When money is tight and your charity is trying to make ends meet, it’s tempting to partner up with a wealthy corporation in order to achieve your worthy goals. But before your non-profit decides to work side by side with a for-profit business do your homework; make sure this proposed partnership really is a win-win situation.

Partnering with a like-minded business when competition for people’s attention is fierce can help your organization take advantage of wonderful public relations opportunities. For example, by finding a suitable corporate or community partner your charity can:

  • Reduce waste, conserve resources and avoid service duplication
  • Find new clients, members and volunteers
  • Build goodwill in the community
  • Share knowledge and skills
  • Get a better perspective of where the business sector is coming from
  • Help corporations better understand the unique challenges that charities face as they work towards fulfilling their missions

But not all partnerships are balanced. Engaging in a partnership with a business that doesn’t share the same common values and beliefs as your charity can be disastrous. 

Even though connecting with a resource-rich organization will help offset your charity’s operating costs, as CEO of your organization, you must always:

  • Be accountable to your constituents and stakeholders (clients, volunteers, service users, members)
  • Strive for the best possible outcomes for everyone
  • Avoid disappointment and financial losses
  • Avoid bad publicity and protect your charity’s brand

Before undertaking a partnership with a corporate sponsor, here are some critical questions to consider.

1. Does the prospective corporate partner business share common values? 

Is your charity’s mission compatible with your intended corporate partner’s brand? Will you violate any tenets in your mission, vision and values if you work with this corporate partner? For example, is it appropriate for a women’s advocacy organization to partner with a toy distributor that makes violent video games? Should a cancer agency accept a sponsorship from a corporation that manufactures known carcinogens?

2. What is the main motivation for partnering with this organization? Why do they want to partner with you? 

Your motivation for partnering with a particular corporation should be clearly defined. What are the benefits? Do you hope to gain more exposure to their intended demographic?

List all the reasons why you want to partner with this corporation. Make sure that there are more reasons to join forces than just buckets of cash. Then, think critically about why your prospective corporate partner may want to work with you. What do you have to offer? A corporate partner may have a secret agenda in wanting to be seen as your charity’s partner. Are they trying to improve their brand image? Have they just experienced some negative publicity and now need a positive story to provide a distraction from bad press? Are they trying to reach a new target audience – an audience that you cater to?

 3. What does each party expect to get out of this partnership? 

In order to develop a successful partnership, both parties must be open to discussing their expectations for working together. Is the prospective partner expecting to have access to your mailing list? Do you want to have your logo featured on all the corporate partner’s marketing materials? Do you have a specific dollar figure attached to how much you expect in donated goods and services? Is the corporation expecting your volunteers to manage events and do all the public relations work in exchange for using their brand power and good name? Can your organization afford to take volunteers away from day to day activities in order to work with the corporate partner?

4. How will this partnership be perceived by stakeholders?

You must be transparent and accountable to your constituents and clients. Your first obligation is to the clients and community that your charitable organization serves. How will they be impacted by the partnership? Will they be inundated with messages, advertising and junk-mail from your sponsor? Are you violating any privacy laws by working with the partner? Do you have consent from your clients and members to send them material that is not directly related to your cause? Will the partnership look like an endorsement of the corporate partner’s products and service? How will the partnership look to your clients? For example, does the prospective corporate partner participate in activities that your stakeholders would find objectionable? Does the prospective corporate partner employ unacceptable business practices (foreign labour, child labour, and reckless attention to environmental safeguards)?

5. How can I protect the organization from liability if the partnership sours? You must keep accurate records, notes and minutes and always put the details of your partnership in writing. Any partnership or collaboration that involves time, money and shared responsibilities needs to be documented in writing. For example, a memorandum of understand or memorandum of agreement can serve to outline expectations and responsibilities before the partnership begins so that everyone is on the same page and no one is disappointed by the final results of the collaboration.

As the executive director, chair or CEO of your charitable organization, be sure to give yourself, your staff, your volunteers and your Board plenty of time to consider the pros and cons of partnering with the prospective corporation. Always do your homework and make sure that you are not drifting away from your core values and mission for the sake of a short-term boost in cash-flow.