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Partners in purpose: exploring motivations for corporate giving

by Amit Aggarwal - 15 June 2021


With a decade at the forefront of corporate fundraising for UK charities, such as British Heart Foundation and Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity, under his belt, Amit Aggarwal explores motivation for corporate giving: why it matters; how to understand it; and what to do in response to this information.

Firstly, it’s worth reflecting on how motivation for giving has changed over the recent years and decades. As Nik Miller outlined in our 2018 report, corporate philanthropy used to be driven by the desires (and often also the pockets) of the CEO or, in the case of owner-run businesses, the family. Often, they would choose a cause by which they or a family member had been directly affected. Other times their motivation would be to demonstrate their commitment to the local community, from which most of their employees would be drawn, perhaps by sponsoring a local regeneration project or a prominent local landmark. Sometimes it was as simple as giving employees a day a year to volunteer to pack Christmas hampers or to paint a shelter – a frequently used stereotype, but one that reflected reality.

In recent times corporate giving has become less influenced by CEOs and other individual stakeholders, and is more likely to be driven by: employees seeking to enhance their sense of purpose at work, or to support a colleague in need; a marketing team seeking commercial or brand differentiation; the HR or people function seeking to engage employees and boost morale. In larger corporates the sometimes complementary, sometimes competing demands of different stakeholders, has led to the growth of professional Corporate Social Responsibility or Corporate Citizenship teams, who are responsible for developing and delivering an organisation-wide corporate giving strategy.

Why companies give
Whilst every business will have its own reason(s) for giving, there are some broad common themes or categories:

1. Promotion – sponsoring a charity event or campaign, or marketing a product or service by pledging to donate a proportion of sales to charity (“cause-marketing”), are both long-standing mechanisms used to promote a company and/or specific products sold by that company.

2. Reputation – corporate giving is often linked to PR, social media or branding, aimed at delivering a positive ‘signal’ to both internal (e.g. staff) and external (e.g. consumers, suppliers, investors) stakeholders.

3. Employee (and Customer) Engagement – in larger or more geographically diverse businesses, charitable giving and fundraising can be a powerful tool for uniting colleagues (and, on occasion customers) behind a common cause; making them feel an equal part of something other than “profit and loss”.

4. Problem-solving – businesses experience unique and complex challenges that charities with specialist insight and knowledge are often best placed to help solve. Developing a partnership which results in financial gain to the charity, whilst solving an important business problem, is truly a “win-win”.

5. Impact – let's not forget that most companies who choose to support charities are ultimately seeking to make a difference. Sometimes they want to help one segment of the community experiencing a particular problem. Sometimes they want to help their local community, and other times they want to be part of a national or international appeal.

Motivation matters
Why should we care about corporate motivation for giving? Isn’t it good enough that businesses give, often generously and often for projects that might not otherwise receive funding? As a fundraiser, you could choose not to overly concern yourself with motivation, but I would argue that if you want to put your cause in the best possible position to secure new partnerships, and retain existing partnerships, understanding motivation is fundamental.

By understanding the motivation of the company, the fundraiser can answer two key questions: firstly, can I align my cause, or project, with the company’s motivations? This is important because if you cannot demonstrate upfront that your cause or project meets the prospective corporate partner’s reasons for wanting to give, you’re far less likely to secure the partnership. And this being the case, you might be better off investing your team’s efforts on other prospects where there is higher alignment between your cause and their motivation. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate a high degree of alignment, this will give you the confidence and knowledge to go forward and engage with the prospective partner in a more forthright manner.

You can also now answer the second vital question. The charity or project for which you are seeking support will invariably have a number of perceived strengths - given what you now know about the prospect’s motivation, which elements of your charity and project will you highlight, in order to deliver a focussed proposal and pitch? Simultaneously, you might consider how to differentiate your cause in a manner that sets you apart from other charities, whilst maintaining the all-important alignment to corporate motivation.

An understanding of corporate motivation not only increases the likelihood of securing new partnerships but also increases the chances of a successful partnership – where success is measured by longevity, income and ultimately, impact. This is because an understanding of motivation – and a recognition that it is not static but evolving – enables the charity to structure and deliver the partnership in a manner that will motivate the corporate’s key stakeholders to engage, participate – and therefore – donate to the cause.

Newlife corporate supporters

Corporate supporters of Newlife get into the spirit

Ask good questions and listen carefully to the answers
How do you determine what motivates a corporate prospect? Occasionally, it’s as simple as reading a corporate press release, impact report or website. Sometimes, attending a seminar and hearing from a panellist who represents your prospective corporate partner can be a great way to acquire an understanding of their motivation. But if you can do something proactive – whether that’s grabbing five minutes of their time after the seminar, or arranging a short phone call – this is worth its weight in gold. You now have the opportunity to ask questions whilst also seeking clarity and specificity, rather than simply reading or receiving information which could be out-of-date or is open to interpretation. If you do secure those precious few minutes, remember to ask open questions such as “what motivates your colleagues to fundraise?” or “why are children’s causes important to you?” or “how will your board measure the success of our partnership?” rather than closed questions such as “is PR important to you?” (to which the answer is invariably something along the lines of “yes, but it’s not the reason we give to charity” and hence you’ve probably learned nothing new)

My personal experience of understanding motivation has been largely positive – albeit not without its limitations.

I was once involved in a successful pitch which was largely the decision of the CEO. He made it clear during the pitch process that one of his motivations for giving was to secure celebrity-driven PR. I felt confident we could deliver access to celebrities and hence responded positively. It transpires that the CEO’s expectations were significantly higher than our ability to deliver and this became a sticking point: the CEO never missed an opportunity to tell me that the charity that his wife was a trustee of would have secured more exciting celebrities! More importantly, our partnership was not extended despite some initial potential for this. The learning for me was that if I had spoken to our PR team in advance, I might have been able to better manage the CEO’s expectations at the outset – or we could have decided to politely withdraw from the selection process.

Of course, learning new information about corporate motivation is normally a positive experience. In advance of another pitch, we asked the marketing director who was leading the selection process: regardless of which charity you choose, how would you hope to describe a successful partnership in three years’ time? This proved very useful because even though we did not explicitly ask about motivation, the answers revealed both his motivations and those of the organisation. It gave us the confidence to develop a highly tailored, focussed and differentiated pitch – a high-risk strategy that could have back-fired if we hadn’t correctly interpreted the information or if another member of the panel had a different opinion on the company’s motivation for supporting charities. But I wouldn’t be sharing this anecdote, and encouraging you to take motivation seriously, if we hadn’t been successful!

More recently, as interim Director of Fundraising for NHS Charities Together during their Covid-19 Urgent Appeal, I discovered that businesses large and small, national and local, wanted to support the NHS at a time of urgent need, with very little expectation of recognition, PR, profile or stakeholder engagement. Which gave us the confidence to unapologetically say: we are incredibly grateful for your support, but during this unprecedented time, we cannot provide you with the dedicated account management and fundraising support that you might ordinarily expect.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to other changes. Some corporates are willing to “flex” their long-standing guidelines, whether around longevity of partnership or size of charity. Morrisons’ latest charity partner application pack states that, whereas previously their fundraising has been 100% restricted to new projects and services, due to the pandemic, their 2022-2025 partnership fundraising will be 50% restricted to a new project or service, and 50% restricted to existing core services. It remains to be seen whether this encouraging example is part of a longer-term trend or a short-term response to the pandemic.

Put simply, whatever their motivation, corporates partner with charities because they want to help... a sentiment that all of us who work in the sector can relate to.

About the author
Amit Aggarwal is an Associate Partner with More Partnership and specialist in corporate fundraising. Recent projects include acting as interim Director of Fundraising for NHS Charities Together and Newlife, the charity for disabled children. Before More, he was Director of Corporate Partnerships for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and Head of Corporate Partnerships at the British Heart Foundation.

Further reading
More Partnership has considerable expertise in establishing and nurturing corporate partnerships. Between us, we have directly secured large cash grants from a wide range of corporate partners (including Google, KPMG and Goldman Sachs), and advised a range of clients on developing innovative collaborations that deliver impact. In 2018, we published From Transactional to Transformative: The Future of Corporate Partnerships – a report featuring new insights about the future of these partnerships and how organisations can collaborate most effectively – with practical steps for maximising their impact, from identifying prospective partners to measuring outcomes. You can download a copy here.