenly spaced, with a majority of voting members in attendance at each meeting,
    • No more than one paid staff person as a board member, usually the chief staff officer, who shall not chair the board or serve as treasurer,
    • Policy guidelines to avoid material conflicts of interest involving board or staff,
    • No material conflicts of interest involving board or staff,

      In addition to an effective board structure, there may be board members who could increase the benefits of the partnership such as an executive from a current client or vendor.

  5. A review of the current strategic business plan should include:

    • Logic model
    • Outcome Measurements
    • Benchmark against similar organizations.

  6. Past partnerships with other companies
    • If yes, what were the results? Get references.
    • If no, how does their organization plan to support the partnership?

Once you have identified two or three potential partners, a final meeting is needed to present your proposal to them. This proposal will include an introduction of your company, why you are considering the nonprofit and a description of the proposed partnership with specific goals and benefits that will be the result of the partnership. One of these goals should be an enhanced company image.

Factors in successfully managing a non-profit partnership

After you have created the partnership, successful management of the partnership will be critical to meeting the defined goals and reaping the benefits. Several key factors are involved in managing the NPP. These factors include a management team represented by areas of the company that will benefit from the partnership such as marketing, public relations, and human resources as well as a senior member of the nonprofit. Also a key executive (preferably the CEO) should be visible during the partnership.

Integrating two key processes between organizations, communications and measurements, is another factor. In order to effectively communicate between both parties a communications process needs to be developed and deployed. A sound measurement system to measure results needs to be consistent across organizations as well so both organizations know how they are performing against their goals. Finally review the partnership on a consistent basis and document the lessons learned.

As your company becomes successful with its nonprofit partnership, you may be ready to take on another partnership. When this time comes remember to use the lessons learned during the creation and development of your first partnership to insure the new partnership's success.

Partnering with a nonprofit can provide a company with not only an enhanced company image but also the process can be fulfilling to the team when goals are met. Careful attention to the process of choosing your partner and then managing the partnership will provide your company with the goals you are looking for as well as having a positive impact on your non-profit partner.


The Author


Beth Armknecht Miller is Co-founder and Chairwoman of the Board for MA&A Group, Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm specializing in strategic philanthropy to major corporations. Established in 1989, as a technology and accounting consulting firm by Ms. Miller and her husband, the company scored #199 in the 1996 Inc. 500 ranking of America's 500 fastest growing, privately held companies. In 2001, they redefined their mission to deliver strategic philanthropy plans to corporations that will deliver mutual benefits to the community as well as business.

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Copyright 2002 by Beth Armknecht Miller. All rights reserved.

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