Business funders and marketers give billions of dollars to nonprofit organizations every year. However, it can be difficult to contact companies to get a grant, especially if your nonprofit doesn’t have a relationship with an employee.
Also, the corporate giving landscape has changed since 2020, as many companies have changed the causes they support and the way they work with grantees in response to the crises.
To help you navigate this terrain – and raise more money – the timeline gathered tips and lessons from Lauren Reilly, who recently spoke at a Chronicle webinar and is Executive Director of SuitUp, a non-profit organization that brings together corporate employees with middle and high school students in business competitions. SuitUp has significantly expanded its corporate support since 2020 as it expanded its reach — and its corporate volunteering opportunities — through virtual programming.
Here’s what Reilly says.
Create an “internal champion” in the company. Once you’ve identified a potential funder, use social media sites like LinkedIn to find an employee who seems interested in your cause and start a conversation. Ask the person 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 who you should contact within the company to discuss a possible grant. Even a young employee should be able to point you in the right direction and possibly be willing to provide an introduction.
This approach works well for SuitUp, she says. Corporate funders probably receive hundreds of emails a day from nonprofit organizations asking for something. So when an employee makes a personal commitment to your organization, you increase your chances of getting a foot in the door.
Make this contact before applying through a company’s online portal. “Very rarely will these deliver anything unless you have a personal connection and they’ve asked you to apply,” Reilly says.
Encourage donor participation in corporate gift matching programs. Many companies offer these programs, but their employees often don’t know about them, she says. It pays to designate someone in your nonprofit organization to focus on raising awareness among your donors. Let this person contact people when they give a gift to see if their company finds a match.
Even if a company doesn’t have such a policy, a request from an employee could lead them to consider giving a gift or learning more about your company. “But if you don’t ask, they won’t do it themselves,” says Reilly.
Each year, SuitUp hires an intern who asks donors to apply for a match at their company – and offers to help them find a match. For example, the intern may offer to contact the company’s human resources department for the donor, or provide an email template for such a request. Many donors would be willing to ask for a match but don’t have the time, she says.
Make sure your employees have strong professional skills when interacting with corporate sponsors. “Every day, they’re used to working with top-notch professionals,” says Reilly. So they will look for the same level of professionalism when evaluating your nonprofit as a potential grantee. Communication should be timely and appropriate, she suggests, and any materials you share with the company should be polished. The more your organization reflects the professionalism these grantees see in their day-to-day work, she says, the more you seem a safe bet for support.
Don’t hesitate to follow up. It’s okay to reach out to a grant provider if you don’t get a response after a few days, Reilly says. Corporate social responsibility departments are often the least funded part of a company. Even companies with tens of thousands of employees may have few employees in this department, she says. So understand that these people are busy.
Don’t deviate from your nonprofit’s mission and values. When a company wants you to take a different direction or do something that doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. “No amount of money is worth sacrificing integrity,” says Reilly. While it’s difficult to turn down a grant — especially given the economic uncertainty — you need to be able to sleep at night. “Staying away from funding is just as important as finding out who you’re getting funding from,” she says.
Develop a pitch that aligns with the company’s values and interests. When you reach out to a prospective funder, Reilly says, develop a “value proposition.” In other words, find out what your organization can offer – such as such as volunteer or free counseling opportunities for company employees—that would benefit both the company and your nonprofit organization.
Check out 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 offer that fit those priorities. For example, if you work with a financial services company, you might see if there are any junior staff who would be interested in helping your nonprofit with its annual accounts. “It has nothing to do with your mission, but it allows some people to really bring their expertise to your organization,” she says.
Position your organization as an integral part of achieving the company’s business goals, not just their philanthropic goals. This is especially important during turbulent economic times like this, Reilly says, when some companies may consider reducing their giving.
SuitUp, for example, recognizes that many companies prioritize efforts to diversify their workforce, which is why the nonprofit highlights how its programs help foster a diverse workforce. “Now instead of just leaving [corporate social responsibility departments]My team talks to the operations manager or HR and says, “Hey, we’re a solution to your talent pipeline problem,” says Reilly.
Create volunteer work opportunities for junior staff. Many young corporate employees want to get involved with charities but don’t know how, she says, so it’s a great fundraising opportunity. SuitUp has had great success engaging these employees in activities such as career coaching or mentoring their own junior staff.
Once you have hired junior staff, you should consider starting a junior board. The SuitUp Junior Board of Directors has 30 members whose donations are an important source of income. But employees, too, feel like they can make a difference and can put the experience on their resume, says Reilly.
Offer employees the opportunity to volunteer online. After the Covid outbreak, SuitUp adjusted its program to offer virtual, in-person and hybrid activities for corporate volunteers. That way, the nonprofit was able to serve any interested company, regardless of where its employees were located, Reilly says. And they plan to continue offering virtual volunteer opportunities.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. “There’s no secret sauce,” says Reilly. “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?” Just try a lot of things and see what works for your nonprofit, says you.