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Unlocking Corporate Philanthropy

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By Aaron Wooden, Senior Consultant, FTI Consulting

I recently left the fantastic Corporate Engagement team at Northwestern University, where I served for over 3 years as the research analyst. I had many responsibilities, but most projects could be bucketed into two broad areas, prospect research and institutional analysis. Over my time there, my experiences with corporate prospects led me to think of them as a unique category of philanthropic support worth noting.

First, in a recent report on corporate giving from Bentz Whaley Flessner, one key finding indicated that corporate foundations have not increased their funding of non-profits at the same rate as budgets from other units within a corporate prospect. Because of this fact, there are still…

plenty of ways to engage a corporate prospect outside their foundation, AND, outside even their philanthropic programming altogether. BWF’s findings support my argument: Corporate Prospect Research is not just about philanthropy, fundraising, or giving. It’s about the business of the corporate prospect.

If you are looking only into the corporation’s foundation or giving program, you are missing a majority of possible partnership opportunities. In my work at Northwestern, I took the extra time to survey a corporation’s actual business. I looked for answers to common questions: How does the corporation make money? Is the corporation hiring or firing employees, and in what segments? Who are the corporation’s leaders, both in C-Suite and on their governing board? Is the corporation acquiring or merging with other businesses? Is the corporation trying to sell pieces of its business? Answers to these basic questions will help identify how your organization might fit into the corporation’s larger strategy. Why settle for one piece from the corporate foundation, when you have the information available to pursue the whole pie?

The whole pie, within the context of a research university, includes all of the OTHER engagement points with the corporation. These points include recruiting talented students after graduation, sending middle management for continuing education, building relationships with faculty, licensing technologies from the university’s patent portfolio, sponsoring athletics events, and more.

How do these extra pieces relate to funding from the corporation? Corporations fund specific student activities to help recruit graduating seniors. A grant made to a university research center, with a goal to publish on the latest developments in a particular technology, puts faculty and research groups in the quiver of the corporation’s network of experts.

Overall, funding from a corporation is targeted, and demands a return on investment. That return can be many things, which include new connections, an increased talent pipeline, visibility, and beyond philanthropy – access to technologies and joint ventures.

I could survey all of the business databases I used, but to be brief, I found most through my university library. Back when I was a volunteer grant writer, I used my local library to find additional online sources. Additional secondary sources include newsfeeds, social media aggregations, and public filings through both state registries and the SEC. These resources, in addition to more fundraising specific sources like NOZA, Guidestar, or Foundation Directory Online, help the researcher paint the best picture possible of the corporate prospect. I could write a whole other post about sources, but we need to not fall asleep just yet!

I also want to stress another piece of corporate prospect research. Within large universities, you or your front line corporate relations officers may not be the only university staff interacting with your corporate prospects. This is a GOOD thing. Other, non-development staff who work in career services, tech transfer, and discipline specific industry partnerships offices will have substantial relationships with your prospect’s representatives. The more connections exist between your organization and the corporation, the more the corporation values your organization.

A typical corporation may have a half-dozen different staff, from different business units, each talking organically with countless staff within a university. As a result, primary research within the university is necessary to get specific facts needed in your latest brief or presentation. I often called, emailed, and interviewed my non-development colleagues in order to get the latest data on meetings and plans between the prospect and specific departments or student groups. Successful 21st Century corporate relations teams regularly meet and collaborate with non-development staff that liaise with corporations to effectively “cross-sell” and generate new leads for each other. Voluntary collaboration from these colleagues is essential in both front line work AND prospect research.

Getting each pie-piece takes longer, and it can get taxing when requests for information pile up. However, the information you will get is often so much more helpful.

In my first grant-writing job years ago, my old boss told me to look at every request for proposal from a grant-maker and ask myself the following question: “What are they buying?” In the public arena, corporations want to be viewed as partners with your organization. You should continue to uphold that expectation. However, in the everyday grind of the office, you need to look at every corporate prospect as a buyer, and YOU are the supplier. Your organization is supplying a line of products that the corporation believes will keep it competitive.


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