Last week, I was able to listen to a terrific discussion from business leaders about how their organizations make corporate gifts to charities. It’s always good to hear the thought process of donors. But it sometimes raises more questions than it settles.

Seeking corporate gifts? Don’t be “that” guy

At one point in the conversation, one of the panel shared his pet peeve: nonprofits who don’t do any research before asking.

The entire panel nodded in agreement.

Each of them had met with nonprofits seeking funding who knew nothing about their business. At all. The message the company gets is “You’re not worth anything to us. Just give us money.”

That attitude reeks of entitlement. And is quite offensive.

Business leaders are not evil

Business leaders have even told me that nonprofit leaders have “asked” them for gifts by treating them as less than human. They, the business leaders, were “just” out for profit. They were told they needed to give the nonprofit to prove they had a conscience.

Why would anyone want to give to people that abuse them like those nonprofit leaders abused the business owners? Even if they don’t ever make a philanthropic gift, business leaders are making tremendous contributions to our communities. We likely wouldn’t have a community if they weren’t employing our neighbors.

Do the research

So a key principle here is: do the research. All of the business leaders agreed that a simple review of their website before getting into the meeting would have strengthened the nonprofits’ case.

When deciding how to ask for money, finding out about a prospect – corporate or individual – is just common courtesy.

As you skim through their website, see if you can identify their values. Are they proud to have a strong local economy? Do they seem to love creativity and the arts? And try to find philanthropy priorities too. Do they appear to give only to children? Are they looking for volunteer opportunities for their employees? Do they only seem interested in the city where their headquarters is located?

Which creates the conundrum of corporate gifts

Which leads to the conundrum. Whenever I’ve listened to corporate donors, they seem to always say, “We don’t want to just cut a check.” They often want to find causes they can get involved with. Organizations their staff can volunteer with. Groups they can collaborate with.

But every time I’ve listened to corporate donors, the nonprofit leaders in the room get agitated. Most of them are already working very hard on their mission. They don’t really want to take all this time with corporations and employee committees and finding volunteer opportunities. They really just want the check.

And these aren’t nonprofits that are trying to be rude or brash. These are nonprofits who will use the donation well and responsibly report back to the business and thank them. They simply want people and organization’s who’ll donate to them with the fewest strings attached.

Conflicting agendas

So you have a situation where the donor’s agenda conflicts with the nonprofit’s. If these were individuals, nonprofits would probably agree to politely part ways. It is nice if the prospect is generous, but if that generosity doesn’t seem to be in the direction of the nonprofit’s strategic plan, you’ll end up frustrating each other.

But these aren’t individuals. These are businesses. Most nonprofit board members assume businesses are the biggest source of donations (they’re not – not by a long shot). And many nonprofit staff secretly feel at least a little empathy to the nonprofit leaders that abused the business owners mentioned above. They feel businesses “owe” them money.

No one owes us a charitable donation. We need to earn it every time. (Click here to tweet that.)

Are corporate gifts worth it?

Corporate gifts can be a lot of work. Nonprofit leaders need to do is determine what kinds of philanthropic gifts they want to focus on. If you determine you want a more transactional checkbook philanthropy, corporations are probably not the place to look.

But corporations can be great partners. If your nonprofit is open to volunteer teams, businesses may be able to send those teams. And they may be able to grow into a great collaborative partner.

For example, if your nonprofit is open to gifts of expertise rather than cash, your entire approach may be transformed. The head of corporate social responsibility at a multi-national company once told me of such a transformation. A local soup kitchen had asked the company to fund a specific number of meals. Instead, the company offered a team of its Six Sigma Black Belts. That team observed the soup kitchen’s process for acquiring, storing, and serving food. In less than a month, they were able to offer suggestions that drastically improved efficiency, reduced food waste, and saved the soup kitchen thousands of dollars a year. The soup kitchen was even able to serve more people thanks to the improvements suggested by this corporate team.

The savings the soup kitchens achieved will be realized year after year. Because the nonprofit went into the solicitation open to exploring a gift, their community and their nonprofit are both stronger for this business’ donation of expertise.

Know your goals. And learn their goals.

The bottom line? Corporate gifts can be transformational, but they won’t look like gifts from individuals. Corporate donors often have complex objectives they are trying to meet. If you’re going to seek corporate gifts, have a clear sense of the goals in your nonprofit’s strategic plan. And be ready to listen the business’ goals. Where they intersect could be magic.

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