No, I’m not talking about lobbying, taxation or civil rights. I’m talking about how companies manage their philanthropy. Next time you’re devising a strategy for approaching a corporation, don’t leave out the human side of things. It’s amazing what one person’s passion can make happen even in the largest of companies.
I started my career in individual major gifts. So when I was lured into the world of corporate and foundation giving to work at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, I took everything I knew from individual giving and put it into play. It’s just what I knew how to do.
Here’s what I found: corporate donations are driven largely by the interests of their employees. Sure, it might be at the executive level, but not always. You never know who at a company will be struck by your cause and what influence they can bring to bear on their company’s giving.
One story from my time at the Museum illustrates this on a rather impressive scale. We were seeking a lead gift for an exhibit and were fortunate enough to get a meeting with the CEO of a large multi-national corporation. We did our research, we put together a customized proposal that outlined the benefits of giving for the company, we took our most articulate people, we did everything by the book.
But, despite our best efforts, the CEO was totally unmoved. The company had never given to a museum exhibit, he didn’t particularly care about museums personally, and he couldn’t really see how a visible presence in a museum would achieve any corporate objectives.
The drive home was somber. Our prospect list was short and this had been our highest-level contact at what had seemed the most likely company – on paper at least. All the statistics and arguments in the world couldn’t convince an individual who didn’t personally care.
When I arrived back at my office there was a voicemail message awaiting me from the company’s director of marketing who had attended the meeting, but who had been silent throughout. “Call me. I think our company should be at the Museum and I want you to work with me to make it happen.”
So I rolled up my sleeves and played back-up to her internal efforts to get another hearing from the CEO. We worked as a team. I provided her with materials and data, and she added the personal passion for our mission and for the company’s work.
The end result was a $1 million gift. While the CEO wouldn’t listen to me, he would listen to one of his trusted employees.
Here’s the point: the person who made the gift happen was the person who felt a particular passion for the cause and who was able to connect it strategically to the company’s needs and who had influence internally.
I find that fundraisers who are unfamiliar with corporate giving tend to assume that corporations think like, well, corporations. Needless to say, corporations don’t actually think. People do. Whenever you’re pitching an organization about your cause, you do need to have all the data at your fingertips and a clear description of how the company will benefit. But, don’t start there.
Start by looking the person across the table from you right in the eye and telling them a story about how someone’s life was changed by your work. And go from there. You may have just found a partner who can make bigger things happen than you ever imagined.