"Communities thrive because of the efforts of people who work on behalf of human charity, and … businesses thrive when they invest in these groups," said Katie Coates, APR, author of "Vote Yes: The Public Hearing Plan for Developers." "I view this as taking corporate social responsibility to a much higher level of commitment, with true partnerships occurring between business leaders and members of the nonprofit organizations."
We talked with Coates and two other business owners to get their advice on creating a charitable partnership, including how to choose a cause to work with and why charitable work is good for your business's bottom line.
Why should businesses partner with a charity?
For many businesses, charitable partnerships are key to their relationships with clients and local decision-makers.
Coates specializes in helping developers create strong community relationships. Part of this, she said, involves encouraging her clients to go beyond the occasional charitable donation. "It is an ethical imperative for developers, in particular, and other business leaders to invest in the communities in which they wish to do business, with the goal of making those communities better places in which to live and work."
If you already give to charity in your personal life, adding a charitable partnership to your business model may seem like an unnecessary complication. But the infrastructure and reach of your business can allow your volunteer hours and donations, whether monetary or in-kind, to have far more impact than individual giving.
"At first, our employees didn't quite understand how donations positively affect a charity," said Matt Schmidt, the CEO of health insurance company Diabetes Life Solutions, which partners with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. "But over time, as we'd receive a thank-you message on Facebook or email, or a handwritten thank-you card with a picture of a child we helped send to a camp, our employees realized what we were doing. Positively impacting a person's life through your donations is a life-altering experience and not something to take lightly."
How to choose a charity to work with
When you choose a charity to work with, you want the partnership to feel like a natural extension of your business. Its work should be something that both your existing workforce and your community of customers are excited about contributing to.
"Think of a cause you relate to," suggested Schmidt. "In my experience, if you have a passion for a cause, it'll help motivate you and help you remember why you donate."
For John Crossman, the CEO of commercial real estate developer Crossman & Company, partnering with historically black educational institutions was a way of continuing a family legacy of civil rights work. "When my dad was dying, he asked us to endow a scholarship in his memory at Bethune-Cookman University. We did that in 2004," said Crossman. "In 2014, we endowed the first ever real estate scholarships at Bethune-Cookman University and Florida A&M University."
Like Schmidt, Crossman recommended creating a partnership around an issue that you already care about. "We have many real issues facing our nation right now," said Crossman. "Find one that you are passionate about and invest in a solution."
Before finalizing your partnership, however, make sure the organization you select will make responsible use of your contributions. Otherwise, you could risk backlash against your business should the charity receive negative press or become involved in a scandal.
"I always urge my clients to assess a group's mission, values and goals … [and] to look for the signs of a healthy organization: energy, connectedness and commitment," said Coates.
Charity Navigator is a nonprofit that ranks charities based on their financial statements and leadership. It can help you identify reputable organizations and assess where your contributions will be best used. If you're planning to work with local organizations, you can also check local papers for information about a charity's work or the professional history of board members.
Creating a business relationship with a charity
When it comes to your relationship with your charity of choice, there are many options. Crossman recommended starting with a monetary donation to demonstrate that you are serious about helping rather than simply looking for good press. "Write a check first. It shows commitment, and they [the charity] are in need," he said. "Then focus on what you can accomplish together and make sure there is buy-in." You may donate a set amount at specific points throughout the calendar year or designate a certain percentage of every sale as a charitable contribution.
Donating your services is also possible, especially for small businesses working with a local partner. A dry cleaner, for example, could clean clothes donated to a coat drive for free, or a caterer could provide food for a local fundraiser.
Another option is making volunteer hours part of your company culture, such as closing the office one day a month to have employees work at a food bank or donate their professional skills to a local organization.
No matter what form your partnership takes, it should be sustainable for your business and create real benefit for the charity you are working with. "Sit down with group leaders to see if they are interested in a partnership," Coates advised. "There should be clearly understood goals for both the nonprofit and the business providing the sponsorship."
How charity impacts your business
Crossman had a final piece of advice for businesses considering charitable partnerships: "Do it because you believe in it and assume no financial return. That said, you will get a return."
From improving your professional reputation to attracting new customers, investing in a charity can improve both the bottom line and the professional reputation of your business.
Coates finds that for her clients, working with local charities creates strong relationships with community leaders that impacts business opportunities. "It's a no-brainer," said Coates. "Should they need support down the road, they will have the relationships already in place that will enable them to communicate effectively with decision makers."
For Schmidt, donating to a cause his clients care about creates a relationship of trust and loyalty that has directly impacted his sales. "They realize … we're all in this together when it comes to diabetes." said Schmidt. "I love getting phone calls from the diabetes community members thanking us for our donations and then maybe a month or two later, getting a call from the same person asking if we could assist with their family's life insurance needs."
"For any business owner who's on the fence about incorporating charity into their business model, just do it," advised Schmidt. "It's truly a win-win situation for all parties involved. There are thousands of amazing charitable organizations out there, and all of them would love to work with you."