Corporate Giving 101

By Nancy Quinn

April 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Ah, stalking the elusive corporate donor! Back in the good ol’ fundraising days (the mid-80’s, in case you’re wondering), oil companies, banks, department stores, you-name-it, every corporation in America seemed to be in the philanthropy game. In 1983, some of the big oil companies were matching employee gifts 3 to 1! Sadly, those times are long gone. Corporate giving to non-profit organizations has gone from a high of 2.35% of pre-tax corporate profits in 1986 to the 1.4-1.6% range that was common in the 90’s. Mainly, downward pressure came from shareholders, wanting some return for these not-really-all-so-altruistic donations. Exposure was everything: splashy events, national tours, logos on everything, oh my! For the symphonies and ballet companies and huge theatre companies, it was (and to a certain extent still is) boomtime. For the small and plucky: not so much.

Today, even though corporate giving makes up a relatively small portion of overall contributions to non-profit organizations (4.8% in 2004, compared to 75.6% from individuals), it is nonetheless an important component of everyone’s fundraising plan. For a small or midsized dance or theater company not to go after corporate dollars is like leaving money on the table–someone’s going to pick it up, why not you? And the truth is, once you’ve systematized your corporate campaign and got your Board working on it, you can be pretty sure corporate contributions will grow steadily year after year.

It helps to understand why corporations make gifts to nonprofits in the first place: to improve their image (think cigarette companies); to enhance employee relations (corporations frequently want to know: how will our employees benefit from this program?); to be socially responsible (Ben & Jerry’s); an employee is on the Board or an active volunteer; and/or tax incentives. Keep these reasons in mind when creating a corporate giving program.

Developing a corporate giving campaign takes preparation, connections, and follow-through. Making connections is probably the most important part, and the part that stymies most small and midsized dance and theater companies. “We don’t know any higher-ups in big companies! Our Board has no connections whatsoever! Why don’t the oil companies just give us their money! Waa! Waa! Waa!” Once the blubbering is over, ideas for making connections may begin to emerge:

• Check with Board members for corporate and business connections. Dedicate a good portion of a Board meeting to this task, at least once a year, and get everyone to think expansively: spouses, partners, friends, neighbors, colleagues, your children’s friends’ parents, etc.

• Ask business people and corporate employees to join your Board or sit on a committee, and once you’ve got them involved, let them advise you about reaching out to other businesses and business people. Try recruiting corporate volunteers for a specific project, such as putting on a special event. The Business Volunteer for the Arts program of the Business Arts Council (bizarts.org) is a good source of volunteers for managerial projects, and the Volunteer Center (thevolunteercenter.net) also has some good resources.

• Start an employer matching gifts program. This is a nobrainer: just add an employer line to your remittance advice for contributions, then make sure someone follows up by going to the corporation’s website for employee matching information and/or by calling the individual donor and asking for assistance in applying for the match.

• Approach organizations that already know you, such as your bank, accounting firm, printer, and other vendors.

• If your company or your project has a theme that naturally leads to certain corporations (children’s dance theatre, say, and toy companies), follow that lead.

Once you’ve got a list of warm prospects (and Board contacts) created, get going! Relationships like these can take some time to cultivate. As with foundation fundraising, before you start to create a corporate request it’s a good idea to check company websites for guidelines and procedures for community giving. If your request is going to someone in the marketing department, these guidelines may not be entirely relevant, but they will tell you something about how the corporation sees itself in the community.

The structure of a corporate request is pretty straightforward, but the key to the whole package is professionalism. Most business people take their expensive letterhead and gorgeous four-color print materials completely for granted, so your request really needs to look sharp: good design, no typos, no faded copies of outdated reviews, you get the idea.

Start the letter with a brief introduction (who you are and why you’re writing to XYZ Corp); highlight any connection they may have to your company or your audience (why does it make sense for this corporation to give to your organization?); discuss the publicity surrounding your event or project; and describe what event collaterals you are offering (posters, invitations, website, newsletter) as well as what advertising (radio, print, etc.) you expect to run. The Corporate Sponsorship Opportunities section of the request may be offered in a number of different ways: tiered levels of giving (e.g., Benefactor at $10,000, Investor at $5,000, and Patron at $2,000 with each level offering different benefits); a menu of programs or activities with varying levels of support; or a specific request for a specific program. If you can offer something to the corporation’s employees or clients (like tickets to shows), you might structure the request as a corporate membership program.

Always include a phone number in your closing and indicate that you will check with them in a couple of weeks (then be sure and do it!). Have your Board contact sign the letter, or attach a note, suggesting a meeting to talk about your request. Attachments to a corporate request may include press, your 501(c)(3) letter, and copies of promotional materials, but don’t overdo it. Keep your proposal streamlined, stay focused on your mission, and demonstrate the tangible results that will come from the corporation’s gift.

None of this is rocket science: a successful corporate giving campaign is mainly the result of persistence and professionalism. If you start small–giving yourself a reasonable and achievable goal the first year of your campaign–and then keep at it, year after year, you will find that corporate giving can play an important part in meeting your contributed income goals, and in sustaining your company over the long haul.

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of In Dance.


NANCY E. QUINN is a Bay Area fundraising consultant whose 27-year practice has focused on nonprofit arts organizations in all disciplines.

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