What would you do if you got everything you wanted, all at once? Would you be celebrating or panicking?
Social media is full of stories about overnight successes, from tech start-ups to unlikely heroes. But there are downsides to early success and it can be hard to sustain if you don’t have the right infrastructure around you. Ask Britney Spears or Justin Bieber. They might be on the road to recovery now, but the middle years were very messy indeed. Contrast them with actress Meryl Streep, who has built a steady portfolio of successful movies over a long career. Not for her the awkward snaps of pot smoking and temper tantrums.
We know that non-profit leaders often have unrealistic expectations when they embark on a corporate partnerships program. “Just get me $1mln and a helicopter”, I was told by one NFP leader years ago. But corporate partnerships are complex and take time to build properly. Sometimes the early wins can create a false sense of confidence if there’s only luck and accidental brilliance behind them. Maybe you’ve had your equivalent of the ice bucket challenge or Celeste Barber fundraising for the Rural Fire Service. But can you sustain it when the novelty has worn off or the main catalyst for success has passed?
If you’ve enjoyed early success in corporate partnerships and want to make sure it’s not a lucky one-off, you need to step back and put the partnership fundamentals in place.
Review your portfolio
How many of your partners are more than one-off donations or transactions? Take a hard look at the energy suckers who command your time, energy and resources but haven’t committed much recently. It’s easy to fall into the trap of overservicing some partners, just because they made one big donation or responded to a one-off situation. We’ve seen this with organisations who were community partners with big sporting events like the Commonwealth Games. Certainly they had access to major corporates aligned to the event, but there was no logical reason for those corporates to stay in the partnership after the event moved on. Similarly natural disasters create their own PR frenzy that corporates want to buy into I’m sure that the lovely people at WIRES were grateful for support during the NSW bushfires, but where are those corporates now? Were they truly aligned to saving wildlife or are they looking for new impact measure for the E in their ESG framework?
Look for alignment
Finding the corporate partners that are truly aligned to your organisation requires some internal reflection. You need to understand what you need from a corporate to advance your mission, what you’ve got to offer and how that creates solutions for a corporate’s problems. You also need to be clear on those corporates that are not the right fit for you. Better to be upfront on your choices rather than get into messy exit negotiations. Otherwise, you’ll end up like Britney Spears after her Vegas wedding- full of regret and embarrassment.
Build your skills
When the media caravan has moved on and the impetus for corporate partners approaching your organisation has faded, you’ll need to be proactively reaching out for new partners. That requires specialist skills that need to be nurtured over time. Meryl Streep took years to hone her acting craft and not everything was a success, but she learned and grew her skills. If you want some Oscar winning corporate partnership executives, you’ll need to invest and support them in building their skills. You wouldn’t ask a P driver to hop into a Formula One and win a Grand Prix, so don’t put a community fundraiser in a partnerships role and tell them to floor the accelerator.
Early success is great if you have the core foundations behind your program. You can test and refine your approach and your skills and be confident to expand and grow in the future. If not, you risk burning out quickly and you’re left wondering why things have changed. What worked once may be a unique set of circumstances, not strategic thinking. If you want sustainable success in partnerships, be more like Meryl, not Britney- and you won’t regret the choices you made along the way.