The truth about grants from corporations to nonprofits

Imagine that you have the opportunity to sit down with someone who is in charge of philanthropic giving at a large corporation.

She's worked a long day fielding phone calls from nonprofits that want to apply for grants, and meeting with her boss and her boss's boss to make a plan for the upcoming year – all the while sending emails and social media postings to her colleagues to try to build more buy-in and enthusiasm about the company's philanthropic strategy.

Now's she's unwinding with a glass of wine in hand and she's going to tell you how corporate giving really works at her company, and how a savvy nonprofit can make her job easier.

Pull up a bar stool and have a listen to what she has to say...

1. Many folks in her company think that her  job is “fluffy.”

The company's grantmaking office doesn't bring in revenue – and it may even be perceived as dipping into company profits. The grants they give represent money out of the shareholders’, the employees’ and even the customers’ pockets. “It’s not my money, it’s my shareholders' money,” she says.

While the typical family foundation was established with the purpose of giving money away, a corporate giving program always has to justify itself because it can be viewed as a revenue drain by other parts of the corporation.

The corporate philanthropy director needs to “sell” the corporate giving program to her peers and higher-ups, especially if corporate giving is not part of the overall marketing budget. Her task, day in and day out, is to make the case to the company that their past grants were worth making, and their future grants will be money well spent.  

2. You can help make her job easier.

If the corporation has already made a grant to your nonprofit, you can help her justify this by feeding her great information about the impact of the grant on the communities you serve.

She can talk all day to her bosses about the value of the grants they make, but they'll be more likely to respond to recognition that comes from outside the company.

The idea is to create content that goes beyond a thank-you letter and required grant reports. The “impact and appreciation” content you send to her should be in a format that can be easily forwarded by her office to company higher-ups.

Two examples of how to do this:

  • Post on your nonprofit’s Facebook wall that you're so excited about the grant from (X company), which is letting you accomplish (something cool). If you let her know about the Facebook posting you made, she can then copy it to her corporation’s own Facebook page, and it can go viral within her own company.
  • Leave “thank you” voicemails on her work phone after hours (in moderation, of course!). A program officer I’ve heard from said that one of her grantees serves low-income, vulnerable kids. The grantee made a couple of “thank you” phone calls to her office, having the children themselves leave brief messages of thanks. She said it was awesome because she was able to forward the voicemails all over her company and staff thought the messages were adorable. She liked how the kids got to practice making a professional phone call, which is a good life skill. (Personally, I’d be leery of doing anything like this, but it sounds like the grantee handled it well and the program officer was thrilled.)

Make it easy for her to tell your story. Give her nuggets of digital information that she can have the control to forward or disseminate across her company.

3. She can’t give you more than $10,000, ever, no matter how great she thinks your organization is.

Many big-name private foundations (e.g., Ford, Carnegie, Packard) are in the business of social change. If they want to make a huge grant to a nonprofit to try to accomplish something significant, they can.

But corporate foundations don’t generally work this way. Most have definite ceilings of grant awards. For example, $10,000. No grantee can ever get more than $10,000 per year, even if the grantee's work is outstanding and the funder's relationship with them is strong.

You may think that because you’ve been getting $10,000 a year from a corporate foundation for five years, now it’s time to try to “grow” the grant to $25,000.

But if you hear from the corporate giving officer that there’s an award ceiling, relax and just apply for the amount that they suggest.

Your measure of success in working with corporations isn't necessarily limited to the corporate grant. There are other ways to expand the company’s contribution. For example, a member of their staff can be asked to serve on your board, if there is a good skills match.

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I didn’t write this tell-all post after having drinks with a corporate giving officer! I learned this information by attending “meet the funders” events convened by nonprofit development centers in different east coast cities. The ideas above are a composite of what I’ve heard from different corporate giving officers.

Not all of the information shared here is accurate for each and every corporate giving program – because they’re all a little bit different!

In your experience seeking grants from corporate grantmaking programs, what have you learned?  Please tell us your stories in the comments!

Also see this follow-up post for additional important tips from our fictitious program officer!