Corporate donors need to start giving smarter

Interest among companies in niche charities is growing – and it’s creating some exciting partnerships

Size matters, apparently, when corporate donors decide to give money to charity. Business is not overly generous, but when chief executives put hands in pockets it is more likely to be for the biggest charities and the most obvious causes.

There is growing evidence that this approach is not sustainable. Donations by FTSE 100 companies have fallen by 11 per cent since 2014, according to the Charities Aid Foundation. This comes at a time when profitability has increased, which suggests at the very least that there is a degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Has the time come for business to refresh the corporate social responsibility (CSR) model by engaging with smaller charities in support of causes that exist well beyond the headlines? Corporate donors prepared to be bold by breaking away from the pack can make a real difference.

Corporate donors need to pick charity partners strategically

Peter Gilheany, public relations director at Forster Communications, which has a rich heritage of bringing businesses and charities together, says: “When it comes to charity partnerships, companies often fall back on the tried-and-tested trio of kids, cancer or cats.

“But the benefits of delving deeper and being more strategic are legion. Firstly, it means you can build a partnership that really fits your mission, vision and values as a business; secondly, you can make a bigger difference to the underlying cause; and thirdly, you are more likely to get brand profile than you would if you were competing with hundreds of other corporate donors who are supporting the obvious causes.”

Daniel Fluskey, head of policy and external affairs at the Institute of Fundraising (IoF), agrees. “Companies and charities are likely to find a good match if they have a shared set of ethical values and company goals, rather than looking at charity size. Each side is looking for a great partnership that drives impact for their cause, underpins their company values, and raises the profile for both the charity and company to new audiences.”

How the high street is supporting smaller charities

An enduring example of partnership between big and small can be found on our high streets. In recent years, supermarkets have quietly raised millions of pounds for some of the UK’s smallest charities through local token schemes. Shoppers are given tokens at the checkout, which they place in the box of the good cause they would most like to support.

Since 2008, Waitrose has given £14 million to good causes selected by local customers.  Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme has seen £43 million invested into local projects. In the process, the big food retailers have become more connected with local communities.

Not every business has ready access to a network at the heart of the community, but some basic principles apply. The first place to start is with your vision, mission and values. This will steer the kind of issue where there is an obvious link back to your business, and where you have authority and relevance in terms of helping to tackle that issue.

Staff must get behind your charity partner of choice

Next, you need to involve your staff in the decision-making process, so they feel some ownership and agency around the cause you have chosen to support. Then you must be pragmatic about how you are going to resource and support a partnership with a smaller, less well-known charity.

Danny Witter, chief executive and founder of Work for Good, a charity fundraising platform for business, says the traditional charity of the year “beauty parade”, when charities are invited to submit proposals to corporate donors, is no longer fit for purpose.

He says: “There are smart ways to embed giving which deliver positive business outcomes too. There is no reason to assume that big charities are the best option. You need to consider how impactful you want to be and what the charity needs rather than what you need.”

Employee engagement is particularly important when supporting a smaller charity and a cause with a low public profile. Their support and commitment will sustain the partnership, even when it does not lift the company’s profile in an overt way.

Corporate donors can give so much more than money 

It isn’t just about giving money. The IoF’s Mr Fluskey says there are many different ways that companies can offer support to charities, from financial donations, offering their services or even office space to help with the day-to-day running of the organisation. “Offering materials is a great way of supporting smaller charities that might need help with issues from a lack of resources, whether staff, funds or equipment,” he says. “This is a great way of helping new charities get on their feet and get on with working for their good cause. Lesser-known causes or issues would also benefit from companies lending their brand to raise the profile of an issue that hasn’t generated a lot of public awareness yet.”

There are many different ways that companies can offer support to charities, from financial donations, offering their services, or even office space to help with the day-to-day running of a charity

It is crucial for companies to remember that partnership is a two-way process. Small charities must not feel overwhelmed by the size of a big company. It is important for them to focus on their relationship with people within the company, developing good relationships with one or two individuals who are committed to the success of the partnership. Charities also have a responsibility to ensure that a conflict with its ethics, values and vision does not arise from accepting a corporate donation.

Businesses are discovering that smaller charities provide an attractive alternative in the search for partnerships for CSR initiatives. They offer opportunities to effect lasting change in a way that is both sustainable and measurable. The message is clear – think small for a big impact.