Simple Steps for Successful Community Partnerships

Kiawah Cares Foundation is a 501(c)3 corporation funded primarily through generous donations of Kiawah Island property owners. Just as any nonprofit, our resource allocation, whether financial, volunteerism or goods, will always be challenged. We realize those who work in education, faith-based organizations and traditional nonprofits may not understand corporate giving structures, and would like to share our partnership philosophy to help you succeed when you request assistance. These tips may also help you create partnerships with other community businesses. Just click on a topic below to go directly to that section.

Community Partnerships Can Help Your School, Church or Nonprofit
Note: The term nonprofit or organization used herein applies to schools, faith-based organizations and nonprofits, and the term business applies to corporations, foundations and other giving sources.

  • Financial support, direct or via sponsorships
  • Goods and services
  • Networking that can lead to solutions to issues such as employment, education and additional sponsorships
  • Media opportunities that call attention to your organization

Your organization can advance its mission through association and sponsorship by a recognized business, without investing your own limited resources.

The business can raise brand awareness, demonstrate social responsibility, and attract and retain employees. In fact, Forbes reports that corporate social responsibility is a lever for employee attraction and engagement.

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Corporate Giving is Changing

Historically, American business engagement with low-income communities has been largely limited to arms-length philanthropy and volunteerism. While those things are still occurring, in the last decade a new generation of business-community partnerships has developed. Securing donor gifts requires a commitment on the part of the recipient to build and sustain multidimensional long-term relationships. Traditional “check-book” philanthropy has been replaced by strategic partnerships that support the community while also helping the company succeed.

Making gift decisions is just the beginning of the relationship in a successful partnership. Much of the ongoing work is in the form of leveraging recognition opportunities and creating meaningful engagement opportunities.

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Getting Started – Cultivate Relationships

Often partnership or grant opportunities are left on the table, because an organization does not take the time to learn what is available and how to get it.

Determine what resources are available based on your mission, demographics or other criteria. After you have researched your prospects, reach out to them. If a business or foundation has stated a preference for an initial approach or mode of contact, follow the instructions. If it has not stated any preferences, it generally is safe to email them for more information.

When you reach out for the first time, use your research and be ready with your talking points or otherwise show that you’ve spent some time learning about them. Your research will enable you to ask more in-depth and detailed questions, beyond what’s readily available online, which means a better use of time for both you and the funder. It also makes for a better first impression.

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Discover Your Business Partner’s Needs

Not all businesses will be interested in the same return on their investment. Take time to educate yourself and understand your partner’s goals. They may not be what you expect. Understand they’re not all in it just for public fanfare. More of them than you might think actually care about the community. It’s true that most will want some form of public recognition, which demonstrates social responsibility. If a business or foundation has internal donors of their own, they’ll also want something to demonstrate success to their donors, which provides ongoing engagement. This might take the form of quarterly reports, or something more personal such as handwritten or handmade thank you cards. Some businesses may want something their employees can be proud of and get involved with. Others may want your organization to become more involved in the community. Some will want all of these. Always remember, nothing goes as far as a simple thank you.

Kiawah Cares’ partnerships seek gestures of appreciation to our donors, promotional use of our name and/or logo, and occasional invitations for inclusion at functions or media events. Social media mentions and listings on your web page or printed materials are always welcome. And we very much want to see those who receive services reaching back out to the community to do their share. That might take many forms, such as mentoring younger children, spending time with seniors or veterans, or engaging in community clean-up/repair projects.

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Shape Your Own Role

You know what you want from the business. Tell them what you propose for your end of the partnership. Organizations can make the mistake of expecting a business to develop a partnership plan. You must understand what your potential partner seeks and offer your return on investment plan. Be prepared to offer measurable results, both for your organization and the business, and deliver on reporting them. Asking the business to define the ways it can best meet your needs is likely to end a partnership before it begins.

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Return the Investment

Clearly spell out from the onset how the business will benefit from working with you. Be creative. Placing a banner ad on your event’s program or on your website is not a significant benefit. Explain repetitious benefits. Then continually demonstrate the return on investment, tracking as much data and benefits to the company as you can, to prove you provide a strong return.

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Nurture the Partnership

All partnerships require time and nourishment to flourish. While it is a business, you are cultivating a personal relationship. Most successful cross-sector partnerships and cause-marketing campaigns do not hit their stride until the second or third year.

In the meantime, nurturing that relationship is the key to ensuring longevity. Keep the business actively involved and engaged in your efforts. A personal touch goes a long way in solidifying a good relationship.

It’s a good idea to have a point person on both sides of the partnership in charge of managing communications, but the head of the organization should always make efforts to stay in touch as well. Constant, clear, open, and honest communication is critical.

Each side should regularly ask questions such as: Are both sides communicating what is and isn’t working? Are we speaking the same language? Is the partnership meeting both sides’ needs? Is it achieving meaningful results? Have we explored, measured, and reported both the intended and unintended benefits of the partnership? In time, expanding the partnership beyond the initial champion to multiple levels within the business can strengthen the collaboration.

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Embrace Advice, Evolve

While a business should never tell you how to run your organization, they can offer legitimate counsel from the business perspective. They know their operating protocols and donor demographics and know what will fulfill – and not fulfill – those needs. Fresh eyes from a different perspective may show you new ways to achieve objectives, while also educating you to corporate expectations you can use elsewhere. Don’t be afraid of transitioning programs or operating styles that might be more successful with another approach.

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Expect to be Vetted

A business may want to conduct due diligence on your organization to determine the extent to which your nonprofit is a leader in its field and has demonstrated results in the past. They will verify your IRS nonprofit status and tax filings, at a minimum. Many will use evaluation tools such as or Still others may require information on your board of directors or other leadership model, and a review of policies and budgets. Be prepared to be open.

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It’s Taxing

Many donors give because they’re socially-minded; others give for tax purposes. A donor cannot claim a deduction for a contribution (financial or goods) unless you provide a tax receipt or letter. Fail to do this often enough and you may find yourself losing donors and community partners.

According to the IRS, a donor must maintain a record of the contribution, either in the form of a canceled check or a written communication from you that includes the name of your organization, date and amount of the contribution. If the donation is goods, include a reasonably-detailed description of the donated property.

Additional criteria might be required if a donation is over $250.

Large donors will likely check your IRS status to ensure your organization a “qualified organization.” They may also check if you are current in filing 990s. Some businesses and foundations may not partner with organizations who are not qualified under IRS regulations. Before you spend a lot of time applying for grants and sponsorships, understand their requirements.

The good news is that you may not have to assign a value to goods, and can refer your donor to an existing valuation chart. Many organizations follow the Salvation Army’s Valuation Guide.

Note: The information above does not constitute legal tax advice. Consult your tax advisor for your specific circumstances.

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Six Reasons Partnerships Fail

  • Lack of availability or response. If you’re too busy to fulfill your end of the partnership, perhaps it’s not the best fit. Dropped communications and postponed meetings will drive your potential partner elsewhere. Businesses are asked for help on a daily basis. They will respond to those who respond to them.
  • Entitlement, Take/Take: A great way to end a relationship before it begins is to accept funds, goods or services then fail to follow-up with reporting or acknowledgements, or to project a sense of entitlement.
  • Incomplete Vetting. Most businesses will require initial vetting of your organization and conduct due diligence.
  • Incomplete Requests. Businesses do not have time to hand walk every request. Don’t shoot off an email and expect action. Be complete and detailed, and follow the businesses standard for application, every time.
  • Lack of Planning. Forgetting about your partner until a week before your need also conveys a take/take position. Start including your potential partner early in your plans, and allow plenty of processing time. Business leaders may have to gain internal clearance for a project and identify resources before committing or continuing. Realize that employees may have been given this special project in addition to their ongoing roles.
  • Sole-focus. Too many nonprofits approach businesses with only their cause in mind, rather than explaining how working together will also help the corporation. This is not to say that the cause doesn’t carry a compelling moral imperative that is reason enough for the company to get involved. It simply fails to recognize that your audiences – time-poor, overloaded and busy corporate partners – respond far better to a solution to an existing problem than the addition of a new one.

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The Able Altruist, Ashley Halligan
Annenberg Institute
Association of Fundraising Professionals, Mary Deacon
Hitachi Corporation
We First, Simon Mainwaring