A strategy to partner with business

By Alex Hannant Executive Director of the Akina Foundation.

Alex Hannant


Our thoughts on working with business from a charity’s perspective


We’re still learning about building partnerships with business all the time. However, here are some thoughts on developing healthy cross-sector relationships and getting good value for your charity and stakeholders.


1. Be systematic

Do research on the interests and strategies of the businesses you’re thinking about approaching before picking up the phone. Make sure there’s a potential fit. Also, no matter how good the fit, not every approach will come good – the timing might just be off. So while you want targeted partnerships, there is also a certain element of playing the numbers game. Start initial conversations with a whole bunch of potential partners, then go where the momentum takes you.

2. Aim high

I remember being told that you can always go down in an organisation but it’s difficult going up. Approach senior management where possible, these people have more ability to make decisions and going to them directly will ultimately save you a whole heap of time. That said, make sure you enter through the appropriate department – titles and remits will change from business to business but generally targeting marketing, sponsorship, CSR, HR, community investment, and sustainability departments should take you down the right track. Speaking with the CEO trumps the lot!

3. Relationships are everything 

Beyond strategies and budgets, it’s the personal relationships and interests that really make things work. I was recently speaking to a colleague in Australia who revealed that several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sponsorship had really come down to the personal commitment of a senior executive making a partnership happen. Of course, connections are also what your Board is for – ask your Trustees to leverage their networks and open doors.

4. Play dress-ups and look the part 

There’s a heap of fascinating social psychology research that tells us that we naturally trust and align ourselves with people that are like us. Wearing a suit and dressing the part when you engage with business, especially in the early days, makes an impact. I wouldn’t advocate for pretending to be something you’re not, but looking professional gives the impression of professionalism and this could be a key part of giving your prospective partner the confidence to proceed.

5. Two heads are better than one

An extra pair of ears and eyes in a meeting can be very valuable as you will be able to reflect and debrief more objectively. Accurately identifying what the key interest points and preferences were can be essential information on how to shape a proposition. The extra mouth can be handy too, as you can support and build on each other during the discussion.

6. Be clear about your proposition

Developing a clear proposition can be an elusive thing but it’s critical to get to the point where you can clearly articulate your purpose and your value. Adding substance to your proposition with stories of what you actually do, who you support, and the difference you make is also an important part of building interest in your cause. Polish your favourite stories about your work and make them shine.

7. Mutual value leads to mutual rewards

The fundraiser’s adage of ‘ask for cash, get advice; ask for advice get cash’ doesn’t completely fit with business engagement but it’s not far off. Rather than focus explicitly on sponsorship contributions think creatively about how you can involve a business’s expertise, employees, and assets. The richest partnerships come about when you can tap into the values of an organisation – don’t just make them look good, make them feel good too. If you can provide authentic, magical moments where your partners can engage directly with your stakeholders, you’ll deepen the relationship to a whole different level.

8. Provide options before a proposal

As the conversation move towards specifics, I’ve found it useful to develop a menu of potential activities rather than take a bet on just one or two options. This gives your partner space to move and avoids the risk of drawing a blank. Providing a range of options also gives a sense of abundance in the emerging relationship, and demonstrates your creativity and flexibility as a future partner. Pragmatically, it also makes sense to develop a 2-page options paper before committing to a more extensive proposal.

9. Follow up and remain persistent

Track your various leads and set reminders to follow-up. People are so busy and it is easy for non-essential business to fall off the radar – often your partnership will fall into this category. Deals and agreements can take a long time to work their way through the system and can also get dropped as they get passed from desk to desk. Remain friendly and realistic about timeframes, but be persistent.

10. Know your value 

If/when the conversation does come down to sponsorship and money it’s important to know your value and know what you want – in other words, don’t ask for too little and don’t ask for too much. Knowing your value can be a tricky thing to calculate but think of it in terms of your brand, the community you represent, the access and influence you have, and the impact you deliver. Conducting a Social Return on Investment (SROI) can give you a more literal articulation of the value you offer. So be proud of your value and don’t be bullied into giving it away. On the other hand, don’t be greedy and go into a negotiation trying to get as much as you can. Determine a figure that you think is fair and negotiate hard towards it. Also, a smaller amount for multiple years can have higher strategic value than a one-off bonanza.

Alex Hannant 

Alex Hannant is the Executive Director of the Akina Foundation, New Zealandʼs incubator for low-carbon social innovation. 

Previously based in the UK, Alex was Director of Programmes at LEAD – a global network focused on leadership and learning for sustainable development. He was also Head of Partnerships at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) – a global initiative providing technical advice and services on climate compatible development to decision makers in developing countries.  

Alex specialises in the design and delivery of strategies and programmes which facilitate learning, engagement, and social innovation. He has worked extensively in Africa, Asia and Europe, and pioneered the CDKN Action Lab and Innovation Fund. Alex’s research investigated approaches to enabling behaviour change and the practical application of social psychology in policy, management practice, and community-led programmes. 

Alex’s interests focus on keeping up with the accelerating rate of technological, social, and environmental change and emerging global trends. He is fascinated by learning, innovation, and transformative processes, and enjoys collaborative work across sectors, cultures and disciplines. 

In his current role with Hikurangi, he aims to help build and support a culture of social innovation in New Zealand through the development of talent, learning networks, and game-changing initiatives.