Building Strong Nonprofit-Business Partnerships

At our sold-out 2020 Q1 Lunch & Learn, we heard from a panel of nonprofit and business leaders on how to build strong relationships, including on-the-ground examples of what works well and what to avoid.

Speakers included:

March 5 ETO Better Together Event

Lesson 1: Make sure it’s mutually beneficial

In his current role at EarthShare Oregon, Tony Arnell often gets requests from businesses looking for nonprofits to give presentations or organize volunteer events. While he is happy to make these connections, he wants to make sure they’re mutually beneficial, especially given how stretched nonprofits are on staff time and resources.

Here are few things business can do:

  1. Make a donation to the nonprofit – essentially paying the speaker’s organization an honorarium, to honor their time and expertise.
  2. Work with EarthShare Oregon to set up a workplace giving program that encourages staff to donate to nonprofits (businesses should offer to match employee donations).
  3. Ask a nonprofit if there are skills or resources they could use that your business could provide pro-bono.
  4. Ask the nonprofit if there’s something you could donate that they could use in an auction or as an incentive to donors (something your business makes, or has special access to, like tickets to games, shows or theater).

Tips for Lunch and Learns and other educational events

If you’re hosting a Lunch and Learn with a nonprofit speaker, always offer staff an incentive to attend. Everyone’s busy, and having only a few people show up is embarrassing for the business, awkward for the attendees and frustrating for the nonprofit staff member, who spent time preparing for, traveling to, and attending the event.

  • Provide lunch if you can, or snacks or dessert.
  • Tie into an existing employee incentive program if you have one (e.g., getting points for attending).
  • Have leadership promote and attend the event.

Example: A short term loss, but a long-term win

Tony Arnell of EarthShare Oregon, a membership of 27 local nonprofits focused on employee philanthropy, described how a one-time ask from a business turned into a fruitful long-term relationship.

In a previous job with another local nonprofit, a business asked Tony to table at their event, so people could learn about the nonprofit. Tony agreed, but attendance was low and very few people came to talk with him. It had taken quite a bit of Tony’s time and the business felt badly that what they thought was a mutually beneficial event didn’t turn out that way.

However, a few months later, the nonprofit was organizing an event and looking for wine donations. Tony reached out to his contact to see if they could help – and they were able to donate 20 cases of wine, a huge help to the nonprofit.

Lesson 2: Be clear from the start about each partner’s goals

Mary Moerlins, Corporate Citizenship Manager of NW Natural, stressed that in her experience, nonprofit-business relationships were the most valuable when there was clear communication about the goals of each organization.

Often, nonprofits and volunteer organizations are asked for, and promise, more than they can realistically deliver. This can have serious negative impacts on the nonprofit’s financial and organizational health – and result in an event or effort that doesn’t match what the business expected.

To avoid this, it’s important to have an open dialogue about what is mutually beneficial for both the business and the nonprofit. Mary recommended having an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) from the start – a growing trend among nonprofits – which outlines the expectations from the business, a cancellation policy, number of people expected to be there, and a wish list of skills that the nonprofit is looking for.

This is especially true for customized events. Mary shared that at NW Natural, they’ve worked with nonprofits to organize volunteer activities that all staff can participate in. Not all staff are able or interested in offsite activities like pulling ivy, cleaning up litter or volunteering at a food bank. So they look for ways to offer onsite volunteering, which can also be easier for hourly workers who have long shifts and can’t necessarily leave for an extended period.

Mary knows – and the nonprofit panelists confirmed – that custom events are often the most successful, but also take a lot of time for nonprofits to organize. Mary recommended that businesses have a budget in mind when approaching a nonprofit, especially when asking for a customized event or effort.

Regular check-ins during the planning and after the event are helpful to stay on the same page and learn what worked well and what didn’t, to improve future events.

Lesson 3: Partner with other businesses to maximize nonprofit benefit

While nonprofits value the opportunity to work with businesses and educate and engage a business’s staff, it does come at a cost: It takes staff time and resources to organize volunteer or fundraising events.

By partnering with other businesses to organize a volunteer event or fundraising effort, you can maximize the benefit the nonprofit receives, while minimizing the staff time it takes them to organize it.

Example: Downtown hotels partner with SOLVE

Kris Carico of SOLVE, a statewide nonprofit that organizes volunteers to clean up beaches, parks, neighborhoods and natural spaces, shared an example of multiple businesses coming together for a joint volunteer event.

The event, called Hospitality with Heart, brought together 250 people from 20 different downtown hotels to pick up litter around downtown Portland. The hotels shared the goal of cleaning up downtown to make the city a safer and healthier place for the community and visitors alike – and by coming together, they were able to clean up a much larger area than they would have alone. The event also provided an opportunity to create community and connections among hospitality staff around Portland. The event ended with a celebration at one of the hotels, with food, drinks and prizes.

Want to connect with other businesses? Let us know.

Our goal at the Corporate Sustainability Collaborative is to foster connections so we can learn from each other (and not reinvent the wheel, since none of us have time for that!). If you’re interested in doing more work with nonprofits, but would like to talk with another business who has more experience, let us know:

Thank you to our event sponsors!

Our March 5th lunch event was hosted by the Energy Trust of Oregon with food generously donated by Elephants Delicatessen.

Energy Trust logoEnergy Trust of Oregon highlighted their work helping businesses and residents reduce their energy use, saving $3.4 billion on energy bills and adding $7.4 billion to Oregon’s economy since 2002! Several people at the lunch event spoke highly of Energy Trust’s Strategic Energy Management program and recommended others sign up to participate. Energy Trust also spoke about their internal sustainability efforts, sharing that their sustainability team focuses on the 3E’s: energy, environment, engagement.


Elephants Delicatessen, a certified B-Corp, provided a delicious lunch of vegan and vegetable salads and sandwiches (as well as an amazing assortment of desserts). Lunch was served on reusable platters which Elephants collected after the event.