The way the private sector companies and social good organizations work together is changing.

Next Stage frequently helps to develop partnerships between companies and nonprofits. As self-confessed ‘impact nerds,’ we count ourselves lucky to facilitate these partnerships from both sides – and to have a front-row seat to observe how they’re changing.

While these shifts are exciting and promising, that doesn’t mean they are always easy to navigate. We’ve seen some key themes emerge over the last year and have compiled what companies want and what nonprofits need – along with some tips for success.

What Companies Want

“Let’s collaborate – We want a proactive partner”

Next gen CSR leaders are looking to take an active role in their community partnerships. One recent private sector partner noted that he appreciates when nonprofits they fund look at them as a co-conspirator in the work. While he has the desire and resources to help address systemic educational issues, he does not have the direct community connections or personal expertise. If nonprofits continue to treat their corporate partners as only a source of funds, they are potentially missing out on the richness of a collaborative partnership.

Nonprofit Tip: Stop looking at funder communication as a one-time report. Consider how to engage them throughout the year, bringing them into challenges, as appropriate. Proactively set meetings throughout the year and ask how you can bring your mission to their company.

“We need to engage our employees”

With more employees than ever looking to find meaning at work, community relations leaders need nonprofit partnerships that can help engage their employees. Instead of manufacturing huge volunteer opportunities, consider how Lunch & Learns, ERG connections, volunteer opportunities and skills-based volunteering could create wins for both the nonprofit and the company leader.

Nonprofit Tip: Ask your partners how they want to engage employees and how you can communicate purpose and meaning. Brainstorming effective ways together will help engage even more people in your mission!

“We want to help you innovate”

“I want them to think big!” is a common refrain among the CSR leaders we know. It’s natural. Companies are rewarded for innovation and when it comes to impact strategy, they want to support that same value. It’s time for nonprofits to get comfortable ‘flexing the failure muscle,’ working with their corporate partners to imagine what the future could look like – then inviting them into the solutions.

Nonprofit Tip: Consider sharing your long-term dreams with corporate funders – even if you don’t have all the answers yet. Sharing the vision often inspires action and  partnerships may be the key to removing barriers.

What Nonprofits Need

“Trust our decisions”

For many years, nonprofit-corporate partnerships followed a familiar pattern of sponsorship award followed by financial and project reporting. While metrics and reports are important, nonprofits often express feeling ‘called to the carpet’ at these meetings, and that private sector leaders don’t always understand the pressures and nuances of nonprofit work. There are louder calls for trust-based philanthropy. This doesn’t mean suspending all metrics and accountability but it does mean trusting nonprofit leaders to make the decisions that will move their organization ahead. Sometimes this may look as simple as a new air conditioning unit for a community center or training and development for staff.

Corporate Tip: Reflect on your reporting process. Is it arduous or intimidating for organizations? Consider subbing in ongoing conversations to understand the nonprofit’s business model, needs and perspective.

“Recognize our reality”

Companies move fast – often much faster than their nonprofit counterparts. This is due partly to access to more resources, nimble corporate processes and larger teams. In the private sector, innovation is rewarded. While this is also true for nonprofits, strict grant guidelines and limited resources makes innovation riskier. If nonprofits are part of a school system or broader network, they may also be subject to specific rules and guidelines.

Corporate Tip: Take into account the competing needs of nonprofit leaders. Consider how expertise or resources from your company might help support these needs and share that support. Get curious about the needs and decisions of your partner. Consider how that new air conditioning unit might enable bigger dreams – then use your own influence and resources to help make that happen. 

“Give us room to try – and fail”

Grants and partnerships are often awarded to support innovation at nonprofits and for good reason. Companies want to provide support that may not be in a normal annual operating budget and want to support solving systemic problems. Nonprofits want this too – but innovation can be tough when they feel they have to meet deadlines and metrics or else risk losing their funding. Holding nonprofits accountable is important, but any innovator knows that failure often precedes success.

Corporate Tip: Consider guaranteeing multi-year partnerships that allow for more time to test and refine initiatives. Don’t tie funding exclusively to metrics, but to an open dialogue and testing process. Consider longer-term partnerships with open doors, rather than rigorous reporting processes. Create an environment with shared problem solving – and understand that building this relationship may take time.

Successful Partnerships are Possible

The benefits of partnerships between companies and nonprofits far outweigh any challenges or risks. Building trust yields strong and successful partnerships that are mutually beneficial.