Nearly all of us dream of an established company providing our nonprofit with significant funds. Will it be a tech company, a car dealership, or a national chain?

Reality smacks us in the face as we struggle with cumbersome corporate portals, difficulty in connecting with the right business contacts, and conversations with executives that show interest – yet don’t have any money. We go back to the drawing board and rethink our strategy. Meanwhile, our board members continue to wonder why we are not bringing in more corporate funding.

We conduct research, leverage board member connections, and identify the right corporate contacts and are thrilled when we finally line up a meeting! At the meeting, we provide background information on our organization, smoothly present details on our programs, and confidently state how we are truly making a difference.

Can you identify the problem? We fell in love with our own organizational goals and desires and forgot to focus on the interests of the company. Unfortunately, this scenario happens far too often and leads to meetings where corporate executives are respectful, express interest, and request that we send a proposal – and we end up in the land of unreturned emails.  

What should we do differently? Many nonprofits face this conundrum as their funding is generally from individuals, membership dues, or another revenue stream. The first step is to conduct research and become knowledgeable about the company interests and nonprofit relationships. This will help develop our strategy and better prepare us to present potential ways to collaborate. It is recognized that in some situations, the corporate contact will request that we lay out our proposed plans without allotting time for specific questions. However, our goal is to position the conversation so we can ask effective and probing questions about their needs, interests, and challenges.  

There is one question that stands above all others as it unlocks the door to crucial answers we are seeking.

It is very simple: Can you please explain how you have partnered with other organizations?

While we need to be prepared to present options on how we propose to collaborate, our plan is to establish rapport and ask basic questions about their role, organization, and objectives. Once accomplished, we pop the magic question. Why is this question so powerful?

When we ask this question and probe deeper, we gain answers to the following:

  • Pitch the right person. If they can answer this question and offer details, it leads to a more productive meeting. If they struggle, it gives us the opportunity to transition to a colleague. While corporate executives are skilled enough to respond to other questions e.g. goals, objectives, or needs, this question requires knowledge as to what and how they have worked with others.
  • Current Partnerships and Relationships. They will almost always comment on their most successful relationships and what they share is what has worked well for the company. We can find out the structure, benefits, and rationale for why and how they developed other relationships. Our job is to figure out how or if we can replicate these relationships. Companies thrive on establishing similar relationships as they want to go with what worked previously.   
  • Needs and Challenges. As they describe current relationships, it allows for a deeper understanding of their challenges. If the partnership involves active involvement of staff, employee engagement is a likely challenge. If struggling with visibility, this often represents a major component of the relationship. By asking probing questions, we uncover the underlying needs and challenges as to why these relationships were successful.
  • Decision-Making Process. After understanding the specifics of a partnership, we ask how this relationship was established and who was involved. Did it require a committee, one senior executive, or specific departments to be involved? The response offers a window into how our proposed partnership will be reviewed.
  • Budget. We first ask about resources required – such as staff time, executive/board involvement, or other needed resources that drive the relationship. We follow up with a direct question about their budget or infer from their other relationship. When providing details on successful partnerships that addressed key challenges, this frequently represents their biggest financial commitment.

When we implement a targeted plan of which asking the right questions is one key part, we reduce the wheel-spinning and endless waiting for a response. We streamline our efforts, focus on the right prospects and contacts, and alleviate stress and pressure and get closer to finding companies to partner with that align with our organization's mission and needs.

Join us on Thursday, February 14 at 2:00 pm ET for Corporate Relationships in Action: A Step-by-Step Guide to Outreach as we uncover the secrets in finding our best fit for a corporate relationship!

About the Author(s)

Lewis Flax President Flax Associates View Bio

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