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Karen Eber Davis

About Karen

Corporate Giving: How to Solve the Biggest Problem

When it comes to corporate giving, is lack of knowledge holding you back?

Corporate Giving: The Problem

Your assistant delivers the mail. In it, you find a substantial check from a local company. You recognize the signature—it’s a business contact you’ve been wooing. How do you evaluate this check? Is it a donation? A business investment? Both?

You grapple with what to do next. And, as usual, you do nothing.

Guess what? Nonprofit leaders are not the only ones perplexed about the reasons behind company checks. In some cases, even the person authorizing the check shares your uncertainty! An insurance broker, for example, whose firm gives over $60,000 yearly shared that he wrestles with too many requests, uncertain returns, his desire to give back with no returns needed, the need to support existing staff and customers, and the desire to grow profits. Corporate checks often represent multiple and occasionally conflicting goals.

Is this a sector-wide problem? Yes. For proof, consider that 80 percent of the gross domestic product in the United States stems from businesses. Nonprofits represent just over 5 percent. Yet nonprofits that painstakingly seek every dollar induce companies to offer them only the tiniest sliver of income. For nonprofits, corporate income is akin to that tiny slice of holiday pie you ate last Thanksgiving. Why is that? It’s a place where ambiguity dampens action. By helping companies clarify their giving-back goals, you might access a whole pie. Read more to find out how.

Make the Call

If you receive a corporate check, make a call. State that you’re calling to thank them for the gift and would like to be sure you understand their goals and how you might help each other in the future. They liked your work well enough to send you money. Call them. Do this within twenty-four hours.

Seek to Meet

Simply thanking the check writer will score you points. However, you remember that building relationships speeds up with face-to-face meetings. So, you seek a brief twenty-minute meeting. Lunch, coffee, or a brief meeting in their office will help you to identify mutual goals and plant a seed for a long-term connection. After doing hundreds if not thousands of meetings, the relationships I have with people with whom I have met one-to-one are tangibly richer, last longer, and contain more meat. Not a bad return for investing the time to reach out and travel to their office.


You could go in cold. After all, it’s only twenty minutes. However, since you’ve committed to just twenty minutes, it is even more critical to prepare. Invest twenty minutes—time you’d usually spend in most of your meetings—getting ready. What might you do?

  • Test your understanding of the business. Peruse its website. Skim one current article about its industry in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Explore its geographic focus. Do you share the same focus? Are your service areas just one dot on its map? Or somewhere in between?
  • Get personal. Look up your contact’s LinkedIn profile or corporate bio—often on the business website. Identify common friends and shared experiences.
  • Decide on a minimum goal for your meeting, such as sharing thanks, understanding their intention, and agreeing to remain in contact.
  • Decide on a maximum goal, such as exploring partnerships that benefit your nonprofit, the business, and the community.


Anticipate being invited into an office or the conference room. Once you have settled in, how will you start? Explain why you’re there and what you hope to achieve. Check if they have anything on their agenda. Your contact might have prepared questions for you.

In any case, as you converse, listen to discern the reasons behind the check. In some cases, you will hear that giving back is “the right thing to do.” Dig further. You might find that the gift is, in essence, a personal donation. How will you know? Listen for some of the individual giving motivators identified by T he Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. These include meeting important basic human needs, helping those with less, bringing about a desired change, and because they were asked.

Consider, also, if instead you received a business investment. Investments fall into three categories:

  • To save money. Notice if the check represents a gift that the employees championed or current customer supported. While your contact will rarely say, “We did it to save money,” investments that support existing business and employees reduce costs.
  • To grow income. In this case, you’ll hear that the investment was about reaching new markets or improving or supporting the company’s brand.
  • To build infrastructure. Infrastructure is akin to a developer clearing the land and putting in roads as he prepares to sell houses. For example, a business leader may invest in the arts because the leaders believe every community where the firm wants to do business must excel in the arts. Or, the check may seek to stimulate missing infrastructure—employees with specific skills that they can’t hire now.

In a flash, the meet will be over. Before you go agree to a next step, which I hope at the very least will be to stay in contact.

Make it Stick

En route back to the office, consider the conversation. What will you will do next? Of course, when you received the check you posted a thank-you note. After the meeting, consider posting a second note appreciating what you learned in the meeting. Even better, provide something of value stimulated by your meeting. You might send a newspaper article with your card. Or you might send an email introduction to a board member. Numerous options exist. Allow the clarity you gained at the meeting to guide you and determine if you will treat the donation as a business investment or personal donation. Congratulate yourself for reaching out and gaining valuable knowledge to develop a meaningful and profitable relationship.


To open the floodgate to corporate income, new partnerships, and for mutual success, dispel the fog that comes with corporate gifts. Identify the “why” behind the investments. Help corporate leaders meet their goals by getting clarity on them. You’ll spend less time wondering what to do next and more time doing it. You’ll solve the biggest problem with corporate giving.


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