6 Mistakes to Avoid When Partnering With a Small Business

So, you’ve landed that coveted partnership or large sponsorship with a small business. Feels great, doesn’t it? It’s a goal for many nonprofits and social enterprises, and if you’ve made it this far, you’re ahead of the curve.

However, securing the relationship shouldn’t be your goal. You need to work at making it successful…for both of you. By doing so, you’ll ensure a long-lasting relationship, and it will give you the confidence and reputation needed to repeat the process.

A successful partnership with a small business can lead to more money, more volunteers, a larger network, and much more. Plus, it gives you other people who will champion your cause.

Last week, we talked about the mistakes that small businesses should avoid when partnering with nonprofits. Today, we’ll chat about the mistakes you should avoid on your side of the relationship. Because not only should you play your role in making the partnership a success, but ultimately, it’s the only thing you can control.

6 Mistakes Nonprofits Should Avoid When Partnering With a Small Business

Mistake #1: Don’t Explain the Benefits to the Small Business

Even the most generous of sponsors and partners have to ask themselves at some point, “What’s in it for me?” This isn’t rude or crass. It’s natural when thinking about entering into this kind of relationship. After all, they have a business to run.

Philanthropy often comes out of excess resources, whether that’s time, money, or something else. Businesses need revenue to keep their doors open and their lights on. So, while they often want to give out of the kindness of their hearts, they also realize that giving back is good for business.

So, be proactive and answer their question. Don’t let it be a distraction or guesswork on their part. This may only become a nagging feeling that grows as time passes.

Try to include both altruistic and practical answers. Altruistic options may be things like goodwill or higher employee engagement. Practical ideas could include press opportunities, showing off their logo on your website, or even single points of contact for streamlined communication. Think about what you can do to make the partnership intentional and beneficial.

Mistake #2: Don’t State Exactly What Your Nonprofit Needs

I get it. Having this kind of sponsorship or partnership within your grasp is incredibly tempting. And it’s easy to just accept whatever the business wants to offer you, even if you don’t need it.

However, you have to think of your organization first. If someone offers to create a new website for your nonprofit, for example, but you had a redesign done a year ago, don’t accept it just because it’s handed to you on a silver platter.

If a small business approaches you to partner, leave no room for ambiguity. Ask for exactly what you need. At times, there may be a compromise or alternative you hadn’t thought of, which is another great solution. But if they are only willing to give something you don’t need, this won’t serve you well in the end. And, honestly, other than getting your organization’s name on their resume, it won’t serve them well either.

The goal is to create a partnership or sponsorship that benefits you both, and one you’ll want to continue into the future.

Mistake #3: Don’t Follow-Through on Your Commitment

This advice requires me to dish out a little tough love. Nonprofits are especially understaffed and under-resourced. But, if you make a promise—keep it.

There may be all kinds of fancy benefits you list on a sponsorship or partnership package or presentation. I know you want to do everything you can to sweeten the deal.

But for the sake of your organization and the company you’re talking to, don’t include anything you don’t think you can follow through on. Broken promises can cost you much more than a relationship.

Even if you feel like you don’t have a lot to offer, keep it simple. Follow-through. And over deliver.

Be an nonprofit or social enterprise that keeps their word.

Mistake #4: Keep the Partnership a Secret

This mistake builds on a little of what we’ve already talked about, but in general, one of the best things you can do for your corporate partners is talk about them. It’s a fine line for them to do it themselves. They want to do good—and shout it from the rooftops—but they also don’t want to come across as sleazy or exploitive. So, this is something you can help them with.

Use your email campaigns, social media, and events to talk about what an awesome partner they are, and all they’ve done for you. This is also an easy way to get them to stick around.

Side benefit: It may also encourage other small businesses to work with you as well. It’s always encouraging and comforting to see a proven path to success.

Mistake #5: Ignore Those Bad Vibes

I’m not much of a “woo woo” person, but I do believe in intuition. And as I mentioned in last week’s post, I had to let go of a client that I knew better to work with in the first place. From the initial conversation, I knew this organization wasn’t going to be a good fit, even though they seemed like an ideal client on paper.

But I made excuses, thought it would get better, and jumped in anyway. And things went bad quickly. It was two very long months of working together before I decided to let them go. Meaning, it definitely wasn’t worth the money!

So, learn from my mistake. Don’t ignore those bad vibes! If things feel off in those initial conversations, don’t establish the partnership. It will likely be more trouble than it’s worth.

Even if your nonprofit or social enterprise is desperate, this company will almost certainly not be your answer. After all, if they can’t deliver on their promises, end up taking more time than you have to give, or deplete your man power or energy, you could end up worse off than you started. It would’ve been better to stay away and find a better corporate partner to begin with.

Finding the right company will be worth waiting for!

Mistake #6: Start With a Large, Make-It-Or-Break-It Project

It’s always best to start small, and with several conversations. Don’t rush into a partnership. Hopefully, there will be plenty of potential for a long-term relationship, but it doesn’t have to start that way.

Test the waters to see if it’s a good fit for both of. Make sure you can each hold up your end of the bargain, and build on that success.

Beginning with a big project, especially one where there’s a lot riding on it, will add unneeded stress and pressure. While it may work out for the better, I just don’t recommend it.

Instead, start with a small win. That will create a strong foundation.


PSST: We’ve also built a sponsor presentation template if you need help getting started!

It’s customizable and easy-to-use, so all you have to do fill in your info and schedule the meeting!



A successful partnership between your nonprofit or social enterprise and a small business can lead to more money, more  volunteers , a larger network, and much more. Plus, it gives you other people who will champion your cause.

Kristi Porter, founder of Signify, supporting cause-focused organizations

I'm Kristi Porter, and I started Signify to provide writing and consulting services to nonprofits and for-profit organizations with a social mission, primarily through copywriting, marketing, and business communications. I also teach solopreneurs and small businesses how to incorporate philanthropy and giving strategies. I believe that cause-focused organizations are the future of business. You're proof that companies can both make money and do good. And I'm here to help you get noticed and grow. When you succeed, we all win.

What You Need to Convince Potential Sponsors and Partners

Whether you're a nonprofit or for-profit social enterprise, chances are that you're on the hunt for a corporate sponsor or investor. It could be for a long-term initiative, upcoming event, or special campaign. 

And why wouldn't you be? Corporate sponsors and partners bring in new revenue, as well as a new audience that is potentially untapped by your organization or cause. Their benefits to you are crystal clear.

However, have you stopped to think about what you bring to the table? There's plenty in it for the companies you're asking as well. Never sell yourself short.

These kinds of collaborations are called "cause marketing," and friends, I have really good news. There is no better time for it, and I'm about to tell you why. The bad news is that you may have the wrong approach.

What you need to convince potential sponsors and partners to work with you

So, what do you need to convince potential sponsors and partners that they should work with you? While I might not actually call it easy, it is probably a little simpler than you think. And it begins with two things: some basic information and knowing your own value.

What is Cause Marketing?

The simplest definition for cause marketing is when for-profit corporations team up with nonprofit organizations for a mutually-beneficial purpose. This is the traditional mindset for us folks from the business world. 

Some examples include when you donate an extra dollar at the grocery store for a feed the hungry campaign at Thanksgiving, or the local car dealership sponsors a nonprofit event, or when many companies display pink ribbon products every October with proceeds going to breast cancer research.

But as with so many things these days, I think the lines have become a little blurred. So, I'm going to introduce two other options. The first comes with the new-ish model of social enterprises. (I love that they have disrupted business in this way!) In this vein, a form of cause marketing could be baked into the business model. One example is that Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring to provide glasses for those in need. It's the now famous one-for-one model pioneered by companies like TOMS. Warby Parker doesn't own VisionSpring, but that is the only nonprofit they partner with.

The second is more of a lateral sponsorship or partnership. This would be when similar companies or organizations partner for a greater purpose, either long- or short-term. One example is when various organizations create a coalition to further a cause. There are various anti-trafficking coalitions around the country, with members offering complimentary services to both survivors and the community. They can do more together than each would on their own. Another option might be when nonprofits or social enterprises combine efforts to host an event, and split profits.


Who Are Your Potential Sponsors and Partners?

1) The first place to begin to answer this question is by considering your goals. Is it to make some additional money? Greater awareness for your organization or your cause? To build a long-term relationship with a company that can help sustain you? As always, you need a strategy behind your ask. This will help get you a lot further, and whether you're aware of it or not, it will also come through in your conversations with the would-be sponsor or partner.

2) Next, consider existing relationships. It's tempting to shoot for the stars and go after the biggest dog around, but that may not be the most productive use of your time and effort. And it may just leave you more frustrated.

No matter how big your operating budget, relational capital is your biggest asset here. Relationships are everything, and you can't manufacture them. After all, if you owned a company with piles of money lying around, and knew of a worthy cause you could get behind, wouldn't you put your dollars there first? Yes, you would. (And can we be friends?)

I suggest actually creating a spreadsheet of your personal capital, and having any employees do the same. You may not need it right away, but you will at some point. Find those relationships that may be great funding, spreading the word, making introductions, or some other benefit to your particular organization. (Think: Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.)

3) Next, make a spreadsheet of prime candidates for your sponsorship or partnership. This can include those in the relationship capital category, as well as others that come to mind. This will help you look at everyone objectively and all at once.

4) Finally, do your research. Does that company already have a charity or social mission partner? Do they have upcoming deadlines, or deadlines that have passed? Do they work with your cause, or have their own focus that's not a good match? For any companies that make the cut, this info will come in handy later for your presentation.

The Magic Bullet for Your Sponsorship or Partner Presentation

If the information above was a bit of a review for you, you'll need to hone in on this section. What you need to understand is that there has been a major shift in marketing the last few years—that directly relates to your presentation. 

Websites, emails, social media, and even presentations all used to be focused on you, the organization. No matter who you were, you could visit a website and the entire thing would be about them. That's not the case anymore. Everything is now "customer-focused." Meaning, even the language on your about page should include the person visiting your site. 

You have to repeatedly assume that someone who is reading your website, interacting with you on social media, listening to your podcast, or sitting in on your presentation is asking themselves, "What's in it for me?" You need to confidently be able to answer that question in everything you do. 

So, please don't skip that step when you talk to potential sponsors and partners. If you can make a compelling case for how working with you benefits them, you're almost there. 


The Secret Sauce is YOU

It's easy to think that whomever you're meeting with is the prettiest girl at the dance, and you're the awkward one standing in the corner trying to decide whether or not to ask her out on the floor. But, really, it's you! This is the really good news I alluded to earlier.

According to Cone Communications 2017 CSR Study, "consumers are no longer just asking, 'What do you stand for?' but also, 'What do you stand up for?' In today's tumultuous society, Americans expect companies to not only improve their business practices and invest in social issues that are aligned with the company, but to be a force for change in broader society."

And, guess what? That's where you come in! They also discovered that:

  • 87% will buy products and services based on their values, and 76% will boycott for the same

  • 78% want companies to address important social justice issues

  • 63% of Americans are hopeful business will take the lead to drive social and environmental change forward, in the absence of government regulation

Download the full report here. (And, by the way, these are great stats for your next sponsorship or event proposal!)

What all this adds up to is that you are the prettiest girl at the dance! These companies need you! Why? Because their customers want them to be involved in doing good, and they want to stay in business. Your organization is just as valuable to them as it is to you. It would be truly a mutually-beneficial relationship, and that should come through in your communication with them. Time to tango!

However, in your excitement, don't forget about the section above. Yes, companies might be actively looking for a "do good" organization to partner with, but you still need to show how you can benefit them. Expect to give as much as you take.


Additional Sponsorship Presentation Tips

  • It needs to look good. I hope this goes without saying, but as you are walking into a room to ask for something, your presentation needs to look professional. Keep it clean and simple with key thoughts and lots of white space. That doesn't mean, though, that you have to pay to have it done. There are tools that can help any novice look more professional.

  • Obey any guidelines. Many large organizations will have guidelines posted on their website, so be sure to look out for these. For example, they may not sponsor events. If that's the case, they may still be a good long-term partner and should be targeted for that ask later.

  • Watch for deadlines. Same as above, there may be specific deadlines you should adhere to. Or it may be that your campaign, initiative, or event doesn't line up with their budget year. For example, one client that I work with always hosts their benefit dinner in the fall. But some of the sponsors we solicit are already tapped out by that time. In that case, you should ask for a preferred timeframe to contact them again for consideration. You may be have to be more creative in your ask if details are scarce at that time, but if it's potentially a good fit, they'll be more willing to work with you.

  • Include stories and facts. Both are compelling. And people will invest when both their heads and their hearts are in it. Additionally, this will allow you to speak to what matters most for different kinds of people. We are all naturally drawn to stories, but facts help making a compelling argument.

  • Think past, present, and future. Show where you've come from, the current need, and how things could be different with help. Allow them to see not only what is, but what could be.

  • Be creative in your approach and tactics. While you may simply Google, "sponsorship presentation" or "event sponsor proposal" for ideas, don't just copy and paste. Remember to customize everything to your unique cause, organization, and abilities. In the "What's in it for me?" category, this could include simple ways that you'll make the process easy, like taking care of all the design work or providing a single point of contact. Or it may be more along the lines of specific holidays associated with your cause or specific to your geographic location.

  • Don't ask out of desperation, but confidence. I have a friend working on a short-term campaign, and she is struggling with her funding. She sent me the info that she intended to send out to some influencers, in hopes they would help promote. Frankly, it sounded desperate. People do not give to desperation unless it's a tragedy or natural disaster. So, she reworked her pitch with the magic bullet and secret sauce above, and it came out sounding much more like something people would want to be involved with.

  • Get help, if you need it. If you work solo, at the very least, get someone else to look over the proposal. That can be a peer, employee, intern or a friend with a good eye and understanding of what you're trying to accomplish. And depending on the size of the ask, you may want to hire a professional. This may include someone that specializes in sponsorships, a graphic designer, or a writer (<-- shameless plug). Here are some of my recommendations. And don't forget, you'll likely be able to use or adapt this information and resource multiple times—instant bang for your buck.

  • Include what makes you unique. As we talked about above, show off what sets you apart and makes you special. This could be a determining factor in their answer.

  • Include the company you're talking to. Don't save this for the Q&A at the end, Answer their question, "What's in it for me?" early on so it doesn't become a distracting thought in their minds while you're pitching your heart out.

  • Be specific in your ask. Everyone, both for- and non-profit, holds tightly to their funds. So, if you're asking someone to fork over their hard-earned cash, tell them exactly what it will be used for. If that part is still up in the air, offer some examples or make it clear that you're open to discussing what's best for the sponsor/partner. Don't make them wonder.

  • Hone the slide deck and presentation. Take a less is more approach, when possible. No one wants to sit through a long presentation, 200 slides, or even worse, someone just reading all those slides to them aloud. I'm falling asleep thinking about it. You don't have to be the best orator in the world, but hit your key points, back it up with only the slides needed, and let everything else be part of a conversation, not a presentation. Talk with them, not at them.

  • Follow up at an appropriate time, and in an appropriate way. Before you leave the meeting, ask if there is a preferred timeframe or method of communication for following up. Make it easy for them! And again, when you follow up, don't sound desperate. Even if you really are desperate, fake it till you make it ! :-)


One Final Note

We've talked about doing your research and some key pieces for your presentation, but there's a huge element I don't want to overlook: the human element. The best partnerships and sponsorships have a strong, relational component. Therefore, before you wow anyone with your snazzy presentation, you should begin with a conversation.

It doesn't matter if you already know the person or company that you're pitching to or not. Take someone out for lunch or coffee . . . maybe even on your dime. Get to know them and the organization. Don't start with your ask—start with their needs. 

After that, you'll begin to see where you can meet those needs, and consequently, become a huge asset to them, not just another charity. And, guess what, if you nail this aspect, it's also more likely that you won't have to be dependent on a razzle dazzle presentation to make your case. The presentation just becomes icing on the cake.


My friend, Mary Frances of Wellspring Living, is so good at this she could teach a class. Here's what she had to say.

Mary Francis Bowley quote, Wellspring Living

What has helped you secure a sponsorship or partnership? What else is a "must" for the perfect presentation. Tell me in the comments!


PSST: We’ve also built a sponsor presentation template if you need help getting started!

It’s customizable and easy-to-use, so all you have to do fill in your info and schedule the meeting!



The great news is that now is the best time for soliciting new partners and sponsors. The bad news is that you may be doing it wrong.

Kristi Porter, founder at

I'm Kristi Porter, and I started Signify to provide writing, consulting and strategy services to nonprofits and for-profit organizations with a social mission, primarily through copywriting, marketing, and business communications. I believe that cause-focused organizations like yours are the future of business. You're proof that companies can both make money and do good. And I'm here to help you get noticed and grow. When you succeed, we all win.