Local Business Support for Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations often overlook an important source support for their programs. Many agencies are located in neighborhoods with businesses near their offices or within the same geographical catchment area. In addition, members of the board of directors, volunteers, and staff members often patronize local businesses. These businesses are not only a very important source of financial support but also a way to receive in-kind contributions of goods and services.

There are a variety of ways that organizations can cultivate support from local businesses. One of the first steps is to be in contact with the local chamber of commerce or association of business concerns in your area. Such an organization provides a “round table” where business leaders in the community can discuss common concerns and coordinate their efforts in regard to a variety of shared interests. In addition to their focusing on increasing their business and making their neighborhoods more “user friendly” for shoppers, e.g. making sure there is adequate parking spaces for shoppers, most business people today understand the importance of their demonstrating their involvement, if not commitment, to being socially responsible in the way they relate to the broader community.

There is a continuum of support for community programs and projects. On the most fundamental level the business will make contributions to a community wide fundraising campaigns as well as in-kind contributions of goods and services. For example, if a community center is raising funds to support children who cannot afford to pay for camp, then a business might be interested in contributing the funds necessary to support one or more children for the summer program. In response the community center might give out decals or stickers that have the logo of the community center/camp and use it for donor recognition. It might say, “Thank you for supporting a child in camp”, or just a simple “Supporter of the XXXXX Summer Camp”.

In turn the community center issues a press release acknowledging the participation of all those businesses that participated in making it possible for “X” number of children to attend camp who would not have been able to take advantage of the activities without their support. A healthy sense of competition can develop along a row of stores where the focus moves from “who will be the first to support kids in the camp” to “you do not want to be the only store owner who did not share his success with the community. Thus giving to a community’s project becomes a form of “brand recognition”.

The use of “donor recognition” and “brand recognition” can spread the work of the agency and also encourage other people to patronize the businesses. The message is that this business person is supportive of services and programs in our community. We should acknowledge the support and avail ourselves of the person’s services and products. Thus, it is good for business and good for the community.

It is quite possible that one or more of the owners of the businesses will want to become more involved in the agency. They can be approached to become partners in the camp or to provide additional support. It is difficult to predict what will be the nature of their continued involvement and at some point one of the business people might be asked to join the board of directors. Thus the process moves from a very simple expression of support for a specific program to cultivating the connection so there is a boarder involvement and commitment to the organization.

I mentioned “in-kind” contributions and sometimes they are more valuable than financial support. A business might contribute materials to the community center. For example, an art supply store might be approached for a donation of paints or canvasses for the workshop that deals with painting in the summer camp. Depending on what the agency’s needs are, and the nature of the business, a connection can be made that is mutually beneficial.

Recently, one of my clients needed a place to host two staff retreats taking place during the day from morning until afternoon. In a discussion with two of the staff members they began to think about all the organizations, schools, and public buildings that could possibly host the staff for the two days. As we were sitting around one person said, “What about one of the hotels in the area? Maybe they would provide a room for us to use.” Someone else said, “What about coffee and cake in the morning and lunch? How would we handle it?” Another person chimed in, “Maybe the hotel would donate the space and the food?”

Following a discussion of exactly what the organization needed and which hotel should be approached, I called one of the hotels in the neighborhood and spoke with someone I knew in the office. The hotel could not give the two days completely free including meals but agreed to a price that was almost free. The manager of the hotel felt she wanted to assist the agency that was providing services to people in need. She was prepared to provide a nice experience for the staff as a way of showing the business sector’s appreciation for the work of the agency.

Given the present financial pressures being felt by most nonprofit organizations today local voluntary agencies would be hard pressed to pay for the use a hotel for an all day staff meeting. In this case the manager of the hotel understood the situation, valued the presence and the services of the organization in the community. She was prepared to assist and to welcome the staff into her hotel for the day. It was not only a sign of her generosity but also a good business decision because she knew this would strengthen the hotels name and reinforce the hotel’s investment, as a business, in the community.

Taking the step of approaching a business and making them aware of a need allows them to make the decision whether or not to respond to the request. It is not a one time conversation or interaction and may involve identifying specific business people who have a connection with the agency and/or with members of the board and other volunteer leaders. There are times when it would be appropriate for the director or another professional in the agency to make the approach and at other times it would be more appropriate for a volunteer leader to make the first contact. Each conversation needs to be thought out and carefully planned.

When you think about sources of support for the organization you are involved with as a volunteer leader or staff person, consider investing in the cultivation of the business community’s support and involvement with you. This should be a long term goal and not just “take the money and run” as it can lead to many unanticipated benefits in terms of networking and not just financial or material support.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.