Listening and Creativity Are Key To Successful Corporate Collaborations 

Bouncing back from the economic and societal upheaval of the past two years is going to take a lot of listening and creativity for not-for-profit organizations. This is particularly true for those wanting to partner with corporations on complex – and theoretically more lucrative – partnerships. This work, as opposed to corporate foundation support from a grant request, centers on mutually-beneficial marketing and brand partnerships that can provide corporate support for an organization’s mission. The ability to effectively solicit and steward these corporate relationships often requires dedicated staff and should not be entered into without thinking through internal resources and external perceptions. Measuring success in these partnerships requires thinking through your goals for funding and brand awareness.

We spoke with Fredrick Wodin, Director of Corporate Relations at New York City Ballet, to understand how nonprofit organizations can develop effective relationships with the corporate sector.

CFA: First things first, what are corporate partnerships?

Fredrick Wodin: The corporate relations function in a nonprofit works to develop relationships with corporations that ultimately lead to financial or other support. In a large organization like ours, we have a dedicated team (of two) to support this work. Smaller organizations may include this work in other departments within the development function.

These nonprofit fundraising professionals may work with foundation, community relations, special events or marketing teams to identify and build mutually-beneficial relationships. On both sides of the equation, these roles involve helping each other find our way through the unfamiliar complexities of the other side. The value to corporations can include building a stronger brand, strengthening business relationships, improving employee engagement, enabling or supporting a product launch, or building other external goodwill.

Of course, the goal is to create a perfect fit – and that isn’t just about what we want from the relationship. It’s about what the partner wants. (We always want financial support!) What the corporation wants and needs matters more. That means listening with curiosity and patience, understanding what you’re hearing from the other side, and doing some creative thinking to craft a proposal that advances the corporation’s strategy, but is true to your organization.

What are some examples of corporate partnerships that serve both organizations’ strategic interests?

I’ve approached big companies in the same industries, and the conversation is never the same nor is the partnership ever structured the same. That’s because our conversations always start with what their business needs. Then we look at what we have to offer.

For instance, over the years several jewelry companies have partnered with us. One wanted us to perform at the opening of a new flagship location. Another wanted to borrow the special nature of our creative process to reflect on its products in a certain way. And others wanted to host a private event in the theater for their best clients, to experience “our world” and meet the dancers.

Here’s another example: We previously worked with an activewear company that is very focused on the beauty of movement. Their team believes that our artists represented this beauty and could help support their commercial interests. As part of our partnership, some of the dancers appeared in marketing campaigns, we co-hosted events at the theater for social media, press and retail partners, and we created a workout together.

Where should organizations start with this effort?

Start internally. That means, look at your mission, programs, assets – including your board, your space, your collection, your people, and your brand – and consider how they might appeal to corporate funders. Your board is a valuable place to start, because these are people who believe in your mission and who believe that being connected to your organization accrues some value to their own personal brand.

First ask them why they’ve chosen to work with you, and then understand their background and network. Can they introduce you to like-minded companies where you could help advance their strategies?

In our case, the dancers are our most significant and differentiating asset. I can bring in our marketing colleagues to speak about beautiful possibilities. A hunger relief organization might use testimonials and data around the number of meals delivered to attract funders.

It sounds like a lot of relationship building, as with major gifts donors. How do corporate partnerships differ from major gifts?

With major gifts, you’re most often looking for an emotional connection to the mission. This is rare in the corporate sector, especially as executives have less personal discretion about directing corporate giving dollars. This is more likely a business decision, and when a corporation doesn’t partner with us I try to evaluate that unemotionally. Was it about our pricing, the timing, the competition? Learning something, even in a bad outcome, is always worth the time and effort, even asking the prospect for insights.

What should you know about a corporation before you approach it? What’s the best way to prepare for a meeting?

I go into the first meeting prepared to ask some good questions and to listen carefully. You should definitely do your background research to start thinking about possibilities, but you can’t know everything, and you definitely can’t walk into an early meeting with a proposal. You don’t know –  and aren’t expected to know – what’s most important to the organization right now. Listen and learn and then propose.

They will feel more excited and engaged if they come away from that first meeting feeling that you heard them  – their interests, financial limitations, past experience, etc. Use that first meeting to learn about major initiatives, budget, timing, objectives, and more. Take that insight back to your team to sketch out the best possibilities. Bring the best ideas and proposals to the next meeting.

How should a nonprofit think about goals and targets for a corporate relations program? What are some helpful short- and long-term KPIs?

Obviously revenue is the most important measure. But these are not quick-turn “deals,” and if you’re just getting started, you’re going to have to measure activity and progress instead of actual dollars in the door.

Here are some activities you can keep track of:

  • Discovery phase: Make sure you have a thorough understanding of your organization’s mission, vision and values, and the assets you have to offer through partnerships; You’ll continue to refine this as you talk to more people, but start with a strong base.
  • Conversations: Start talking with board members and major donors to see what matters to them;
  • Introductions: Ask your biggest supporters to introduce you to their contacts at companies to which they are connected;
  • Learning: What insights can you get about your organization from people not connected to you? This can help you talk about your value in a language outsiders will understand and might suggest new people to approach.”

Don’t make “emails sent to companies’’ a metric. That might drive you to take a mass marketing approach, which really won’t work here. There’s no value in sending out a cold proposal with the same message to a hundred companies. It has to feel like a genuine connection.

Is it important to match the caliber of brand between the sponsor and organization?

While you certainly want to avoid a mismatch of values or hurting your community with an inappropriate alignment between brands, don’t be a snob. Prestige brands are great in certain instances. There are also times when more accessible brands might be a better fit. If you want to increase access to transportation for lower income communities, an economy car brand is likely a more logical partner than a luxury brand.

If someone wants to offer significant support, and you like what the brand stands for, do all you can to make it happen.

What if a corporation says no?

Usually, it is “no’” unfortunately, but it’s not “no forever” – it’s “not right now.” There are some discussions that, no matter how much people want to make something happen, just don’t work out. What they want might be something we can’t give them. Take that information in and keep the conversation going. Apply the learning to the next, similar discussion. It’s an iterative process in what you hope is a long-term relationship.

We thank Fredrick Wodin for sharing his exceptional and generous insight.