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podcast: Building your corporate fundraising pipeline with Heather Nelson

blog photo: Building your corporate fundraising pipeline with Heather Nelson

Resources from this Episode The Good Partnership Guide CharityVillage “Are You Open For Business?” Assessment

You might also find it helpful to review Heather’s past episode about Corporate Fundraising Building Blocks before building your corporate fundraising pipeline.

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano


Cindy Wagman: 00:07 Welcome to The Small Nonprofit podcast with down to earth, practical advice on how to get things done in your small organization. You are going to change the world and we can help.

Cindy Wagman: 00:19 Hello and welcome to the podcast! I'm your host, Cindy Wagman and I'm joined by my cohost, Aine McGlynn.

Aine McGlynn: 00:24 Good morning everybody!

Cindy Wagman: 00:26 We love to talk about corporate giving because it literally comes up in every single conversation with every single organization I've ever come across.

Aine McGlynn: 00:36 We know that corporations amass huge amounts of wealth and we're in the business of moving wealth from people who have lots of it to the charitable sector - it's a natural conversation.

Cindy Wagman: 00:48 Absolutely. And it's also one though that a lot of organizations have very significantly misconceptions around how corporate giving works and how they as small organizations can tap into those opportunities.

Aine McGlynn: 01:06 Yeah, that's right. There's a number of different streams of revenue that you can think about when you're approaching corporate, or potential corporate partners. One of the first steps is to get clear on which of those revenue streams you're hoping to tap into - whether it's a corporate philanthropy or corporate sponsorship, point of sale campaigns, or in any area of employee giving, there's any number of ways that you could think about partnering with a corporation.

Cindy Wagman: 01:33 Yeah. And a hundred percent of the time, none of them involve going in and cold pitching a company.

Aine McGlynn: 01:40 100%.

Cindy Wagman: 01:40 I think that's the biggest misconception we see with organizations big and small who don't have a lot of experience in corporate giving - they think, "okay, let's have a beautiful deck." They're actually saying, "We'll hire people to create these beautiful decks and go in and pitch" and when you go in and pitch - it's a yes or no - and chances are it's gonna be a no.

Aine McGlynn: 02:03 And if you can even get in! And honestly, if you're getting in and sitting in front of somebody to pitch, you're doing well. It's what I see more of is "Oh, they have an online form. We'll fill that out and that'll get us somewhere” which nine times out of 10 it doesn't. But even at that point around, just to come back a little bit at the point around understanding what it is you're asking and from which revenue stream in which sort of giving profile you're trying to tap into. That is the key piece - understanding what you need to put in front of that corporate representative, if you're pitching the philanthropic arm, of that company, then going in with your marketing data isn't really gonna do anything.

Cindy Wagman: 02:48 It’s not helpful at all.

Aine McGlynn: 02:49 Exactly. And likewise, if you're speaking to someone who has a sponsorship budget about all of the good that you do, it's quite frankly not what that marketing person wants to hear. So you have to get clear as to who you're asking for and what.

Cindy Wagman: 03:02 100%. And I think what I love about this conversation with our friend Heather Nelson, who is the founder and principal of BridgeRaise she talks about what it takes to be open for business to corporate giving. And the first point she makes is understanding what kind of corporate ask you want to make. Knowing and focusing, not trying to do everything. There's this huge idea that companies have money and therefore we should try to access it.

Aine McGlynn: 03:31 Which is not wrong and it’s not easy.

Cindy Wagman: 03:36 No, it's not easy. It's not as easy as they have it. Therefore they should give it to us. And that's true of all kinds of philanthropy and giving. And so how do we say, "okay, yes, there is lots of money there. We would like access to it. How do we understand what those companies are looking for so that we can be the recipient of those funds?"

Aine McGlynn: 04:01 That's right. That's, that's the way we have to think about it until there are a great revolution and a significant redistribution of wealth. Sorry, Marxist socialist hat on this Monday morning.

Cindy Wagman: 04:12 So until that time comes, Heather is a great resource. I love the way she's framed this as "open for business," which is basically these are the things that you should have in place before you start thinking about actively building those corporate relationships and asking for corporate support. Those three things sound simple but they are a lot harder than they sound. And I've experienced that, Aine's experienced that and working with organizations, certainly Heather gets asked a lot. Her specialty is corporate and she sees a lot of organizations sort of jump ahead of these three steps and that is not going to serve you. So take your time, do these three things and then you can start to be more successful in your corporate asking. It is a pleasure to welcome you back. Heather Nelson, if you haven't listened to our previous podcast with her, please do so.

Cindy Wagman: 05:22 She is our go-to corporate guru. She spent years working in-house in organizations doing corporate giving for smaller and mid-size organizations and now runs BridgeRaise where she focuses on helping organizations do corporate fundraising. And she's very wise, very experienced and really understands the realities of small and mid-size organizations. So please join us in welcoming Heather back to the podcast. Hey Heather, welcome back to the podcast!

Heather Nelson: 05:59 Hi Cindy, great to be back.

Cindy Wagman: 06:01 I'm always excited to have you on because I think you always present such great content that is really relevant to our listeners. Today we're going to deep dive a little bit more into some of the stuff we started talking about in our last conversation, which we'll link in the show notes, but we're going to be talking about how to ready your organization for corporate giving. Tell me a little bit about why this has come up for you so often with the clients you work with.

Heather Nelson: 06:34 Well, I'm so pleased to be back and sharing content and ideas and information with your audience. I talk regularly with small nonprofits about corporate fundraising and consistently hear that they really want corporate revenue as part of their fundraising mix. And often it's a very, “once a year” kind of conversation may be associated with an event or at a certain it's almost a last-minute "okay, now it's time. Let's go get corporate. We've got a few weeks. Let's make this happen." And that's a really consistent theme. And I think no surprise as the corporate person, my advice is that you need to have a really different approach that's much more consistent over the course of the year as opposed to this, “okay, here are our six weeks to get corporate money right before an event.” And then we're trying to do all kinds of things that just aren't set up.

Cindy Wagman: 07:36 I mean, that's so true of my experience with organizations as well as this really siloed sense of, “okay, this is what we're doing right now.” But also not understanding that it needs consistency year-round, which we will talk about, and also what goes into it. It's not just that you have a good event because there are a million good events in the city or across the country, but what are companies looking for when they're looking to partner with organizations? And so I'd love to dive right in. And I think what I love about this is you're really focusing people on a few key things. There are lots of ways and if you have a corporate staff person, there's going to be more to this list. But if you're smaller, mid-size and you don't have a lot of resources, you trim things down for us in a way that I think is doable and efficient. So let's talk about what it means to be "open for business."

Heather Nelson: 08:52 When I say you need to be open for business, I am trying to move you away from this last-minute approach to a more year-round approach. And part of that does start with what is it that we are offering to companies and building the system and the communications and the messaging around that one thing. Instead of doing grants and events and a bunch of other random things to try to get corporate money, it is saying, "okay, what's our best corporate offering?" And that's thinking about them more than you. If it is an event, be sure that you understand the audience and you have a really great opportunity for them there, or if it's a program initiative that really aligns well with some community investment priorities. Pick one!

Cindy Wagman: 09:48 We talk about it all the time. And I know you, me and a couple of our fundraising friends, we often will talk about this just with our own work and with the work that the organizations we're involved with, which is, we're so much more effective when we can focus on one thing and do that really well before trying to add. And I know we struggle with this ourselves sometimes, but I think that that's so relevant because we just don't have the time and resources to do all the things right.

Heather Nelson: 10:21 You really don't. When you're talking about corporate, the reality is that the different types of corporate money that you can get require entirely different things. It's making a choice and then getting the things in place that make sense for that. For example, if you have picked an event that is a great choice, especially for smaller organizations, that might be the easiest thing to start with. Then you need to say, “okay, what are the messages that that fit with that event and the corporate audience?” Get those written down. “What are the benefits I have to offer?” Get those written down. Get that internal stuff set up before you get going. And that really is one of the steps of being open. “What kinds of companies are you willing to have supported you?” Be clear on that before you get out there talking to people. Is it all the companies or are you an organization that really wants to be very clear that the companies you're going to talk to align on a certain values matrix? If so, define it.

Cindy Wagman: 11:28 That came up with one of our students actually just last week. They enrolled in our course and one of the first questions was, “I'm so conflicted when I'm raising money for my organization because a lot of companies aren't aligned with our values and our mission.” And I said, “decide that, but that becomes a policy.” And it's almost sounding like this is a bit of an inventory, right? You're taking stock of the opportunities that we're focused on. Here's where we want and here are the companies that we want to work with. I'm going to throw people again back to our last episode where we did talk about the different kinds of giving. And also I think we also talked about not always going after the really big companies, but some local smaller ones might be great prospects. We don't have to rehash that. We have this list, right? This sort of inventory of what are the key things that we are offering or are leveraging. Is that fair?

Heather Nelson: 12:32 Yeah, exactly. A really external way of communicating that I think one of the dangers is that we are so comfortable in our organizations that we're really used to talking about our cause, our event, our audience, everything about our organizations in a very, almost a shorthand that's internal. And in another way, it's super longhand because it's complicated and it's grounded in the passion and the knowledge we have for our organizations. And probably one of the most important things that I work on with organizations is how can you simplify that? It's painful. It needs to be one sentence, three sentences and people say, “no, no, no. I have to identify...” No you don't.

Cindy Wagman: 13:26 Take out! We just actually did that with a client where even their boilerplate, I stripped out half of it. I said, “none of this is relevant in this context.” That is so on point too because we see that all the time. Do you have any, I know it's hard to share examples because of the confidential nature of the work, but do you have an example of it? Maybe without naming an organization, but of a “before and after” where it's like, “here's how we would have talked about it, but after working with you and understanding that you need to, to simplify and make it external facing, this is what it looked like after.”

Heather Nelson: 14:08 I think one of the really good examples from my background actually was an organization not around anymore, but with Street Kids International. I go back to that because I think one of the things that happened there is when you're talking to program people they actually want to talk about the nuance of a very complicated issue, which is those young people who are homeless or are couch surfing or on the street and it is a complicated issue. But the organization was called Street Kids International and for that reason, the explanation of the organization should have included a one-sentence related to street kids, right? We battled this discussion often and at the end of the day, the one line is the one line. I always tell people, “anybody who wanted to learn more would ask.” Then we could discuss the complexity. And I think that's true of every issue that every organization I've worked with. If you are with a person who is in the trenches on that issue, you happen to get a community investment person who is super passionate about this issue, they will ask you for more information. They will engage you in a conversation about the nuance of your issue. However, if you are talking to a marketing person who cares about one sentence, that person is not going to ask you for more information and they're going to be satisfied with the one sentence. I think that the answer always starts with less and you can add. But if the person is not interested in more than one sentence, then you've given them four paragraphs. They've just deleted your email.

Cindy Wagman: 15:44 And then kind of goes back to what you said earlier about understanding that area of focus. So when you are working and you're looking at corporate grants that are more around philanthropy and impact, then you're more likely to come across people who do have deeper knowledge. But if you're asking for support for an event or for a cause marketing campaign or something similar to that, it's gotta be snippy, right? It has to be authentic to the organization and your mission, but it has to be so simple and easy to comprehend.

Heather Nelson: 16:16 Absolutely. I agree that you are more likely to get in-depth conversations on the community grants side of things at the same time. I would say depending on what price point you're asking for, making it easy for them to say yes if it's a smaller number also can help you even with those organizations. So again, start simple, start with less and add - I think that’s a great way. Another thing too, in terms of what you need to have to get started is that you have to go obviously beyond the internal and one of the things I talk a lot about is this sort of scan of your stuff and making sure that this idea of being open to companies is visible to people. One of the things that we talk a lot about is your website and your social media. To me, if you send something in or you've left a call, what's the first thing you do?

Cindy Wagman: 17:18 I'm going to creep you on Google!

Heather Nelson: 17:21 Right! You're going to Google, you're going to check yourself out on Facebook or Twitter and they're going to scan back a little bit. Maybe they want to see companies, right? They want to see the other companies have sponsored you have funded you in some way. To show that you're open for corporate funding, you need to make sure that there is visibility in your, in your marketing channels, on your website, in your social media. There are companies that show up there, some people are going to say, “Oh, we don't have funders yet.” You've got to find something.

Cindy Wagman: 17:53 Even corporate volunteers or anyone who's been involved - we're so risk-averse. It drives to me crazy, but we're so risk-averse and as soon as we see proof of concept, right? As soon as we see other people who have committed, we're more likely to commit. And it's the same with the companies, right? They want to know that someone else has tested the waters for us.

Heather Nelson: 18:16 For sure. And it's also a credibility test, right? Is this organization credible? If I don't want to do all my homework, and I see a company I know and trust, I attribute that they've done their homework and therefore it's safe for me.

Cindy Wagman: 18:34 Whether or not that's true, that's a different story.

Heather Nelson: 18:35 That's another story, right? But you want to show that. And you're right, corporate volunteerism, if you have two board directors that's a senior leader that can be profiled - someone who is giving you in-kind value. I mean there are lots of different ways to find the first couple of stories that you tell or the first couple of companies that you show if you're just getting started, but you want to find some so that you can show that you're open to it before you start really going out there and asking for new people to come on board.

Aine McGlynn: 19:10 Stop the podcast. I just wanted to take a second to remind our listeners who may not know that this podcast is brought to you by The Good Partnership and CharityVillage.

Cindy Wagman: 19:22 So a lot of people don't know that both of our organizations are deeply committed to making sure that there are tons of great resources available to small nonprofits in our sector. And so I want you to take a minute to go and access some of those great free resources. For The Good Partnership, you can visit and for CharityVillage, you can visit There are so many webinars, and of course the podcast, articles... the list is endless. And of course you can post jobs there, volunteer positions - the posting is free. So make sure that you are checking out both websites to deepen your learning and continue to access great free stuff.

Aine McGlynn: 20:08 Great tips Cindy. Now, on with the podcast!

Cindy Wagman: 20:12 And then so once you have that I feel that's not necessarily inventory but it's the back end. How are we putting the structures in place, how to make sure, but what happens next? So we have our focus, we know what we're focusing our energy on, whether it's an event or specific area of granting or partnerships would have you, now we have a built-up hopefully somewhat looks like credibility. What happens after that?

Heather Nelson: 20:46 Well, I think to make the conscious step into building the network, which is your corporate network. And this is really about starting from a place where you're just trying to meet and have conversations about what you have to offer with people at companies. You might be able to do that directly. So that might be about raising your visibility through where you're showing up conferences, you're showing up at local events you're showing up at, or it may be looking at a real strategy around how you're going to leverage what I call your allies, right? The people that might be able to introduce you into these places where there's, there's corporate money. So at that point you've got your visibility, you've got a thing and some messaging and then it's about, okay, now let's start getting out there and talking to some people.

Cindy Wagman: 21:47 I love that because for so many reasons, but that's doable. If you're a small organization, that's doable and we always, always, always hear from people, no one's heard of us. Well, get out there and make sure they hear about you. Talk to people. That's how it happens and I think that's so relevant. Can you give us some examples of, you mentioned conferences? I'm thinking local chambers of commerce. I used to go out and talk to, I mean it's not as relevant for corporate, but I used to talk to religious organizations for local for the areas we worked. Literally just getting people to know your organization and your stories are is how you build the brand.

Heather Nelson: 22:32 It absolutely is. It's also how you practice the the the messaging, right? It's also how, if you're smaller and getting started, don't overthink where you're going, right? Don't overthink where going chamber of commerce fundraising conference an event where there are other business leaders are showing up. Just get out there and start talking to people. If you are at the stage where you want to be a little bit more strategic about it, I do look at the value-question. Where are there likely to be companies that most aligned with you? If you're an environmental organization? Let's look for some conferences related to the environment. If you're a women's organization, let's look at some places where women leaders are going to women of influence luncheon. Or that kind of thing. So I mean that's the next stage. Be a little bit more strategic where you're more likely to find businesses that are aligned with what you do. But again, don't spend a ton of time worrying about the venue, go start talking to people and tell them what you're looking for. It's not at this point money, it's a relationship with the company that aligns that where you might have some kind of opportunity to offer them. And at that point just try to do enough in those networking opportunities to be able to do a followup move. I always talk about this concept of micro moves, right? What the move at the networking event? The chance to talk to them again?

Cindy Wagman: 24:08 Book a meeting. Really recently we were in talking to someone who was doing employee engagement and it was very clear that they didn't have the budget to support charities in her departments. So right away we said, “okay, that's one of our outcomes was to get an introduction to another person in the company.” We did like it doesn't have to be that “one shot and we're done.” I mean we still added a lot of value to that person who was around in employee engagement. We created a great opportunity to work together but we then were very clear that what we want is another conversation with someone who hopefully does have some budget.