How to Sell a Business on Your Cause
We were sitting in a room discussing how to approach various businesses and corporations in the community. The director of development and several major gift officers (MGOs) were having quite a debate about the subject with the prevailing argument being that we needed to lead with a compelling need the business would be interested in.
I listened to the discussion and agreed that leading with need was a good idea; that having a contact that cared about the organization was a good idea; that having one of the organization’s executives present the case was a good idea, and; that the overall direction of the discussion seemed to fit all we had learned over the years as relates major gifts and institutional fundraising.
In fact, in the discussion, we took a side trip on the topic of foundations, and how important it was to find out what they are interested in and tailor the proposal to that interest. All pretty basic stuff you already know about.
Then it dawned on me that we had it all wrong—the approach we designed was missing two very important values that most businesses have. And that if we kept going down that track, we would totally fail in our approach to most businesses and corporations we were targeting.
Let me explain.
When you step back and think about why a business exists you likely come up with several points. A business exists to:
- Provide a needed service or product. It is filling a need. And when it does it well, it sells a lot of products and services. When there is a mismatch between a need and the product or service attributes, then the sales do not occur, and the business fails.
- Earn revenue for its owners/stakeholders. There is definitely a profit motive in every good business. But wise business owners know that the pursuit of profit is best done by meeting needs with a good product or service and not just pursuing profits as an end itself. In fact, when a business owner sets out to just pursue the money, the money itself tends to elude him or her. Profit is a result of good business, not a sole objective.
- Contribute to the social good. This means being a good citizen, providing meaningful employment, building up the community, creating economic and social health, etc.
I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons a business exists, but these three stood out in my mind as I was processing the points in the “how should we approach businesses?” conversation.
And then I went to what I believe are the two primary values a business has when it thinks about relating to a nonprofit:
- Enhance its brand and reputation with its various publics.
- Be seen as contributing to the social good.
And it was these two values that were missing in our discussion on how to approach a business for funding.
I used to think that businesses should act like individuals when they give money. Individuals are interested in doing good, and so they give money to do so. In the process, they get a tax write-off and feel fulfilled by helping others.
The business transaction is a little different.
While Jeff and I believe that an institution has a personality just like an individual does, there are these other motivational drivers operating as well.
If the institution can enhance its public image by aligning with a nonprofit, and demonstrate to its customers and other valued publics that it has charitable/social good purpose and not just economic purpose—then it can be seen more favorably and more kindly by its customers. And that helps business. I mean, who doesn’t feel better about a company that has a heart—a real heart.
And if a bfusiness shows it actually cares about—not just talks about—the social well-being of the community it is in and/or where it serves, and if it can be seen taking actual steps to doing social good by giving money, providing expertise, etc., then it stands to reason that a customer will feel better about it. And all of this is good for business.
So, all of these thoughts were rolling around in my head, and I shared them with the group. And that’s when we set about designing a whole different approach. Here is what we did:
- We changed our objective with the business from trying to get its money to trying to help it pursue its brand and social responsibility objectives. This was a big shift and a bit counterintuitive. In fact, in the meeting there was some concern expressed that if we didn’t go for the money we wouldn’t get it. Hmm. This is easy to understand and logical. But we persisted in keeping our focus on serving the business versus serving ourselves.
- We designed a program, including promotional material and a proposal. The program did two things: It offered practical help on how the business could enhance its brand by working with us and it suggested a process the business could go through to tailor a program that would implement an exclusive social responsibility program through our organization. In essence, we turned ourselves into its corporate social responsibility department.
Now, all of this may seem complicated to you and, in some respects, it is, because there is a lot of detail on process and approach that I have not been able to cover in the limited space we have here.
But here is the point—Jeff and I think that the healthy and helpful belief you should have about businesses and corporations, as it relates to your fundraising agenda, is one that seeks to help businesses achieve their objectives and not just get their money. If you think about it this way and then figure out how to approach those business targets on your list with a strategy that is consistent with this belief, you will be further ahead and more successful in your corporate and business fundraising.
Remember, businesses have personalities too. In many ways they are just like individuals. But the differences I have outlined in this post must be addressed if you are to be successful in your fundraising with them.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.