In marketing, we hear the term Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR often. It’s typically in reference to a good deed a company is initiating with the goal of elevating its brand presence. What used to be a term for simply donating a sum of money to a local nonprofit has evolved into a massive business priority in today’s workplace. It is no longer acceptable for organizations to simply be great on paper; making annual quotas, increasing sales revenue or selling out events. Today, you are light years behind if you have not yet understood the power of social good.
Amidst the cut throat competition in every industry, this concept of giving back has become a true measurement for success in today’s marketplace and often times, it is the missing link to many company attempts of trying to humanize a brand. With society’s ever-evolving expectations of the brands we associate ourselves with, it has become a mandate to identify the positive your business can create beyond revenue.
Before you agree to collaborate with the first nonprofit that comes calling, there are a few things to consider. Here is a foolproof guide to choosing your perfect nonprofit partner that will last.
Personally, you can choose to contribute to whichever organization you please without fault, but as an organization, you better do your homework.
There is nothing worse than aligning yourself with a group who then turns around and is blasted all over the media for misusing funds, like throwing lavish parties or using private jets for their executives’ personal travel.
The good news is that legally, every nonprofit organization is obligated to release their financial information, and better yet, it’s available online. Charity Navigator, GuideStar and Better Business Bureau’s Give.org are all incredibly useful sites that will come in handy during your research phase. These sites breakdown an organization’s financial use, identify where their money is being spent, and give them an overall rating. There is a lot you can learn about a group through their spending habits, but the key lies in one category: Program Expenses. This represents the percentage of the charity’s expenses that are spent on programs and services that its mission is claiming to deliver. For example, if I contribute $100 to a cancer research fund, I want to know how much of that $100 actually goes into the research and scientific testing versus employee paychecks, rent, office supplies and marketing materials, all of which are valid ways to spend the money, but balance is everything.
This can be slightly subjective considering the size and growth of the organization, but select a number and stick with it. BBB says 60% earns you a green check mark putting you in “good standing,” while Charity Navigator takes additional pieces into account such as Accountability and Transparency resulting in a 1-4 star rating. I managed the nonprofit arm of a sports network for years and our guidelines for all partners were a 3-4 star rating on Charity Navigator and 80% or higher on program expenses.
The subjective part comes into play when you think about how the organization is structured. For example, scholarship based foundations that work primarily online and have just one national office, have far less ancillary expenses than an organization whose business model is to host onsite workshops with multiple employees with travel expenses to consider. Take this into account when deciding on your partner cause and cutoff number.
Takeaway: Do your Homework. Get real with your financial expectations.
There are a LOT of nonprofit organizations out there doing incredible things. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of positivity and choose a partner based on emotion, but ultimately, you have to think like a business.
A common mistake companies make is spreading themselves too thin in areas where they may not belong. Often, you’ll see the same company partnering with a variety of organizations including health related causes, education, military services, environmental awareness or childhood development. While many amazing nonprofits fall into these buckets, there is a clear lack of connectivity. This is the time to put emotions aside and create some ground rules.
At no point should you distribute a piece of content combining your company and your nonprofit partner and have people thinking, “I wonder why they chose them?” Your job is to be able to co-brand seamlessly—keep it simple. If you work for a sports team, try finding a charity that is focused on collecting and distributing sports equipment to underprivileged schools and community centers. If you work for NASA, explore the millions of science based nonprofits encouraging young girls to excel in STEM. If you work in construction, how about contributing materials to help build homes in impoverished communities.
Before you think this is too limiting, you would be surprised by the kinds of adaptations you can find to make a nonprofit work for you. One year, my team really wanted to explore working in the foster care system and found an amazing nonprofit that was focused on the kids’ extra-curricular experience. Now, Foster Care and Sports don’t always go hand-in-hand but we were able to identify an internal program that allowed us to focus on funding pay-to-play costs for any of the children who wanted to join the soccer team, dance team, or even go to camp, so we put all of our focus into this part of the organization. All of a sudden, the partnership made total sense.
Takeaway: “Know your brand” and compliment it.
A common misconception about aligning your company with a nonprofit is that you have to be financially prepared to cash out some significant dollars to these organizations, which is not always the case.
One of my previous executives once said this and it left a lasting impression. Don’t get me wrong, every nonprofit will gladly take a $50,000 check from you, but being able to see the benefit in in-kind donations is when you start to think outside the box and likely donate a lot more than you initially imagined.
Here is one way to look at it: If I run a nonprofit, there are a lot of costs that come my way in order to run my organization effectively. I need to market my organization to get the word out, purchase ad space and activation materials, all of which costs money–money that could instead be dedicated to the actual cause. This is where you, as a corporate partner, can begin to explore your contribution options.
Production companies have the creative brain power and equipment resources to develop engaging video material that can be shared across the foundations digital channels at no cost. Television networks can turn that $65k 30 second commercial spot into free ad space. A bookstore can donate old or used books to after school programs, while grocery store chains can host food drives and utilize their transportation equipment to store and distribute goods. All of a sudden, that $50,000 check starts to become a lot smaller when you think about the response you will get from a new ad campaign or the amount of people reached by an onsite activation.
One of my favorite examples of this is with American Airlines and a group called Snowball Express. Snowball Express is a wonderful nonprofit that puts on a 4-day celebration in Dallas each December for the families of fallen soldiers in remembrance of their loved ones, allowing them the opportunity to experience the holidays alongside others who have experienced similar circumstances. American Airlines jumped on this opportunity by offering to fly every out-of-state family member to Texas. The complete experience, from the airport arrivals welcome team to the in-cabin entertainment, turns tenfold in value.
Takeaway: Know your worth.
Going big isn’t always best. When choosing an appropriate partner, the key is to understand where your company is in terms of giving and then be realistic about it.
We all know those groups who are (deservedly) getting million dollar grants left and right to continue their research, or aligning themselves with giant corporations who have the means to write significant checks. While sometimes these groups make sense with your corporate brand, it’s important to ask yourself if you are really making a difference with your contribution or if it will simply be a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the organization and its current state. Shifting to a smaller organization where your resources will make a significant impact with what you are able to give is sometimes more meaningful than simply aligning yourself to a well known organization because it looks good or is a safe bet.
Takeaway: Size doesn’t always matter
Adopting the concept of creating a social impact element of your company is not just a good choice for public consumption, but begins to ignite your internal strengths: starting with your employees.
People are inherently good, and there is an unanswered desire in each of us to feel like we are contributing positively to society. Employees can be your brand’s best ambassadors if you structure your business properly and encourage them to feel like they are a part of something bigger that is making a genuine impact for the better. Think about what impassions your workforce and how you want your brand to be remembered.
Choosing partners that allow onsite employee activations are a perfect way for your employees to feel like they are making a difference. Whether its an annual home build, a quarterly team 5K or a holiday toy drive, don’t underestimate the benefits of a team built good deed.
Takeaway: Build from within.
Social Good is a rapidly evolving concept when it comes to company success and consumer expectations, so it is crucial to be able to master this relationship in order to identify how it grows with your brand. Startup or conglomerate, the building blocks to leading a successful business are constantly changing. Being socially responsible, while once a feather in the cap of your overall structure, is now morphing into a crucial piece of the foundation that cannot be ignored.
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