An Engagement-Centered Approach to Corporate Relations

Corporations are giving less frequently and in smaller amounts, and in many cities the corporate landscape has changed dramatically during this recession due to mergers, consolidations, and bailouts. These conditions make it critical for corporate and foundation relations staff at institutions of higher education to rethink their opportunities for deepening and stewarding their relationships with corporate donors.

Recently, we interviewed Chris Groff, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University, for tips on how CFR officials can take a more forward-thinking approach to cultivating and stewarding corporate donors.

Groff draws attention to a recent white paper published by the Network of Academic Corporate Relations Officers (NACRO) entitled "Five Essential Elements of a Successful Twenty-First Century University Corporate Relations Program." The white paper makes the critical point that "corporations no longer consider themselves 'donors' to academia; they consider themselves 'investors,'" and that as corporations approach colleges and universities on an enterprise level rather than a philanthropic level, they are looking to institutions as partners in solving some of the needs of their organization.

Groff adds, "Companies are now very accountable for the funding they give to philanthropic efforts; you really need a broad and deep relationship with the company. CFR needs to be responsible not just for bringing in money but for bringing in relationships." Groff suggests:

  • Making your CFR office a one-stop shop for corporate inquiries
  • Looking for multidimensional partnerships
  • Creating documentation of your partnership that will assist your connections at the company in making the case for a philanthropic gift to your institution
  • Identifying stewardship activities that not only recognize the organization but engage them further in the work of your institution

Make your CFR Staff a One-Stop Office

A crucial step is to make your corporate and foundation relations office known as a go-to place for companies who have a question for your institution or a need they wish to discuss. "You want to serve as a one-stop shop for corporate clients," Groff advises, "connecting them with research of recruiting opportunities, cutting through the red tape for them, and connecting them with the right people." To do this effectively, you'll need to:

  • Educate your internal constituents about what to do if they receive a corporate inquiry and how to connect with you
  • Educate the corporations about how you can help them; for example, while prospecting, let company representatives know that you will be their liaison with the institution, that you can connect them with the people and the resources you need
  • Promote your office externally, going to events where you will find corporate and foundation prospects and where you can introduce yourself

"Over time," Groff notes, "you will build a reputation for being available to them as a resource."

Build Multiple Layers of Partnership

Whether your CFR effort is a one-person shop or a team, there are limits on your capacity for outreach to corporations. It's increasingly critical to make the most out of the relationships you do have time to form. "Go to the top prospects," Groff suggests, "and plan for building relationships for the long term, rather than focusing on short-term gifts. Companies will be more philanthropic with you after there's a partnership established. If they are already engaged in a shared effort, the ask becomes an easier conversation."

Beyond looking for the occasion to make an ask, Groff suggests having a more comprehensive checklist of potential relationship-building opportunities to consider. For example:

  • Are there research opportunities you could partner on?
  • Do they have a need for executive education that your business school could meet?
  • Are there opportunities for sponsored research? Tech transfer?
  • Have you connected them with your career services office and with opportunities to recruit students?
  • Could you engage their employees as volunteers?

"Once you have established a partnership in one of these areas, mine for more. If you have a career services partnership with a business, reach out to them and ask if they have any needs around executive education. Create multiple layers of partnership with that organization. Companies love that. They want to see you as an advocate for them, helping them get more employees, helping them get the research they need, etc. When the economy is tight, they will remember who worked hard for them."
Chris Groff, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Offering a Partnership Overview

Once you have multiple layers of partnership with a particular organization, Groff suggests creating a "partnership overview" -- a document that outlines what efforts you are currently engaged in as partners and what additional partnership opportunities you are interested in pursuing. This document serves several purposes:

  • Your connections at the company will need to make the case internally for a gift to your institution -- this document helps them define the extent of both their existing relationship with you and the future possibilities, arming them with the information they need to sell the idea of making a gift
  • If the company is merged or acquired, there is a paper record of your history together -- which also serves as a good starting point for conversation with new management

Steward Your Corporate Relationships

"With declines in corporate giving (both frequency and amount), you can't assume you will stay on a corporation's list. You need to steward them, keep communicating, keep them looped in, promote their organization."
Chris Groff, Fairleigh Dickinson U

"Go the extra mile," Groff advises. "Work with your marketing people to promote relationships and gifts." You need to:

  • Set up positive media coverage whenever possible
  • Help your corporate donors track that coverage (send them clippings, DVDs of an event, etc.)
  • Invite corporate donors to specific events and make them a meaningful part of the event

"This is not just a ribbon-cutting or photo opportunity," Groff remarks. "Get them involved, bring in volunteers from the company for an event where student winners receive their scholarship, bring them to the campus and get them involved at a deeper level."

For example:

  • Invite the corporation's employees to take part in or volunteer in the program they are funding
  • Bring the program to their corporate site, perhaps bringing students for a tour of their facility
  • Invite corporate representatives to mentor students in the program, or have students shadow employees
  • Invite their leadership to your campus to meet with your leadership and to learn about other funding needs and opportunities
  • Offer the company a site on your campus as a meeting place for professional dialogue