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Small Business Center

Want to Play a Part in Your Community and Partner with a Nonprofit? What to Consider and How to Get Started

August 29, 2023

It’s been said that “generosity is the new marketing.” Ipsos’ Global Trends 2021 report showed that an increasing share of consumers are looking to spend their dollars with businesses whose values align with their own views. That’s one reason small businesses increasingly recognize the power of collaborations with nonprofit organizations. Partnering is a strategic move that holds the potential to elevate your brand and make a tangible difference in the communities you serve.

“I think of collaboration as an intentional effort to connect and build community and relationship with others,” said Josh Jacobson, CEO of Next Stage, a consulting company that helps develop partnerships and collaborations between nonprofits and businesses. “At its basic, it starts with a goal in mind and has a formalized structure and process around coming together.”

To be successful, Jacobson said, it’s important these partnerships are truly collaborative. “If you just think about partnership as a transactional relationship, you’re missing the boat. People will be able to suss out when a relationship is not genuine.”

Below, Jacobson delves into the reasons small businesses should partner with nonprofits and provides a comprehensive guide on how to forge these partnerships for maximum impact.

Reasons to Partner

Enhanced Brand Reputation

“We’re increasingly becoming a values-driven society,” said Jacobson. “Customers want to do business with people who share their value system.” Indeed, a 2022 Harris Poll commissioned by Google Cloud found that a staggering 82% of shoppers want a brand’s values to align with their own and they’ll vote with their wallet if they don’t feel a match. Three-quarters of shoppers surveyed said they had parted ways with brands over conflicts in values. “There’s a feeling of closeness and connection when people support a mission together,” Jacobson said,  and partnering with a nonprofit is a way for a small business “to stand out and differentiate yourself.”

Access to New Markets

Nonprofits usually have dedicated followings and reaches within specific demographics. Partnering with them can help your business tap into new markets and customer segments. “In a way, it’s boundary spanning,” Jacobson said. “If you think, for instance, about who can learn about your offerings, who wouldn’t ordinarily have seen it — people who live in a different part of town, for instance, or are in a different industry — that exposure is a big reason to partner.” Access to new markets can spread even further if you collaborate on a marketing campaign that highlights the partnership between your business and the nonprofit. As Jacobson said, nonprofits often have active social media followings and online communities, so collaborative campaigns also can increase your brand’s online visibility and attract new followers.

Help with Talent Recruitment

The U.S. is in a labor shortage. Employees have power to decide where they want to work and are choosing places they see as representing their values. “Partnering with a nonprofit may be the thing that sticks out and make someone respond to a job opening,” Jacobson said. And when you are connected to a nonprofit  — which typically has a board of directors, donors, volunteers and staff — there are a lot more sources who can help with a referral pipeline, he said.

Increases Employee Morale

Engaging in philanthropic activities can boost employee morale, satisfaction and retention. Employees often feel proud to work for a business that prioritizes giving back, Jacobson said, adding that the most effective way to keep employees engaged in a partnership is to embed it in your business’s culture. “It’s not just about going outside the walls of your business but also bringing that nonprofit into your business to do things like lunch and learns,” Jacobson said. “There’s a lot of really good data out there that suggests that employees don’t want the partnership to be a once-a-year experience.”

How to Start

Get to Know the Nonprofits in Your Community

To start your research, Jacobson suggested going to the largest foundations in town and seeing what nonprofits they support financially. “That will give you an idea of some of the larger, more established nonprofits,” he said. But increasingly, people are drawn to smaller, community-based, founder-led organizations. “One great way to find those is to just look around where you’re located,” Jacobson said. “Collaborating with a nonprofit that’s in your area or neighborhood and that aligns with your values makes sense.”

Reach Out

To connect with a nonprofit initially, Jacobson suggested going to its website and looking for the executive director or someone on its development or marketing team. “Most nonprofits “will receive that interest readily,” Jacobson said, but it’s important to show that you’ve done your research about the organization and its mission. “You want to engage with them in an authentic way.”

Identify Mutual Benefits

A successful partnership should be mutually beneficial. When you meet, outline how your business can support the nonprofit’s goals — think about things like financial support, publicity and a volunteer or sponsorship supper — and discuss what the nonprofit can offer your business in return. “It’s a misnomer to think that nonprofits aren’t businesses themselves, Jacobson said. “They have a business model that they’re looking to do, too.” Be honest about your goals and motivations. Small businesses often “leave unsaid why they are engaging with the nonprofit, and I think that’s a miss. It’s better to be upfront and say: ‘I’m getting into this because we have a new line and I’d really like to get more visibility on that. I see our constituency as aligned.’” The more transparency, the better, he said.

Collaborate on Projects

Work together to design projects that align with both your business’ expertise and the nonprofit’s mission. These projects could involve fundraising events, volunteering, skill-sharing or cause-related marketing campaigns. A restaurant, for instance, could partner with a nonprofit that focuses on the slow food movement, which strives to preserve traditional cuisine; to host a food tasting; or to create new items on the menu, Jacobson said.

Allocate Resources

Decide on the resources you’re willing to commit to the partnership, whether financial contributions, employee volunteer hours, in-kind donations or a combination.  “Sometimes as a small business, you may not have as much capital to invest, but look at everything you are able to offer,” said Jacobson. A store, for instance, could start a collection for the nonprofit or let customers know that a certain percentage of sales will go to the nonprofit.

Establish Clear Terms

Draft a formal agreement detailing the terms of the partnership, including responsibilities, expectations, time lines and financial or resource commitments. “You want everything to be very clear and aboveboard,” Jacobson said. “Think about the collaboration the same you would a partnership with another business relationship or vendor.” Lay out in concrete terms: “In exchange for X we are receiving Y.”

Promote the Partnership

Share the collaboration with your customers, employees and the wider community. Leverage your marketing channels to amplify the partnership’s impact.

Measure and Communicate Impact

Regularly assess the progress of the partnership. You want to “move from the kind of warm fuzzy feel-good but squishy space into more of a transparent framework of exchange that can be measured,” Jacobson said. Nonprofits actually can be some of your best partners in trying to figure out how to measure that impact. As Jacobson said: “They are used to having to report back to stakeholders on things like the impact of dollars and how they’ve moved the needle on the cause they support.” Some things to measure include: How many people saw your logo? How many people know that we are working together? What were the visibility and engagement metrics from your joint social media campaigns or newsletters?

Think Long Term

A long-term relationship with one nonprofit has greater impact for your small business than do shallower relationships with a few of them. “The old way of thinking ‘If I sprinkle my dollars around the community to get more visibility’ has gone away,” Jacobson said. If you think of the partnership as something more than a once a year sort of engagement, there’s more opportunity for the commingling of your brands to be deepened. “Handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving doesn’t move a lot of needles,” Jacobson said. “It’s that purpose and alignment that people are craving more of year-round.” And the same sort of mechanics apply to marketing. “People need to see a message many times in order for it to connect with them,” Jacobson said.

So just as in a relationship, make sure before you promise anything to anyone that you’re really committed for the long haul. And be flexible enough to adjust and adapt as the partnership continues. “Trust is important,” Jacobson said. “Make sure you actually know each other” before jumping 100% in.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

Small Business Center

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