Nonprofits: it's time to redefine your corporate relationships

Nonprofits: it's time to redefine your corporate relationships

Nonprofits are looking at one of the best opportunities in decades to redefine their corporate partnerships for the betterment of their constituents.

The public's expectations with respect to the role business should play in addressing social inequities has shifted dramatically over recent years. In this moment, how corporations decide to meet these expectations has enormous implications for nonprofit leaders. Our latest research, The Corporate Social Mind Research Report, includes two findings that argue strongly for a rethink of the nonprofit-corporate funder relationship: 1) these days, Americans expect companies to have an opinion on pressing social issues; and 2) companies actually do influence how individuals act in support of particular causes.

It is our view that both findings create an opportunity, even a responsibility, for nonprofits to help companies successfully engage customers, employees, and stakeholders in taking action on social issues.

Large segments of the American public are hungry for accurate information about the issues they care about and are looking for ways to meaningfully engage in change. And these days they have added publicly owned companies to their list of go-to sources for such information. If your nonprofit hasn’t already redefined its relationships with its corporate funders, it's time to get started.

Here are a couple of things you can do:

Reposition your nonprofit as a subject-matter expert. Nearly half (46 percent) of consumers we surveyed expect a company to know how its products or services are impacting society. This represents a golden opportunity for nonprofits to step up as subject-matter experts. Many nonprofits are well-positioned to provide information about corporate impact at every level of a corporation’s operations, from product design, to supply chain management, to branding and marketing.

In our survey, almost 60 percent of respondents said they believe companies should make clear where they stand on racial equity, social justice, and discrimination, while almost half want the same for the environment/climate change. Again, nonprofits, in their role as experts, can help companies define their positions and craft messaging around their issue. Companies know their business and customers, but a nonprofit is more likely to understand who is (and isn't) affected by an issue and how a business might be impacting its constituents. In other words, nonprofits can educate, inform, and help companies build knowledge about an issue and bring a more authentic, public-focused perspective to its internal conversations.

Partners in change. When we asked, "What actions have you (as a consumer) taken in the last three weeks because a company asked you to get involved in a social issue?" we learned that:

  • 25 percent of those who responded to the survey posted or shared something related to an issue;
  • 21 percent started to or increased their purchases of local products and/or services;
  • 20 percent said they had made an in-kind donation to a charity; and
  • 20 percent said they had made a cash donation to a cause or charity.

In addition, a quarter (26 percent) of respondents think companies should engage their employees in fundraising or volunteering for a social cause or issue. Many nonprofits are well positioned to offer easy and customized access to such opportunities, educating employees about their issue and the company’s role in creating impact while underscoring its commitment to the issue.

Our survey results illustrate the potential of authentically engaged companies to make a difference. Viewed holistically, social issues cut across all segments of society, from companies, to donors, to voters and policy makers, to beneficiaries, consumers, and investors. Social change happens when all of these groups ignore their traditional roles and organizational boundaries and join forces to advance solutions to an issue.

The two most prominent issues in 2020, COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, are causing many companies to rethink their role in advancing social change. Matching the level of engagement of their customers is likely to be a challenge for many of them, but one well worth the effort. Nonprofits are well-positioned to support companies and help inform their decisions and actions. As companies work to develop more effective and meaningful approaches to urgent social issues, nonprofits have a unique opportunity to redefine the corporate-nonprofit relationship by significantly enhancing the value they bring to it.

Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of the new book, The Corporate Social Mind.

The sustainable nonprofit

February 11, 2020