Great Opportunities Through Active Corporate Partnerships

By Larry Dubinski
From Dimensions
July/August 2011

U.S. nonprofit organizations have long benefitted from the largesse of the for-profit sector. In 2009, corporations donated more than $14 billion to U.S. charitable causes, and the corporate sector has proven especially fruitful for science centers. Many centers—including the Franklin Institute (TFI) in Philadelphia, where I oversee external affairs—have long counted on their region’s leading utility, technology, and pharmaceutical companies to be among their top donors.

In an era of shrinking profits and an expanding focus on accountability, however, the face of corporate giving is changing dramatically. Rapidly disappearing are the days in which corporations give simply because it is the “right thing to do.” In this traditional corporate citizenship approach, companies trust their nonprofit partners to apply funding as they see fit.

While this model continues to be mutually beneficial, there is a growing trend toward a new corporate social responsibility model, where the company sees itself as an active partner. Companies determine priorities, often tied to corporate objectives, and help carry out specific program goals. They expect measurements of the impact of their giving that are as sophisticated as those they apply to business investments.

Adapting to a new model

Science centers are left with two options: adapt, or lose out on this vital funding source. Many nonprofits are hesitant to enter such uncharted territory for fear that new programs will supplant operating support. In fact, active partnerships—by engaging corporations and generating measurable outcomes that support corporate priorities—can actually increase the company’s commitment to funding more traditional fronts.

Apprehension about ceding “control” to corporate partners is another stumbling block. Critical to overcoming this is transparency; each science center must determine its level of comfort with corporate involvement and be clear about limits, up front. Most companies will work in good faith within these guidelines.

Two successful partnerships

TFI is in the midst of two such partnerships that highlight the possibilities of this new paradigm. Both have produced fantastic outcomes and, importantly, have only augmented the traditional support from each company.

PECO, an Exelon Company, is the Philadelphia region’s leading utility company and TFI’s most long-tenured and generous corporate partner. The company has traditionally provided us with significant general operating support, and in 2008, PECO asked us to partner in creating an environmental education program.

The PECO Energizing Education Program (PEEP) provides teacher training, lesson kits, classroom enrichment, a school energy audit, and field trips for more than 30 middle schools over three years. This successful ongoing program combines the resources and expertise of PECO, TFI, and the U.S. National Energy Education Development Project, and is impacting the environmental education of thousands of schoolchildren.

In 2004, PNC Bank, another outstanding and generous longtime supporter of TFI, launched Grow Up Great, which focuses on school readiness for preschoolers. Partners on this 10-year, $100 million program include Head Start (a U.S. program serving preschoolers and families facing multiple risk factors) and Sesame Workshop. Recently, PNC encouraged us to develop early childhood education programs that would align with our mission of informal science education.

The resulting three-year partnership has provided professional development in preschool science education for Head Start teachers, as well as museum visits and classroom outreach for hundreds of Head Start toddlers and families—visits during which PNC employees serve as mentors. While this younger audience, following PNC’s priorities, is new for us, the objectives directly connect to our mission.

Best practices

What best practices can be gleaned from these partnerships?

1. Work backward from the company’s stance to find common ground. Don’t approach new partnerships with your traditional “menu” of opportunities. Customization for each company’s mission and goals—while time-intensive—is crucial.

2. Be willing to employ company resources beyond funding. Embrace the corporation’s internal experts and resources in order to engage the company and maximize the program’s efficiency and efficacy. The more engaged the corporate partner, the more likely it will be to reinvest.

3. Embrace data. Know the economic and social impact of your science center. Ask the partner what kind of evaluative data they desire, and create assessments that can provide it.

4. Know when to say no. Artfully designed partnerships will meet both company and science center goals without detracting from core mission. The best will provide substantial operating support through funding overhead or staffing costs. Be wary of creating programs that are tangential to your mission or that do not offer such benefits.

5. Finally, recommit to fundraising best practices. While the rules of the game are changing, the players are not. Fundraising remains a people business. Diligent identification, research, cultivation, solicitation, and, most importantly, stewardship are more important than ever. Companies will turn to their most trusted partners when new funding is available. The dexterity with which science centers manage new partnerships will augment future giving opportunities, creating a cycle of ongoing support.

Larry Dubinski is senior vice president of external affairs and general counsel at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.

About the image: A PNC Grow Up Great volunteer assists with preschool science learning at the Franklin Institute’s Community Night program. Photo by Brenda Borkoski