Corporate fundraising success with Heather Nelson

Episode aired Feb. 3, 2021: Corporate Fundraising Success

Heather Nelson of BridgeRaise is an expert in corporate fundraising. But if you think that partnering with a company is all about the money your nonprofit stands to gain, think again. In this episode Heather discusses

  • why starting with a list of companies to target is a mistake 
  • the importance of having a corporate gift acceptance policy  
  • why you should always start with connections
  • how value alignment is key to the partnership and
  • what happens when transparency and trust are not part of the partnership package.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host, Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I am really happy to have with us a corporate fundraising specialist, Heather Nelson. Heather, how are you today?

Heather: I’m great Ephraim. Nice to see you here.

Ephraim: Thanks. Great to see you too. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers:

Heather Nelson is President and Lead Consultant at BridgeRaise, a Canadian based consulting firm that specializes in corporate fundraising. Heather is definitely a lifer in the nonprofit sector. Heather started in nonprofit program management in the international development sector and moved to fundraising after getting her business degree and deciding that travelling for fun instead of work would be better for her lifestyle.

Heather’s fundraising career spanned several organization’s of different sizes and included a few roles with fundraising, communications and marketing all tossed in together. Eventually, Heather moved to specializing in corporate fundraising, and for the last five years, has had her own consultancy working exclusively in that area. BridgeRaise builds corporate fundraising success at nonprofits, and does it with a unique coaching-consulting approach that builds strategies, systems and confidence of fundraisers and executive directors.

Regardless of whether Heather is in-house fundraising, online, consulting or otherwise, she believes so much in building relationships – and this is at the heart of her consulting practice and her life!

Corporate Fundraising And CSR

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss how to create successful, solid partnerships between a corporation and your nonprofit. Let’s dive right in. Heather, how does corporate social responsibility connect with corporate fundraising?

Heather: That’s a great question cause one of the things that’s interesting about corporate fundraising and corporate social responsibility for that matter is these are terms that are thrown around all over the place and used entirely differently each time. I think that does add to the complexity of being successful in corporate fundraising.

But from my point of view, corporate social responsibility is a term used by businesses and companies to describe what they’re doing in this area and it can be connected to their giving to charity but it doesn’t necessarily involve them giving to charity. It could be their environmental practices, it could be some of the stuff they do with their employees, it could be how their business is structured. Just because a company talks about corporate social responsibility doesn’t mean it gives money to charities. It may mean that though and this is where it can connect to corporate fundraising. When charities are looking at the specific areas a company might give to, if they have a corporate social responsibility department or statement or value proposition in their materials, that might guide you’re figuring out how you might fit, how you might talk to them but I caution that because I would also say that some companies that have advanced corporate social responsibility also basically do their charity themselves. In their minds they also give back through their business structure and they don’t align with charitable partners. It is a trick to say to yourself so this is a situation where the corporate social responsibility department is helping their giving. Or is it not. So I don’t tell charities to always look for organizations that have advanced CSR strategy, corporate social responsibility strategy, when they’re looking for who might be a good partner for them. 

Corporate Partnership Plan

Ephraim: OK, let’s follow up on that. What is a corporate partnership plan and what should it include?

Heather: Well this totally does connect to this because one of the things that can sometimes lead a charity or nonprofit astray is believing that corporate fundraising is one thing. For me, corporate fundraising at any given organization could look very differently. It could be getting money from a corporate foundation through a grant for programming and it could be getting sponsorship for an event that you’re putting on. I have this category called ‘corporate partnerships’ which may have a mix of both of those in there and depending on the size of your organization. That may be what you have to do, sort of this messy mixture. 

But regardless when you’re developing your corporate plan, you need to know first what you’re doing, which one of these you’re doing. Then you have to ask yourself why from a corporate point of view does this make sense. One of the biggest mistakes is the charity starting with here’s the company I want to get money from. Okay, now I’m going to figure out how. This is really backwards. You do need to take enough time before you get started to figure out why a company might want to give to you And what it is they’re giving for. Once you have that focus, the next steps come much more easily. 

I do recommend a basic policy or acceptance policy where you decide what kind of companies you want to get money from. Are you taking money from everybody? Are you looking for values alignment? And what that process might be and then the messaging that matches to your specific why and what. So there are a few tasks to get yourself organized and that’s part of the plan. The very first step in the plan is to figure out what you’re actually doing. Not starting with here’s the company I want to get from and do whatever it takes. Cuz it just isn’t sustainable that way. If they say no, then you’ve put all this effort into something that didn’t go somewhere. Whereas if you figure out the what and the why and get a few systems in place, then you can try and try again. 

Researching Companies

Ephraim: Perfect. What should a nonprofit be looking for or researching when deciding which businesses or corporations to approach?

Heather: Yeah, that’s a really good question because we do find a couple of things that are really consistent in successful corporate partnerships. Number one is alignment. Knowing how you align with the company, your charity, your nonprofit aligns. And there are a few options. It’s not like it has to be purely on, for example, if they’ve given the guidelines of what kinds of charities they give to. That would be one way, if you fit one of those categories, that would show alignment. But I have one organization that I work with that their alignment, they go after companies that specifically want to talk to their very specific audience that they have. They work with young people who are going between high school and university. So this is a very specific age and there’s a specific group of businesses that wanna talk to that specific group. All of their proposals are connected entirely to this conversation engagement with this audience and so it doesn’t require alignment with those investment priorities but there still is an alignment piece. 

And the other thing I would say to look for which speaks to my philosophy so much is a connection and a relationship. I always encourage people instead of starting with all the research, to start with all the connections. Get out there, have conversations with companies, meet people, find out who your Board is having conversations with, your program offices are having conversations with and really start at the point of a relationship because you can just get so much further based on conversation and figuring out the right things to put in front of the company than all the research in the world. A person can tell you so much more. So those are my two where to get started with research.

Ephraim: I like that. Fundraising is all about building relationships.

Heather: And it’s funny how often we talk about corporate people are tempted to push the relationship piece aside and I lean into it fully. I think it really is a big part of successful corporate partnerships and moves it from this weird transaction that some people expect to really a partnership where you’re going to learn and grow together.

Creating A Successful Long-Term Partnership

Ephraim: Perfect. Let’s move to today’s actionable item. If a nonprofit is successful in partnering with a business, what three relationship building actions must the nonprofit take in order to make the partnership a success for both sides over the long haul?

Heather: Number one, corporate partnership is a year-round activity and that means we don’t do this thing which literally drives me bananas where the proposal comes in, it’s successful and then we like cocoon into a thing where we spend the money and we don’t talk to the company and then in the best-case scenario, at the end of the year, there’s an impact or fulfillment report and than we ask again. For me that is just such a dangerous and ineffective approach. Corporate partnership is a year-round activity so you’re looking for different touch points throughout the year, some which are more relationship-oriented, just a straight up conversation, some which are sharing knowledge, some might be- not right now- but interpersonal going to an event together or conferences. You are looking for those and to such a degree we can make some of them similar for a bunch of partners to keep it easy, that’s totally fine. But we are looking at touch points throughout the year that wrap around the ask, the fulfillment and put a bunch of stuff in the middle. So that’s number one.

Number two I think that you have to commit to transparent communications. If you’re going to be successful in corporate, as soon as you start seeing things shifting, you reach out. That is my number one piece of advice is, if it’s not working the way you put in the proposal or you change what you’re going to do, reach out and have a conversation as soon as you can. And this has always served me well and never in my history has it turned into a complete disaster when that has been the approach early because they can course correct, we can change expectations, we can add in something. There’s so many answers at that point that are not there when you’ve spent all the money and you’re reporting. So transparent communications is my number two.

My third one is my secret sauce which I don’t think will be a surprise to you, is building relationships virtually. Whether it’s as easy as saying thank you on whatever channel your charity is comfortable in, whether it’s commenting on what that company puts out into the world in favorite channel. I just believe so much that you can create happy positive feelings between you, your charity and the company by being present virtually. It has just worked so many times for me and my clients that they can reference something, hey I saw this and I said congratulations. It just puts good feelings into the relationship and it’s not that hard, it’s not that time consuming. Most of these charities and nonprofits have a fairly minimal list of corporate partners. So if you’re talking about doing that for twenty companies over the course of a year or five, you can spread some happy and that is good.

How To Prevent Failure

Ephraim: I love all three of those. Excellent. In your years in the field, you’ve worked with many nonprofit clients to create strong and lasting partnerships. However, sometimes it becomes a bumpy ride. What are the most common reasons why partnerships with businesses fail and what lessons can nonprofits learn from those failures? 

Heather: I’m gonna go back to a theme that’s come through, alignment and I would say even more, values alignment. So if a charity chooses to work with a company where the values are not aligned, this most often goes badly. And I actually really encourage charities and nonprofits to not do this, because it doesn’t just affect the fundraiser and the revenue. All of a sudden your entire team is unhappy with this partnership and it can actually color your whole corporate fundraising program because now there’s this sense that this is like the norm, this company for which there isn’t values alignment. I kind of do think of it as like the bad apple that can really muck up your whole thing. So number one just don’t partner with companies you don’t have values alignment, where there’s a disconnect there. That would be a really important one to lean into.

The other one that I think and it’s not going to be that popular but it’s around investment. The fact is that to do corporate partnerships and corporate fundraising right, you need staff that have that as part of their portfolio in a meaningful enough way to do it properly. You’re not just putting in generic proposals, waiting a couple of months and asking for money again. If you’re not going to deliver on what you promise, if you’re not going to say thank you, if you’re not going to do these little things that are required, then just don’t do it at all because corporate fundraising is not easy and it’s not free. There’s an investment required and the size of that investment depends on how complicated and significant your program is but there is an investment. And pretending otherwise is a place where things go wrong. Then it falls apart, company’s upset and everybody’s scrambling.

I think the last one is around transparency and trust. You do need to be willing to communicate and be willing to trust and be transparent. I think when charities go away and try to solve the problems on their own and cover up where things are not going well, it is much more likely to go totally badly. It was an interesting conversation I had the other day. We had a partner, initially the partnership was based on the number of survey responses. That was just the measurement metric that the company and the charity decided ahead of time. Which was great, we thought it was gonna work out and in the end, the response rate was much lower than we expected. But a bunch of other things worked out great. Still, we were behind the scenes panicking figuring out how we were going to position the lack of survey response. When we picked up the phone and talked to them they were so thrilled about all these other things that they were just like fix that for next year. It was the easiest and most rational conversation and response by them and we had spent more than enough time worrying about this ahead of time. Trusting that the company can be a reasonable partner and you can share the reality and come up with a solution, really can save a lot of bumps and frankly a lot of behind-the-scenes panic. Pick up the phone and talk it through and see where you can get to.

Ephraim: Always keep the lines of communication open.

Heather: For sure.

Let’s Learn More About Heather

Ephraim: Lightning round. Let’s learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Heather: It all depends on how far you want to go back. Are we talking jar money? The true story is I had a job and a messy relationship and I saw an ad to go with an internship to Guyana and work at a charity. I wasn’t even entirely sure where Guyana was at the time. I answered the ad, got on a plane three weeks later and that was my first paid nonprofit job a long time ago. So that’s the beginning.

Ephraim: Wow. That’s amazing. Given all your years now in the sector, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Heather: I want people to take more risks in charities. The risk aversion drives me crazy. We could just change so much more in the world and do so much more good if we just fail fast. Take some risk, fail and then try the next thing. 

Ephraim: I hope everybody watching and listening heard that cause I 100% agree with that.

Heather: Thank you.

Ephraim: What do you like most about hiking?

Heather: In my family hiking’s a family activity. So we have our best conversations on the trails. Everybody’s facing forward, pretty much any topic can come up and I think the space just gives you a different perspective.

Ephraim: Love it. Favorite aspect of being a Canadian?

Heather: Oh that’s hard. I love being Canadian and I’m super proud of being Canadian. But I think it does connect to nature and the space. I live in the country. I spend a lot of time in nature and I think Canada is very fortunate for the amount of space proportional to people that we have.

Ephraim: Alright. LinkedIn, love it or hate it? 

Heather: I love it. I love it. I have met so many great people through LinkedIn, I put myself out there on LinkedIn, I encourage people to connect with me on LinkedIn. Yes, I love it. Although I’m not a super fan of the new story thing. No, not loving that part.

Ephraim: No, definitely not. Lastly, we’ll turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Bring it on.

Heather: My question is, what networking opportunity or thing have you done that you think has been the biggest game changer for you?

Ephraim: Twitter. Joining Twitter a decade ago. I’m actually approaching my 10th Twitterversary next month in January 2021. That would be the biggest. And I’ll just preface it by saying I avoided joining Twitter for the first couple of years that it was around because I thought it was the dumbest thing. Honestly. I thought who wants to write anything in 140 characters. And then I joined and I pretty much just stayed and it’s been the biggest builder of networking for me, because everybody within the nonprofit sector, most of the experts, authorities the people doing all the dirty work, the people who wear all the hats, everybody’s there and they’re joining the conversation, so it allows me to network with CEOs as well as people who are just starting out in their careers and everything in between. So for me that was the biggest networking. Is LinkedIn that for you?

Heather: I mean I also love Twitter and I think that Twitter and LinkedIn have different audiences that I engage with in each of them. So Twitter has been really important to me, I think LinkedIn has given more depth to what I can share and the expertise I can develop there. But I would say my follow up to your Twitter comment is I think that the way you engage on Twitter is so awesome and so different. Whenever I hear people say that Twitter can’t be a networking think, I’m like go follow these people and see what they’re doing because no, it can’t if you if you go on once in awhile and retweet a few things. You have to engage with it and LinkedIn is the same. If all you put up is your bio, then it’s not going to do anything for you either. But if you engage in conversations and you learn from people there, than either one of them can really build your network in my opinion and be a really rich place to make connections.  

Ephraim: Thank you, I appreciate the compliment. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Heather’s work at  I also urge you to connect with her on LinkedIn where she’s posting fantastic content, including extremely helpful videos. Heather, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Heather: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been fun.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Have a good day.

Heather: Thank you.