How to show your funders some love -- social-media style

When a corporation funds your nonprofit, saying "thank you" requires more than sending an acknowledgement letter and grant reports.

As a fundraiser, you need to create content that is about the grant’s impact on your nonprofit programs, and your nonprofit’s appreciation for the funding.

This “impact and appreciation” content should be in a format that can be easily forwarded and shared.

Using social media to thank corporate funders is key because corporate foundations face internal pressure to show their value.

While the typical family foundation was established with the purpose of giving money away, a corporate giving program may be viewed as a revenue drain by other parts of the corporation.

This perception puts constant demand on a corporate giving program to justify its existence to other divisions of the company.

As a nonprofit fundraiser, you can help corporate giving officers build enthusiasm about the company's philanthropic strategy.

A corporate giving officer can talk all day to her bosses about the value of the grants they make, but the bosses will be more likely to respond to recognition that comes from outside the company, via social media channels.

Here’s how to use social media to thank corporate funders.

  • Your nonprofit's blog and email updates: If your nonprofit actively blogs or sends emails to its supporters and fans, start your thank-you messages here. Create a blog post about the grant that highlights the grant's impact on your mission. (The point isn't to brag that you got a grant, but rather to show how the grant is making a difference.) If you have the technology, include in the post a video of the grant-funded project in action (more on video in the point below). Include an announcement of the grant in your next email update, linking to the post. Going forward, you can use the blog post as a "landing page" for all other social media references to the grant.
  • Video: Online videos don't have to be incredibly polished or scripted to be effective. I love videos that feature the beneficiaries of a grant saying thank you directly to donors. Washtenaw Community College Foundation in Michigan includes videos of students who received scholarships saying "thank you" in the Foundation's emails to donors -- wouldn't you want to continue giving to the scholarship fund after watching these students share their sincere thanks? Check out the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University's School of Business 10 Tips for Doing Video for Social Media -- among the ideas shared are to post your videos to YouTube for Nonprofits, and to title and caption your videos.
  • Facebook: Craft a Facebook post for your nonprofit’s Facebook page that directly thanks the corporation by name, and ideally, includes a hyperlink to the company’s Facebook page. Be sure to use a photo or infographic and go light on the text. Try to phrase the post in a way that will encourage your friends to “like” it. Then, ask your staff and supporters to share the post on their own timelines (if appropriate). Once this is done, let your contacts at the company know about the Facebook posting. They may choose to share it on their page, or just forward the item to their colleagues.
  • Twitter: Your Tweet needs to mention the corporation by name (using their Twitter handle/username if they have one) and say something intriguing about the grant – in 140 characters. For example, if your nonprofit got a grant from the Macy’s Foundation for a women’s shelter in New York, your Tweet could start out, “Thanking @Macys for keeping 135 NYC women safe this holiday season…” Include a shortened link to a blog post or other landing page that provides more detail about the grant’s impact on your nonprofit. Photos and video are always good to include on that page! Email your supporters who are active on Twitter to ask them to retweet the Tweet, and, as with Facebook, let your contacts at the company know about the Tweet.
  • Voicemail: The phone is the original social media tool! Voicemail left on a corporate foundation officer’s phone after hours can be “forwardable content” that is just as valuable as a Facebook post or a Tweet. At a training I attended, a corporate program officer told the audience that one of her grantees serves low-income, vulnerable kids. The grantee made a couple of thank you phone calls to the program officer's phone line, having the children themselves leave brief messages of thanks. She said it was awesome because she was able to forward the voicemails all over her company and staff thought the messages were adorable. She liked how the kids got to practice making a professional phone call, which is a good life skill. (Personally, I’d be leery of doing anything like this, but it sounds like the grantee handled it well and the program officer was thrilled.)

The bottom line is that corporate philanthropy staffers need to sell the corporate giving program to their peers and higher-ups, especially if corporate giving is not part of the company’s overall marketing budget.

They have to make the case that their past grants were worth making, and their future grants will be money well spent.

The nuggets of digital information that you share can be forwarded and otherwise disseminated across the company.

This can make it easier for corporate giving officers to tell the story of how their grants are making a difference in the community.

It can also pave the way for future funding for your nonprofit!

Four ways to keep grant applications to corporations on target

Building on the three truths about corporate giving shared yesterday, our (imaginary friend the) corporate philanthropy director has four additional things to tell you!

1. Remember that in grantmaking, she has to play it safe.

Many corporate philanthropy programs are about serving the largest numbers of people across the broadest regions in the least controversial ways.

If corporate giving was a painting in a museum, it would be a Norman Rockwell. Corporations like to fund projects that are about puppies and kittens and children and literacy and Thanksgiving turkeys.

So, if appropriate for your organization, pitch projects that are easy to understand and that serve the maximum numbers of people. Save the policy-developing, envelope-pushing projects for your individual donors and private foundations that care about social change.

Also, most corporations are leery of being the first corporate funder of a nonprofit. “It's not a good business practice,” the corporate philanthropy director says.

For that reason, she is likely to include a question on the grant application asking you to list the top corporate funders of your nonprofit. In looking at your other corporate donors, she will ask herself, “Are these the organizations we want to be associated with? What is the appropriate level for us to give based on what the organization is getting from other corporations?”

2. Do your very best to directly and completely answer every question on the corporation’s grant application form (even when the questions don't seem that important to you).

All the questions in the application form are there for a reason. You need to do the research to answer them well.

For example, a corporate grant application may ask how many of their employees volunteer with your organization.

You could look at this as a softball question – something to fill space in the application and for which your answer doesn’t really matter. Or you could look at it as an unfair question – maybe your nonprofit doesn’t have a constituent relationship management database that captures tons of information about volunteers, donors and clients, and cross-references all this information, and so the question would be administratively difficult to answer.

But it doesn’t matter what you think of the question. Your response to the question is what matters.

If you respond to the question about the number of volunteers by writing, “unknown,” you are sending a message that your organization does not value its volunteers or can’t manage information about its operation.

3. Listen to the corporate philanthropy director when she tells you about secret pots of money that no one else is applying for.

I sometimes go to “meet the funders” events (in which foundation and corporate philanthropy program officers speak to a group of nonprofits about their programs) – these events are typically organized by nonprofit support centers such as DC’s Center for Nonprofit Advancement, Philadelphia’s Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University, and New York’s Support Center for Nonprofit Management.

At every such event I’ve gone to, the corporate philanthropy representative on the panel has told us about some greatly undersubscribed pool of money that they have – funding that they’d like to give to nonprofits, if the nonprofits would only ask for it.

Though the “secret” programs aren’t a secret at all (typically they’re publicized on the company’s website right alongside information about its main grant program), grantseekers overlook these additional programs or think they’re not qualified for or interested in them. Because few organizations apply for these special grant programs, competition is lower and your odds of success are higher.

For example, one national corporation has a capital/building projects fund available for nonprofits in specific geographic regions of the country. With the depressed economy, few nonprofits are engaged in building new program facilities. This leaves a lot of money on the table for the corporation’s special fund. They’d love to see more applications for it.

Another national corporation has a special fund for training of nonprofit staffers – the grants can be used to pay for professional development classes and workshops. The corporation always has surplus grant money in this pool because they get few applicants.

When you call a corporate funder to introduce yourself and your organization, you should always politely inquire about whether they have any special grant funds outside of their main grantmaking program. And If there are “meet the funder” events in your region where corporate foundation officers will candidly share information about their programs, go to those events and take notes!

By the way, I’ve seen the same pattern with some federal agencies. If you talk to a federal grant program officer, you can learn about which programs get fewer applications and therefore are less competitive. On the other hand, I haven't experienced this very much with family foundations, which often hold their cards closer to their chest in terms of undersubscribed grant programs and discretionary funding available.

4. If you’re trying to get a donation of product or “in-kind” service, talk about this donation in ways that demonstrate you value it.

A corporate giving officer’s pet peeve is when grantseekers don’t give enough respect to an “in-kind” donation of the company’s product or commodity. Often a product donation is like cash out the door to them. (This can vary based on how the company’s business model works.)

Don’t de-value a product donation.

Don’t call her and say, “I’m only asking for (two airline tickets, a case of office supplies, or whatever the company’s product is).” As one corporate giving officer said, “Especially when it's the company's commodity, it's very uncomfortable for me when you downgrade an in-kind gift.”

* * *

I didn’t write this post after having drinks with a corporate giving officer. But I have attended several “meet the funders” events convened by nonprofit development centers in different east coast cities. The ideas above are a composite of what I’ve heard from different corporate giving officers.

Not all of the information shared here is accurate for each and every corporate giving program – because they’re all a little bit different!

In your experience seeking grants from corporate grantmaking programs, what have you learned?  Please share your stories in the comments!