Cause Blog

How to choose a nonprofit partner, Part 2: Choosing a nonprofit.

By Ed Lord


This is part two of our five-part series on choosing a nonprofit partner. In Part 1, we covered how to choose your cause. You can start the series here. Now let’s examine your company's fit with an organization that affects that cause. 

There are over one million registered nonprofits. That makes finding a deserving organization that affects your cause easy. But finding the right organization is a lot tougher. The questions below will help you in making the process of vetting the organization you align with much easier:

  • Do the nonprofit’s values align with your company values? 
  • Does the nonprofit understand a partnership?
  • Does the organization benefit your stakeholders?
  • Can the organization enable you to have a big impact on your cause? 
  • Do you have faith in the organization delivering on their mission?
  • Who’s in charge there?
  • Are they legitimate?
  • Can they deliver?

Do the nonprofit’s values align with your company values?

Aligning the spirit of the two is becoming more and more important. For instance, a cool new startup company may want to align with the cool new cause. They can both gain from the trendiness of the other. On the other hand, a hundred-year-old insurance company may want to align with a long-established nonprofit that has a steady track record of doing good. The dependability factor can benefit them both. If your two mission statements seem like they could apply to either cause or company, that’s probably a good start. 

Does the nonprofit understand a partnership?

To successfully partner with an organization on a project or a cause, you need to find an nonprofit that understands the cause-related reasons your company supports an organization–as well as the business-related reasons. Before your company aligns itself with a nonprofit you must make sure the organization understands that you want to be more than just a funder. They need to know that you want to form a strategic partnership that has specific business benefits for both parties. Ask yourself:

  • Is the nonprofit coming to you with a funding proposal or are they wanting to start a conversation about how each partner can help the other, how funding the nonprofit can help achieve company goals?
  • Will the nonprofit provide marketing opportunities for the corporation highlighting its support and its good corporate citizenship to customers and employees?
  • Will the nonprofit help you to differentiate your company from the competition?
  • Does the organization have a plan to actually deliver on promises it's making to the company?
  • How are they going to measure results?
  • Does the organization benefit your stakeholders?

It’s a huge plus when an organization can directly touch your customers and employees. At the American Cancer Society we regularly went to the workplace of companies we aligned with and offered quit-smoking programs and nutrition programs. The mission of the nonprofit directly benefitted the company by educating employees on how to be healthier. It ultimately led to less sick days and lower medical insurance costs for the company. The same type of programs could be offered to customers. When the benefits of aligning with the cause can be applied directly to a company’s stakeholders, there’s a good synergy that benefits the nonprofit’s mission too.  

Can the organization enable you to have a big impact on your cause? 

It’s tempting to align with a well-known national nonprofit because their established cause brand can have a positive impact on your commercial brand by association. But unless you can generate massive dollars for the cause, you could find yourself a small fish in a big pond. If you’re a smaller corporate contributor, you may get your logo bumped below the fold. A bigger impact on a cause can mean more media coverage for your company.

Remember that nonprofits are corporations too. Like you, when seeking business partners they’re asking: “So what are you bringing to the table?” This relationship isn’t just about corporate cash any more. How much your employees and customer fundraise, how many volunteers you can provide, how much you’ll include the organization into your marketing and how deep you’ll integrate the cause into the company can be factors that can make a smaller company more attractive than a big fish for a nonprofit. If you’re really committed to the cause, you can bump bigger corporations out of that prestigious top partner spot with the depth of what you’re willing to provide beyond cash.

Many companies opt to invest cause dollars in the hometown of their corporate headquarters or where the biggest employee base is. This gives them the opportunity to completely own a well-respected local or regional cause. And perhaps more important, it prevents the embarrassment of your out-of-town competition from owning the big cause on your own turf. If you let that opportunity pass to a competitor, it can be a little like them planting their billboard on top of your corporate headquarters building. 

It can be better to be loved locally and have a tangible impact than to spread yourself thin with a national cause. It’s also expected that as a local corporate citizen, you’ll help locally. If you’re giving dollars to Africa and not helping the needy locally, the community may think you don’t care about your own community.

Do you have faith in the organization delivering on their mission?

Many of the same criteria you use in choosing a business partner should be applied when choosing a nonprofit partner. Does the organization have sound financial management? Are they poised for growth? Will they be around in a few years? 

There’s the possibility that an organization is coming to you proposing partnerships because they’re struggling. It’s tempting to swoop in and save the day, but be cautious. If their misfortune is the result of mismanagement, you could find your Cause Marketing investment going into an infrastructure money pit with little actually going to their mission. If their problems are the result of bad publicity, well that’s a hole you'd have to dig yourself out of before any partnership can change perceptions. If your stakeholders don’t have trust in the organization, you’re definitely setting yourself up for a steep climb.

Who’s in charge there?

A corporation (nonprofit or otherwise) is ultimately the makeup of its leadership. In evaluating a nonprofit partner, you ultimately want to examine who’s running it. This includes the CEO, upper management and the board. And do more than look them up on LinkedIn. Talk to people who know them and find out if they’re ethical and reasonable to work with. Sit them down face to face. Make sure the vision of the individual matches the mission of their organization. It's a bad sign when they’re not on the same page. 

Also find out if there’s anyone on their board that your business would benefit from knowing. Good-by-association can be a powerful thing. And it works both ways: the depth of your boards can be of mutual benefit.

Are they legitimate?

If they don’t have 501c3 status, don't consider them as a potential partner. Even if they have the best of intentions, lack of documentation shows they’re not serious about this. Your corporate, employee and customer donations won’t be tax exempt if the organization doesn’t have legal nonprofit status. Stories abound of scammers who talk a sad story and then disappear with your money. If this happens to you, don’t expect your stakeholders to put trust in your Cause Marketing. 

Your local Better Business Bureau is a good place to start in order to find out if a nonprofit is legitimate. Look up their organization and check their rating. Simply asking the nonprofit for a copy of last year’s tax filing can also be very revealing. It will tell you if they’re legit, well-run and applying enough of the money they take in to their mission. And if they’re not willing to share their tax form—well, write that one off your list. 

Can they Deliver?

Any nonprofit seeking to pursue a partnership with a company should be willing to devote resources essential to managing the partnership from its end. They should be able to answer these questions to help you determine who’s a good fit as a cause marketing partner:

  • Do they set goals, work towards them and measure results? A well-run charity has the infrastructure, staff and volunteers to not only create goals, but also to carry them out and to measure their success. They should identify the staff expertise that they have in creating goals and plans and tell you how their current infrastructure will be used to impact their cause. Also a solid set of measures should be agreed upon to gauge success.
  • Do they have an active board of directors that holds senior management accountable for results? Results-oriented work at a nonprofit is not something that happens by accident. There must be a results-oriented culture that starts with the board and is delivered to the organization’s staff through its senior management.
  • Do they have a proven track record of success in achieving their mission? Ask for examples of successful projects and for the results of the impact that they have had on targeted populations. How has the organization delivered on past goals?
  • How will they promote the partnership? Do they have high-quality communication and public relations expertise on staff that can use the media and social media to promote the partnership?

Treat this like an RFP process.

If you want to evaluate more than one organization to be your nonprofit partner you can save yourself some of the legwork by posing some of the above questions to each organization. But don’t make it a mailed or online survey. That would make it seem you’re not serious about this. A meeting or Skype interview is much more personal and will give you better information about the organization. 

In the next article we'll look at how to get a potential nonprofit partner to thoroughly evaluate you.