Building Business-Community Partnerships

Business and community groups working in partnership enjoy many advantages. Business gains points for social responsibility and the community group gains through improved access to finances, knowledge, people or skills. Encouraging business and community organisations to work together fosters a healthy and viable society and can also lead to reinvigorating local support for community work.

Now, more than ever, it is important for both parties to look into these partnerships. Community organisations increasingly have to function with less government financial support, and businesses are finding that when they show a commitment to the wider community this has positive results on staff morale. Furthermore, consumers tend to support businesses that support social/environmental/ethical issues.

A partnership can take various forms, including sponsorship, grants, volunteering, donations, in-kind support through products and services, mentoring and expert advice or a combination of methods. It might include employers asking employees to nominate companies they want to support and then encouraging them to donate through regular gifts or payroll deductions to groups at grassroots level. . Many employers often choose to match employee donations, further strengthening relationships between staff and management as well as the relationship between staff and management and the community group.

It is also important as a community leader that the relationship is a healthy one all round for the community organisation and the partnership is compatible with your group's core mission or values and does not restrict you from key activities or take you into areas that move you away from your core reason for existence.

Why is business interested in these partnerships?

To give something back, to reinvest in the community, to re-connect with the community and - importantly - to be publicly seen to be doing so. Businesses that engage in community partnerships enjoy many positive effects. Such a partnership not only makes staff and management feel good but it puts them in touch with issues outside their own area of knowledge.

A business investing in a community organisation also gets recognition by that organisation and the wider community.  This investment helps build an ethical business reputation which in these recent days where corporate governance and corporate responsibilities have become buzzwords, is increasingly important. Employees see working for such a business as a bonus, and the flow-on effects to employees are also a positive experience. This promotes loyalty and helps motivate workers, who also have an opportunity to gain more knowledge and skills outside their job descriptions.

As a marketing tool, a company working in partnership with a worthy cause sets itself apart from other similar businesses. Studies have shown that consumers would prefer to buy goods and services from an organisation that supports social and ethical causes. It's why a good community-business partnership is good business.

The advantage to the company includes:
  • Enhanced reputation
  • Opening up new markets
  • Improved relations with the community
  • Employees can gain new skills/knowledge and feel a sense of pride in their extra-curricular activities and in turn feel a greater sense of belonging and pride for the company. This could mean that staff retention rates could improve and that fewer resources will be needed for recruitment .
  • Increased hold on their market, and therefore enhanced long term sustainability
  • Increased brand recognition
  • Improved relationship with customers
  • Improved customer loyalty as customers value spending their money with a company with a social conscience.
  • More marketing and advertising opportunities.
  • Higher public profile and better chance of attracting media coverage
  • Inclusion in ethical investment funds
BE WARY: If the exercise is seen as a token one - if the company uses the community cause only to enhance its image - then benefits such as increased morale and community support are unlikely to follow. The investment needs to be genuine and generally those where the staff have been involved and have some "ownership" over the decision of who is supported results in a far more integrated approach to the relationship.

Why are community organisations interested?

The major factor why community groups seek relationships with businesses is obviously the chance of financial gain. However, partnerships can offer a lot more -- many businesses also offer time, people, resources, skills and expertise.

Marketing and advertising commitments can be much easier and more affordable with the backing of a business partner. It is also easier to ask for support from the public and other companies if groups can give an assurance that the cause is financially supported. Financial backers of any initiative always feel more comfortable knowing that other people have backed the project as well.

A community group needs to be clear about exactly which business they want to attract and whether they want national or local exposure and support. The community organisation needs to be aware of what they can offer a business, and this list should be drawn up well before the potential partner is approached. Before any approach go through and make a list of exactly what your organisation has to offer business in terms of reputation, credibility, marketing, advertising, publicity, contacts etc.

It is advisable for community groups to seek companies that have an interest in their cause or are linked in some way whether through a target market or through a corporate goal or image.  If this is so the partnership will be more rewarding and the business is more likely to provide ongoing support (if that's what the group wants).

How can we begin to develop partnerships?

Both the business and community group need to be clear about why they want to build a relationship and what they hope to achieve from such an engagement.  
The two must have some common ground; complete mismatches can harm both parties. For example, there is no point having the tobacco industry sponsoring an event for children.

Another point to consider is the level of involvement each is prepared to commit. Do you want to combine yearly marketing strategies? Do you seek a one-off cash donation? Will the business provide volunteers? What does each party expect from the other? All of these questions need to be answered before you enter any agreement.

It is a good idea to consult the members at each end  (business employees and community group members) about the type of organisation they would like to support. The partnership should provide mutual benefits, and these benefits need to extend to all members. Involving members and employees from the start will increase morale and support for the venture.
It takes a lot of time to establish a business-community relationship. Resources need to be allotted to the enterprise, and planning needs to incorporate the ongoing commitment. Resources may dictate whether a business can make a short or long-term investment (or  a community organisation may only want short-term help for specific events).  It all comes down to each organisation's aims and goals.

As in a marriage, both parties should be committed to a long term relationship, should remain loyal to each other, and should not do anything that may offend or harm the other party.

How do smaller groups develop partnerships?

Small community organisations have fewer resources and cannot offer businesses a high profile. Nonetheless, small groups can also benefit from such partnerships. They are likely to gain their support from local businesses. Similarly, small businesses cannot offer unlimited resources to a statewide community organisation, so they too are better placed supporting local groups that operate close by.

Local businesses are often approached by many organisations, so you should not only think 'money' or 'product'. Consider other ways that these businesses may be able to help, such as providing expertise or advice or providing assistance to get your message out to a wider audience.

Where do you find partners?

To find companies:
  • understand what your organisation does and which companies are in the same field of operations
  • look at the businesses you deal with now. Which have the greatest synergy or attachment to your cause?
  • talk to companies. Ring and speak to their CEOs/Community Relations/Marketing people about where your values/mission meet their values/mission
  • read the business newspapers to keep in touch with new corporate initiatives
  • read the local press and look at the advertisements
  • consult local government for a directory of businesses
  • ask Board members and members for suggestions of companies to approach
  • discuss with similar groups in other areas
To find community organisations:
  • speak to local government
  • search your interest or geographic area through the Our Community Directory of Organisations
  • decide on a cause and search the Internet
  • ask employees if they want to support a particular organisation/cause

Formalising the business partnership

Make phone calls and find out who you need to speak to. Prepare a partnership proposal, which includes details of your organisation and what you can offer partners at every level.
Be sure in your own mind as to what sort of partnership you want to establish - Does it involve: 
  • donation (one-off/ongoing/project based)
  • provision of volunteer staff
  • pro bono services
  • in-kind support
  • sponsorship
  • provision of gifts
  • payroll deductions matched with employers matching the donation
Remember that like any good partnership, you need to service it through strong and regular communication and involvement in activities beyond those in the agreement. It should also be remembered that a partnership is a business agreement and should be treated as such. A contract should be written up stipulating the terms and conditions of the partnership. You should also consider a contingency plan should the relationship turn sour (and consider whether the contract should provide for such an event). Seek legal advice if a large amount of money is involved.