The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The secret to partnering with business

From The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

I’ll be sitting on a panel in a few weeks, talking with schools and nonprofit organizations about business/education partnerships – more specifically, how to build support from businesses (in the form of funding, donations of products/services, volunteer hours, etc.) so that they can launch and sustain some cool learning initiatives.

I’ve been thinking through my experiences with such partnerships, wondering what the common thread is – what do businesses want to hear from nonprofits who come calling for support? What’s the one thing (if there is one thing) that, more than anything else, will give you the best shot at establishing the partnerships you want?

And in the spirit of the quote above, I think I’ve found the answer – the thing that opens the door to limitless opportunity for any school or nonprofit organization that takes it to heart. Just one word.


So many nonprofits approach business based solely on the worth of their cause. And yes, that will generate a limited amount of support – you’ll find a small number of businesspeople who identify with your cause for one reason or another and support you strictly out of a sense of personal affinity, charity, or civic duty.

But for the vast majority who don’t feel that irresistible pull towards you over everyone else, a strict need-based approach puts you in a large group of other worthy causes. Sure, education is a worthy cause. But is it more worthy than breast cancer or AIDS? The arts? The environment? Hunger? Animal abuse? Religion? It’s relative to the giver, and again – if the giver isn’t drawn to you based on personal beliefs or experience (and many/most won’t be), you’re just one of many with your hand out.

How do you shape your pitch so that you have the edge – so that these businesses partner with you rather than all those other causes? You give them a return. You present giving as an opportunity that provides clear benefits to them – an investment, not a handout.

Business is a game of limited resources, and the people who succeed are those who invest those resources in ways that provide a return. Sure, some businesspeople set aside a small amount for charitable giving – but even in the world of corporate foundations, the idea of no-strings-attached giving is being replaced by the concept of strategic philanthropy, where gifts are expected to line up with strategic interests and generate verifiable results.

If you can provide a real return to potential business partners, you’ll find two things: first, your success rate will increase; and second, you’ll be able to tap into a much larger pool of money than the small amount they set aside for charitable contributions.

And don’t think that by “return” you’ll open yourself up to crass commercialism – the vast majority of businesses realize that plastering your school with posters for their stores is going to hurt them a lot more than it will help. Here are a few examples:

  • Sales/Marketing returns – Studies show that consumers are more likely to purchase goods associated with a cause, and they’re also more likely to pay a premium price for those goods. You can allow your business partner to promote your partnership to their customer base, or even set up a cause marketing sales initiative through which a percentage of all sales are donated to your organization.
  • Branding/community relations returns – Many businesses see the value in building awareness and a good reputation in the community; studies show that a positive company image can positively affect everything from press coverage to vendor relations.
  • Workforce development returns – While some Fortune 500 companies invest in education as a long-term workforce development initiative to increase the quality of the overall labor pool, smaller companies can realize more immediate and more tangible returns for their investment, including becoming more attractive to new hires, boosting employee morale, and providing employees with opportunities to build valued new skills through volunteering situations.

These are just a few examples of the types of returns you can offer business partners through a well-structured partnership plan. (And if you’d like hard data to back up the claims above, look here and here – free registration required for the second, but very much worth it.)

And once they see what’s in it for them, they’ll also want to hear about your own returns: what outcomes you’ll create for your kids if they bankroll you, and what evidence you have that your approach will work. Once they’re invested with you, they’ll identify with your successes, so they’ll want to know you have a credible path and a realistic chance of meeting your goals.

As I plan for this session, I’ll post more on this subject - definitely something I’ve wanted to address for some time, and I’m very happy that this speaking opportunity has provided a compelling reason to explore it.


  • Hi Brett,

    Thanks for the email. I think this sounds great. It is all about demonstrating a ROI for business people. Look forward to following future posts!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:17 PM  

  • Brett -- you might find this site of some interest. It talks about Nashville's efforts to partner with not-for-profits in our city and better align what the schools need with the services these organizations perform. (Now, to combine the duplicative agencies and have less money going to adminsitrators and more going to the people they serve.)

    For another Nashville effort you might be interested in this site, too --


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:28 AM  

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