“Corporations are people, my friend.” Perhaps no other single statement made in the last several months has received as much attention or ignited as much debate as this one. But regardless of how one perceives it, the statement alludes to a certain understanding of critical importance for nonprofit organizations interested in pursuing corporate grants. Inside the multi-story building and behind the popular brand and public image, are real people. And some of those people are responsible for doling out corporate funds.
For 16 years, one of those people was Rene Hoy, who served as Manager of Community Relations for a major corporation that, at the time, employed 12,500 persons and contributed well over $1 million annually through various giving programs. Because she retired three years ago and can no longer speak as an official representative, Hoy has requested that we withhold the corporation’s name.
In addition to grants, the community relations department oversaw the company’s United Way campaign, volunteer activity and matching funds. Each year Hoy and her colleagues received about 600 grant applications; roughly one third of those requests—which ranged from bricks-and-mortar to purchasing several tickets to a nonprofit’s fundraising event—were actually honored. And while she was not the ultimate decision maker, it was Hoy’s job to review proposals and make recommendations to a five- or six-member foundation board.
When asked what advice she would offer to nonprofits wishing to tap into corporate funding, the former foundation president had these thoughts to share.
On whether size matters
“I don’t think small nonprofits need to shy away from approaching corporations. We funded a lot of small grants throughout my years there. To some organizations, $5,000 is huge. It’s not a capital campaign, but it might make the difference between, for example, having computers and providing a teacher for an after-school program or not.”
On getting your foot in the door
“Some of our grant requests came out of the blue, and some were brought to our attention by board members or employees who volunteered at the charity. My company was really proud of its volunteer program. If an employee volunteered 50 hours at a qualified nonprofit, this corporation gave $200 in his/her name to that charity. Literally hundreds of employees took part in that and so corporate dollars followed. I suppose having a connection like that helped a nonprofit get its foot in the door over someone that we didn’t know at all. And a lot of nonprofits try to find those ‘right’ people. We actually fielded up to 20 requests per year wondering if we could provide board members for different organizations.”
On due diligence
“Before making first contact with a corporation, make sure you do your due diligence.
• Know what the guidelines are. I was always surprised at the number of people who would fill out an application and had clearly not read our guidelines. They weren’t even in our hiring area, for instance. We never strayed from that in our giving.
• Make sure you meet the deadlines.
• If you know anyone at the corporation, get in there and talk to him/her. Try to learn what you can about the grant process.
• Make sure you completely understand your project. When will it start? When will it end? Who will it serve? You also need to be prepared to answer questions about the organization. How is it doing financially? What’s its service area? And to ever get another grant you have to answer a lot of questions about how the money was used: What was your goal? Did you reach it? If not, why not?”
On establishing a personal relationship
“We received a lot of proposals that felt like the organization had just sent out about 100 applications and hoped one would land in the right spot. But every corporation has its own culture, and I really feel it’s worth the time it takes to customize each application you submit.
“People would often call our office and ask to come in and sit down with me, to describe the project or to invite us to come to their site to see it for ourselves. Other times we would make the call and ask to come see a project. But building a relationship somehow is important, rather than just sending out a request for funding.”
On finding a connection
“We had money to give, so I always tried to find that connection that would allow us to give it. In some cases a corporation might have specific giving areas and your project doesn’t fit neatly into any of them. A corporate representative can help you figure out how you might fit into one of them. Nothing is black and white; I say you need to start a conversation to get counsel for those grey areas.
“As an example, the corporation I worked for didn’t support religious organizations (which typically refers to churches). One organization approached us that had been started years ago by a religious group, but it was obviously serving the greater good and it was located in a county that fell within our geographic guidelines and we had three employees who volunteered there. So I tried to build on what I already knew; ultimately, we decided to fund them.
“Sometimes the desired connection just isn’t there. Of course there were worthy projects that we would have liked to fund, but we tried hard not to make exceptions to our stated guidelines. We knew that nonprofits talk to one another just as corporations do; word would get around if we funded a project that we had told someone else we wouldn’t fund. That sets a bad precedent.”
On positioning your organization for future funding
“First, find ways to evaluate your program. When I retired, my department was developing a set of questions to help grant recipients evaluate if the money was used as anticipated, how many people were served, questions about how the project nurtured diversity (an area of interest for our corporation), etc. Having this kind of information was important because if I would take a request to the foundation board, they’d ask if we’d ever funded that organization before and how that went.
“As far as other ways to maintain that relationship, a number of our recipients kept us on their mailing list. We might receive their newsletter that contained an article highlighting what our gift had done, or they might invite a board member or other representative to be part of ribbon cutting.
“What you shouldn’t do is just get your money, never talk to the corporation again, and assume you’ll get funded again in the future.”
Approaching a major corporation can be intimidating. But don’t let the corporate façade dissuade you; on the other side of the revolving door you might find someone like Rene Hoy—that key person who has the interest, the willingness and the authority to recommend funding for your organization.