February 22, 2016

How to Solve a Tricky Corporate Giving Challenge

Your assistant delivers the mail. In it, you find a substantial check from a local company. You recognize the signature. It’s a business contact you’ve been wooing.

How do you evaluate this check? Is it a donation? A business investment? Both? Does it matter that nonprofits’ transactions with businesses confuse us?


Confusion dampens action. Confusion consumes resources. Instead of moving decisively, you grapple with what to do next. And, often, do nothing.

You shop to replace an aging home appliance at a big box store. When the options confuse you, you return home to “think about it.”

Guess what? Nonprofit leaders are not the only ones confused about the reasons behind company checks. In some cases, the person authorizing the check shares your confusion.

An insurance broker, for example, whose firm gives over $60,000 yearly, shared that he wrestles with too many requests, uncertain returns, his desire to give back with no returns needed,  the need to support existing staff and customers, and grow profits. Corporate checks often represent multiple and occasionally conflicting goals.

Is this a sector-wide problem? Yes. For proof, consider that 80 percent of the gross domestic product in the United States stems from businesses. Nonprofits represent just over 5. Yet nonprofits that painstakingly seek every dollar induce companies to offer them only the tiniest sliver of income. (See 7 Nonprofit Income Streams for a practical explanation of corporate income and six other income streams.)

For nonprofits, corporate income is akin to that tiny slice of holiday pie you ate last Thanksgiving. Why is that? It’s a place where confusion dampens action. By helping companies clarify their giving-back goals, you might access a whole pie. Read more to find out how.

Make the Call

If you receive a corporate check, make a call. State that you’re calling to thank them for the gift and would like to be sure you understand their goals and how you might help each other in the future. They liked your work well enough to send you money. Call within 24 twenty-four hours of getting the check.

Seek to Meet

Here’s good news. Simply thanking the check writer will score you points. However, building relationships speed up with face-to-face meetings. So, seek a  twenty-minute meeting. A brief meeting in their office will help you to identify mutual goals and plant a seed for a long-term connection.

After thousands of meetings, the relationships I have with people I have met one-to-one are tangibly richer, last longer, and are meatier. Not a bad return for investing the time to reach out and travel to their office.


You could go in cold. After all, it’s only twenty minutes. However, since you’ve committed to just twenty minutes, it is even more critical to prepare. Invest twenty minutes in getting ready. What might you do?

  • Enhance your understanding of the business. Peruse their website. Skim one current article about their industry in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Explore their geographic focus. Do you share the same focus? Are your service areas just one dot on their map? Or somewhere in between?
  • Get personal. Look up your contact’s LinkedIn profile and corporate bio. Identify common friends and shared experiences.
  • Decide on a minimum goal for your meeting, such as sharing thanks, understanding their intention, and agreeing to remain in contact.
  • Decide on a maximum goal, such as exploring innovative partnerships that benefit your nonprofit, the business, and the community.


Anticipate being invited into an office or the conference room. Once you have settled in, how will you start? Explain why you’re there and what you hope to achieve. Check for anything on their agenda. Your contact might have prepared questions for you.

In any case, as you converse, listen to discern the reasons behind the check. In some cases, you will hear that giving back is “the right thing to do.”

Dig further. You might find that the gift is, in essence, a personal donation.

How will you know? Listen for some of the individual giving motivators identified by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. These include meeting important basic human needs, helping those with less, bringing about a desired change, and because they were asked.

Consider, also, if instead, you received a business investment. Investments fall into three categories:

  • To save money. Notice if the check represents a gift that the employees championed or current customer supported. While your contact will rarely say, “We did it to save money,” investments that support existing business and beloved employee needs reduce business costs.
  • To grow income. In this case, you’ll hear that the investment was about reaching new markets or improving or supporting the company’s brand.
  • To build the communities infrastructure. Infrastructure is akin to a developer clearing the land and putting inroads as he prepares to sell houses. For example, a business leader may invest in the arts because the leaders believe every community where the firm wants to do business needs great arts.

In a flash, the meet will be over. Before you go, agree to a next step, which at the very least is to stay in contact.

Make it Stick

Back at your office, review the conversation. What will you do next? Of course, when you received the check, you posted a thank you note. After the meeting, post a second note appreciating what you learned in the meeting.

Even better, provide something of value stimulated by your meeting. You might send a newspaper article with your card. Or you might send an email introduction to a board member. Numerous options exist.

Then, allow the clarity you gained at the meeting to guide you and determine if you will treat the donation as a business investment or personal donation. Congratulate yourself for reaching out and gaining valuable knowledge to develop a meaningful and profitable relationship.

You Can Do It

To open the floodgate to corporate income, get practical. Build a new partnership based on mutual success. Dispel the fog that comes with corporate gifts. Identify the “why” behind the investments. You can help corporate leaders to know they met their goals by helping everyone to get clear on them.  Spend less time wondering what to do next and more time doing it.

Congratulations, you solved a big problem with corporate giving and now have built your nonprofit’s ability to obtain new sponsorship dollars.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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