Rethinking Your Approach to Corporate Donors

Corporations are giving less frequently this year and in smaller amounts, and in many cities the corporate landscape has changed dramatically during this recession due to mergers, consolidations, and bailouts. In an editorial this week, the CEO of Western Union suggested that universities and other nonprofits need to seek out more holistic and intentional partnerships with corporate donors. Caroline Preston's op ed is timely and implies a broader question -- how can universities take stock of what has changed and adjust their approach to corporate donors accordingly?

Chris Groff, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University, offers advice for how shops need to re-engineer their approach to cultivating and stewarding corporate donors this year.

Profile Your Top 50

"Who are your top 50 corporations that you want to do business with? Update a profile for each of those."
Chris Groff, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Given the extent of recent changes in the corporate environment -- mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry; mergers, bailouts, and takeovers in the banking industry -- Groff suggests that the most pressing need is to recalibrate your prospect list. "You need to know who is still viable, and who is not, and you need to start looking at all of your prospects' specific interests." What you thought you knew about your corporate prospects a year or two ago may no longer be true. As corporations merge, your prospect may -- or may not -- take on that new company's interests.

Groff suggests ensuring that your profiles for your top 50 corporate prospects each consist of:

  • Contact information for the company (headquarters and main contacts: "who is going to open the door or help you move the conversation forward?")
  • A brief summary of the company's mission and background ("just a few sentences")
  • Their giving interests ("Who else are they giving to? To what causes? What are they doing at other schools? You need to understand that company's social responsibility model.")
  • Significant contacts: any history that your institution has with this organization ("Has there been a presidential meeting last week? Or has no one ever spoken with them?")
  • Whether there any current proposals under consideration or expected to be under consideration soon
  • Your next steps

"These profiles need to be managed and updated," Groff advises. "You need to make this a priority. If you are a larger shop, you can devote part of one staff member's time to this."

Research Proactively

To cultivate the right relationships, it is critical to find ways to conduct ongoing and proactive prospect research -- without entailing a heavy time investment. "You're looking for a 2-way conversation. You have your internal projects or campaign needs. Then you have the realities of the world and what your prospects actually care about. You need to be on the pulse of what's happening."

Keep watch on industries with critical shortages of skilled professionals (nursing, pharmaceutical, STEM) or growth industries (renewable energy, green jobs), and take advantage of market opportunities. "Look for what is needed by the corporation, and take a hard look across your whole institution. Ask: what do we have or what are we creating that is aligned with our mission and worthy of applying for a grant?" Here's another example: If you have a veteran-friendly campus, can you form a partnership with a veteran-friendly entity?

Groff recommends monitoring:

  • Clippings -- newspapers, media
  • Look for a daily digest for grant funding opportunities ("try to minimize the time you are doing in active grants research; have material sent to you that you can scan to find matches")
  • Look to the PR Wires and set up RSS feeds for different companies

To manage the research workload, Groff advises partnering with your media relations office. Some larger schools may already have a seat license for a system such as FOCUS that tracks RSS feeds and pulls the relevant clippings. You can either tap into a system your marketing and communications office already uses, or -- if you are at a smaller shop with a smaller budget -- consider splitting the cost of a seat license with media relations.

Leverage Internal and External Partnerships

Partnering with your media relations office can yield more benefits than just speedier prospect research. Groff recommends identifying opportunities to marry your fundraising efforts to your institution's marketing and outreach efforts. Your media relations office can assist in working more directly with the media, which can prove an effective approach to attracting the interest of potential funders. "If you can't get a meeting with a corporate entity," Groff suggests, "maybe a well-placed article will catch their attention." If, for example, you are seeking funding for a pharmacy school, work closely with media relations in branding that pharmacy school in ways that will interest corporate entities in your area. In this way, you serve both your goal of attracting corporate donors and the media relations office's goal of finding opportunities to promote your institution.

Also, seek opportunities to partner with other institutions of higher education and other nonprofits. Groff notes that these "win-win" collaborations can lead to more money raised as you share pools of prospects. You can also leverage these partnerships by making the ask together. "When you collaborate you can put yourself in a position to perhaps apply for larger pools of dollars, or perhaps become a signature program for the corporation, which cycles back into more marketing and promotional opportunities for you, your partners, and the corporation."

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