Building a million-pound partnership

6 lessons from how one small charity created a transformational partnership during the pandemic.

The default way many charities approach corporate fundraising is to apply through a Charity of the Year process, if it exists. The clear upside to this is that the company has made the decision to find a charity to raise funds for. One downside is how hard employee fundraising, which provides much of the money in these partnerships, has been hit during the pandemic. Another obvious one is the intense competition your charity faces to get chosen at all.

Even if you work for a charity which is well-known and has a cause which is easy to understand, the odds are still stacked against you because of the many (sometimes hundreds) of other charities that apply.

And if you’re a less well known or cuddly cause, it’s an even tougher game, because even if you pitch brilliantly, winning the popularity contest of the staff vote can feel impossible.

Another approach, which we show you how to apply in the Corporate Mastery Programme, is to spend at least some of your time building partnerships which are bespoke and strategic. For instance, you may have seen the successful partnerships between Fairy and Make a Wish Foundation (which has run for 14 years) or Lynx’s award-winning partnership with Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

These partnerships are usually driven by a strategic, as well as philanthropic rationale for both sides; they are often more long-term; and they usually bring the charity other kinds of value to help achieve their goals, as well as funding.

Working this way is not for the faint-hearted. There are still challenges, but if you can solve those problems then these partnerships can make an immense difference to your charity’s mission.

In Episode 67 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast, Pippa Hind-Walsh explained the journey she and her colleagues at Family Fund had been on with McCain Foods to create a spectacular three-year partnership. It included a donation of over a million pounds, as well as employee fundraising and a fabulous series of media marketing including a TV advert. There have also been a trio of animations, made with David Walliams on Sky TV showcasing the voices of some of the families the charity works with. And the charity ran a competition for the families they had helped, for the children to create a hand-drawn design for some of McCain’s packaging, which was won by a talented young man named Charlie.

In the interview, Pippa and I talked about a number of things she felt had been important in finding and building this partnership.

To be clear, strategic partnerships don’t need to be at this extraordinary scale, but whether you’re aiming for something much smaller, perhaps delivering value with a local company, or something with a famous brand like this one, I hope the six ideas in this blog prove helpful:

1. Be proactive

Unlike with a Charity of the Year, there is usually no process to follow if you’d like to create this kind of partnership, so you have to be entrepreneurial in reaching out to companies. One obvious but often over-looked ingredient is the need for clarity in which companies you’d like to talk to (as opposed to ‘we’d love to partner with anyone’.) And to think of companies where a partnership makes sense for both parties, for instance because of brand values and shared audience. The paradox here is that the more you narrow it down and can explain why you believe there is a good fit, the more focused you can be in searching for someone from your existing contacts, internal or external, who is able request a first conversation. This is what Pippa managed to do.

On our Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme, we teach the Dream 10 approach to help you confidently justify and narrow down this shortlist, as well as various creative ways to make the case for that crucial first meeting.

2. Resist any pressure to ask early on

Because our charities need money, a common pitfall is to succumb to a narrow or short-term objective I.e. to hope to walk away with a partnership or certain level of gift at this early stage.

Of course it makes sense to prepare ideas for what a partnership could look like, but we suggest that like Pippa, you see your primary objectives for the first meeting are two-fold a) grow your understanding of what the company might be looking for, and b) help them see the value in exploring further.

Pippa explains that before the meeting, they had worked incredibly hard to research what the company might be looking for in a partnership, but that there was still lots they learned in the meeting, that would help them prepare for the second meeting.

3. Help them get their colleagues’ interest

Even if the meeting goes well, in most companies it may not necessarily be easy to build consensus among their wider colleagues.

One thing Pippa used in the second meeting was a simple prop that she used to bring to life the amazing stories of the families her charity supports. With the help of a colleague she had created a three dimensional box, which contained colourful cards showing these stories. Taking place before COVID, the meeting was face to face, and she left this box with the company at the end of the meeting.

Pippa told me in the interview that as the relationship continued to develop, and she was introduced to more people at the company, they all mentioned they’d already been shown the ‘box of stories’ following Pippa’s second meeting. Obviously emulating this precise tactic is not easy if you don’t meet face to face, and it may not suit your approach anyway, but sometimes leaving or sending something bespoke, other than the expected slides or proposal, can prove helpful to your new allies and helps to already create emotional buy in to your cause.

4. Signal not size

Some fundraisers have told me they worry about proposing a partnership with a company much larger than them, because their database or Facebook following is so small. ‘What value can we bring them?’ This partnership is an excellent example that shows that the value of strategic partnerships to a company is not so much about the size of your existing audience, but about what you stand for.

Family Fund is a relatively ‘under the radar’ small charity. I had never heard of them. I don’t believe McCain saw value because they wanted the charity to reach out to its existing audience about the partnership. Rather, they did so because of the difference Family Fund makes to families, the story it tells, the values that drive it, and which McCain, its employees and its customers, care about.

So the size of your charity is less important than the fact that the companies’ stakeholders will care and approve of the fact that the company is helping this cause, and that the company-charity fit seems authentic.

This same principle is borne out in one of my other favourite examples of a powerful strategic partnership. You can read (and watch) more about the inspiring partnership between IKEA and the small animal charity Homes for Hope if you follow this link. In this creative, inspiring partnership, the powerful idea that the charity represents proved immensely valuable to the company in communicating with its customers. And it was very successful in enabling thousands of previously unwanted dogs to be rehomed (which in this case was more effective in achieving the mission than if they had only donated money).

Pippa also explained that in the case of her partnership, being small even brought some advantages, in that the company loved that the difference they were making (not just through the monetary contribution but through other aspects of the partnership such as the media exposure) was game-changing for a charity of this size

5. To help calculate value, study comparable examples

Pippa mentioned that the partnership was built over many meetings, through which both parties understood what the other was looking for, and ways to use their strengths to make something special happen. To get a sense of how to put a value on the partnership, she researched other successful partnerships, including, for instance, that between Cadbury’s and Age UK.

As with the IKEA / Homes for Hope partnership mentioned above, Pippa’s team also understood that some of the resources McCain were able to bring were not financial. The profile the partnership brought in terms of representing the voices of families and children with disabilities, for instance through a series of animations, voiced by David Walliams and shown on Sky TV, was unprecedented for the charity.

6. Jam tomorrow – keep communicating over the long-term

Creating this partnership took nearly two years to build, from the very first conversation, to going public in February 2021. The process would have been quicker without the many challenges brought by COVID, but something this complex, with this kind of company, would have still taken up to 18 months. Pippa explained that this was challenging for the charity, as they needed to work for a long time before they were able to publicly announce the partnership or receive donations in the short term. Especially during the pandemic, her colleague had lots of other demands on their time. So being as organised as possible and very proactive in keeping colleagues informed of the ongoing progress of the partnership enabled the charity to work with their counterparts at McCain to create something really special.

Would you like help growing the skills and confidence to win more Corporate Partnerships?

On our Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme, we show you how to implement practical techniques to help you win and negotiate valuable partnerships. Pippa took part in the Programme and credits the masterclasses and coaching support as making a big difference to her fundraising. If you’d like to find out more about how the Programme works, follow his link.