Approaching Business Executives

In What Businesses Want we talked about goals businesses have that can met through a partnership with your nonprofit. In Creating Awareness in the Business Community, we talked about  networking with businesses. In Helping Business Professionals Meet Their Goals, we talked about helping how your nonprofit can interact with businesses in a win-win relationship. In How Businesses Give we talked about designing your nonprofit’s programming so that it fits into one or more of the giving vehicles. You are now ready to approach the business talk about developing a partnership. In a small business, it may be simple to know who to meet with. In a large corporation, the task might not be so easy, and you may have to contact several people, one for each of their giving vehicles.

Dealing with Small Businesses

Local businesses live and die by their reputation in the community. In addition to business association, business owners are also often members of service groups, like the Kiwanis Club or Knights of Columbus. To meet other business owners, you may want to see if you can be invited to be a guest speaker at one of these types of meetings.

In small businesses, you may just approach the owner or manager and ask how to best partner. As we pointed out earlier, small businesses may find it most economical to donate s piece of merchandise as opposed to making a financial contribution. If they do give a monetary donation, it will probably be small. Don’t discount small contributions though. Small donations can add up to significant amounts.

A small, local business can offer things other than money too. They can galvanize their customers around your community event, particularly if your event is a volunteer or community organizing event that doesn’t cost any money.

Dealing with Large Corporations

If you are trying to get a donation from a large corporation, you may deal with three of more people, each with responsibility for a different part of the company’s corporate giving program. There are often different grants and other foundation giving, employee volunteerism, corporate sponsorship, marketing, and/or community relations arms in a large company. Specific contacts are often found on the company’s website under About Us/ In the Community.

Contacting Philanthropic Officers

If you are looking for philanthropic dollars, you will most probably be writing a grant or going after a direct donation. Do your research. Look at the company’s website. For corporate foundations, review the foundation’s 990 (tax return). Find out what the guidelines are before you talk to a representative.  Be prepared and make a good impression. Don’t make the foundation representative feel like you are wasting their time, asking them questions that are already answered on the website. 

And abide by the guidelines. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you don’t fit the guidelines, it’s a waste of your time to prepare a proposal that has no chance of funding. And it’s a waste of their time to review it. 

If you qualify, have read through the guidelines and questions and answers provided on the website, reviewed their 990, it’s time to introduce yourself to the foundation manager. If you have any unanswered questions, now is the time to ask them.  Then submit your proposal and wait until you hear back. Don’t call the foundation representative until you hear back from them. Only contact them when the deadline of when they said they would get back to has passed.

Contacting Sales and Marketing Representatives

Your fundraising endeavors may help them meet their sales and marketing goals. The best entry point for sponsorships of any kind may be a sales representative, often the most visible and accessible company representative. Salespeople generally have the authority to use resources to make an immediate sale. They are focused on what is happening in the here and now. In our experience, the salesperson is the entry point to other agency executive who have a longer time frame in which to meet their goals. Often, the sales representative will point you to a regional account manager or director. 

And those contacts are usually marketing professionals. Marketing professionals are interested in growing the company’s customer base through defined target markets. They are also responsible for growing the company’s brand. They are generally looking into the future. As such, their goals have generally longer time horizons to work with, giving them more flexibility to negotiate and realize results over longer time frames.

Contacting Community Relations Professionals

Sometimes you are directed to the community relations or public affairs director. You may also come across the title corporate social responsibility manager. These professionals are most concerned about the company’s image in the community. It is their job to maintain a positive company brand. They are probably responsible for managing the company’s employee giving and volunteer programs. And the PR around company volunteer efforts.

Communicating with Business Executives

Whether they are a large or small company. you will need to develop a rapport with them. To do that, focus on what you have in common. For example, dress in typical business attire when you visit them, not in often more relaxed nonprofit work clothes. Use their language, concepts and world that a familiar to them and easy to understand. Don’t use nonprofit jargon. Use corporate jargon instead. If you do introduce concepts they are unfamiliar with, lead from where they are and start with what is already understood.

You also want to match their style of presenting information, probably a direct, no nonsense, get to the bottom of the line type of approach. Always be honest and straightforward. Be passionate about the partnership. Your genuineness will engender trust. Listen first. And listen more than you talk; find out as much as you can about them so that you can address their specific concerns, problem solve with them, and come to mutually beneficial solutions.

And make sure you confirm your understanding of whatever next steps, timelines, or deliverables you agreed to. Nonprofits and for-profit speak different languages that are both English. In other words, the words you use to communicate may sound the same but mean different things to each of you. Always summarize and feed back what you think you heard.

Working with Business Calendars

Your timing needs to be right too. Although they it may seem like they have unlimited resources, they don’t. There is only so much money in the budget that can be used for any one project. Which is why the more your fundraising endeavor matches their company goals, timeline, and budget, the greater your chance for approval.

Most companies operate on a calendar fiscal year. They are usually preparing budgets for the next year in the fall. Use the spring and summer to build your relationship with them. Then approach them in the fall with your project. When you approach them, don’t approach them with a fundraising ask. Approach them with a mutually beneficial endeavor that is valuable to both parties. Remember, you not asking them for a handout. You and your nonprofit can offer a lot of value to them. Don’t undervalue your nonprofit’s worth.

In small businesses, you may get a yes right away. In larger corporations there is probably an arduous budget process that your contact has to navigate. You may have to keep in contact with them for six months before your project is approved. Don’t be put off by the long timelines. And, unless they’ve given you deadlines for when they will bet back to you, don’t be afraid to follow up for as a long a period of time that you need until you get an answer. You are not their main business. You do not take priority over all the other business tasks they must get done. You are not top of mind. Your joint endeavors may slip their mind as time goes on and other things to precedence. Don’t be afraid of reminding them periodically that you are still waiting for an answer. It might seem pushy to you. It doesn’t appear that way to them though.

A good way to know when to follow up is to agree in next steps. The next step being, “when can I expect to hear from you again?” Better yet, be proactive and tell them when to expect your next call, always asking if that fits into their timeline. 

And always thank them for their time and efforts on your behalf. Tell them how much you appreciate them working with you. Be appreciative of what they can do for you. Be bright spot in their day. Let them know through your words and actions that you will be easy to work with and not a burden on them. They will most likely respond in kind.

Wrapping It Up

Whether you are approaching a small business or large corporation, you need to build a relationship before you can agree on an exchange for money. Be realistic in what you can expect from them. It may take a while to communicate and hear back. Always confirm your understanding of what they expect. And come from a position of strength. Recognize the value that you bring to the table. You are not asking for money. You are asking to engage in a business relationship that mutually benefits both parties. 

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