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October 06, 2011
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Home » Show me the Money: Getting CSR Capital for your NGO

More than ever, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are echoing Cuba Gooding Jr.’s line “Show me the money!” when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Having successfully fundraised CSR capital for an NGO, I’m often asked for my secret, as though I have the best-ever marinara sauce recipe. These conversations are often asymmetrical as I get excited about how CSR is revolutionizing development and exclaim: “But it’s about rethinking our whole approach to social change!” or “Think in terms of making the pie bigger, not just redistributing wealth!” or “Creativity not bureaucracy!” Although NGOs embrace the excitement about CSR, they understandably have questions about companies’ funding priorities, how the procurement process works, if they should present themselves differently and so on.

Navigating corporate funding is indeed a bit like being at sea with no compass. So I’m setting aside my excitement for a moment, putting on my practical hat and listing a few tips for chasing CSR money:

1. Think outside the request for proposals (RFP). If you’ve fundraised for an NGO, chances are you’ve encountered an RFP. The average RFP is a dizzyingly long document detailing the project to be funded. NGOs jam their project into the RFP framework and add information about why they are the best organization for the job. Interaction with the donor happens, but is usually at a distance, and proposals are submitted according to the RFP. In working with corporations, it is compulsory to think outside the RFP.

As I was talking about the idea for this blog post with my step-mom, she reminded me of the other famous Jerry Maguire line, “You had me at hello.” Seeking CSR funding is much more of a courting process than a blind exchange of documents. You have them (or don’t have them) at hello.

Networking and presentations constitute courting in the private sector. Recently, as part of the MBA application process, I was asked to give an elevator pitch and a full presentation about my candidacy. After deciding on a school, the networking with my classmates commenced through Facebook and Google Groups even before we arrived on campus.

Do you have an elevator pitch about why a company should invest in your project? If not, I would strongly suggest writing one. Then network your way into contact with the CSR/sustainability team at the company in which you are interested, give your elevator pitch and ask for 5 minutes to make a full presentation.

After the presentation, at the table with the CSR/sustainability team, be ready for an exchange that feels a lot more like a negotiation. This table is where you have the opportunity to develop a project idea and shake on your potential cooperation. After the meeting, you should offer to follow-up with a 1-2 page concept paper. If the project gets a green light, you may be asked to submit a full proposal. But this is just a formality, you’ll likely have already agreed on the key components verbally or via email.

By far the biggest mistake I’ve seen NGOs make when applying for CSR funding is writing a lengthy proposal early in the process and blindly submitting it to a company. No one will ever read it.

2. It’s about big ideas and shared value. A common complaint, one that I’ve shouted from the rooftops many times, is that companies don’t know what they want when it comes to CSR. One reason is that companies are waiting for a big idea. They value innovation and big ideas are what innovation is all about. It wouldn’t be innovation if we already knew what “it” was. Further, to be a big idea, it has to increase the bottom line. NGOs have to be ready to connect the dots between their big idea and the donor’s bottom line. If you’re considering CSR funding and your head is spinning, you’re not the first.

Getting into the mindset of creating “shared value” is the hardest part. If you’re not familiar with the concept of shared value, I highly suggest reading The Big Idea: Creating Shared Value by Michael Porter. Really understanding shared value will help you decide which companies to approach, how to pitch your idea and how to communicate the benefits of your project to the private sector. You can throw out your old proposal templates: there are no sections for shared value.

Just as some companies are CSR leaders, some are way behind. And some have gone from way behind to leading over night. Companies are moving targets on CSR. But unlike with government donors, there is room for you to be provocative and negotiate, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. If you think a company’s CSR program is bad, tell them so. Tell them how much more they could be doing with that capital and how. Just as a company wouldn’t ignore a big, new product idea, they won’t ignore a big, new CSR idea. That doesn’t mean guaranteed funding, but it means you’ve earned the right to make your case for shared value. Your ability to do so is your NGO’s competitive advantage in the CSR marketplace.

3. Re-evaluate priorities. As much as I dislike focusing on the concept and proposal writing stages, the following areas should be revised and emphasized for companies:

Donor Recognition (read: public relations & branding) – More than likely, it’s time to rethink the donor recognition section. You need to be creative and talk about press conferences, websites, social and multi-media, project apparel, and so on. It’s okay to go into fantasy-land in your head about how you’d love to promote your project. Companies love good CSR attention. Can you think of synergies between your project and the company’s brand? Pitch your ideas.

Project Risks – The private sector is incredibly risk-averse with CSR. Spend more time than usual going through project risks and mitigation strategies. Don’t forget to include PR risks. The last thing you want is to put your project’s funding in jeopardy because of a PR disaster you never saw coming. If you have access, talk through each stage of your project with the company’s PR team. Be wary about public consumption of anything branded with the donor unless it has been approved.

Transparency – The transparency section should be comprehensive, especially if you’re working in a country with a high level of corruption. Who are other major donors with whom you’ve worked? How often are you and your partners audited? How do you vet your partners and sub-grantees? What are your bidding procedures for contracts?

In the end, mastery of the “You had me at hello” approach, shared value and private sector priorities are key ingredients in my marinara sauce. But the secret ingredient is embracing the ethos of innovation.

Ready to dive into CSR funding? Attend the Commit!Forum 2011 to learn more about companies’ CSR programs and practice your networking and elevator pitch skills. Check out the “Mission Possible” case studies featuring cross-sector ventures. At the session Strange Bedfellows, you’ll learn how Alcoa and Electric Recyclers International turned their unlikely partnership into shared value with recyclable aluminum.

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