What Corporate Donors Want

A recent non-profit client just a year old had taken on an aggressive campaign goal: raising $12 million in 2011 from corporate sponsors alone in its second year. I was tasked with conducting research to help the organization understand what corporate donors want.

My findings, below, were based on primary and secondary research and my experience with fundraising and development efforts. The factors listed make the greatest difference for corporate donors and are presented in an order of rough importance.


Small- and medium-sized businesses especially look for opportunities to give locally, as one might expect. For such businesses, which usually lack national profiles, donations that impact the immediate community go further in terms of raising profile and making an appreciable difference. The preference for local philanthropy may also be a matter of convenience, insofar as local groups have an advantage in terms of conducting meetings with and giving presentations targeting corporate giving officers. Finally, many businesses likely understand that improving their own communities will lead to happier employees (and customers), and to greater recruiting potential.

It may be a surprise that many large corporations with national profiles also choose to give locally, largely for the same reasons. What “locally” means, thought, is a complicated question. For example, PNC Bank is well-known for philanthropic efforts near its branches but especially near its corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (The name of the company’s philanthropic website bears out this community focus.) Another company in the top half of the Fortune 500, Dow Chemical, notes in its philanthropic guidelines, which are divided by state or region, that they target nonprofits that “address a social, economic, educational, or environmental need in a city/community in which The Dow Chemical Company has a presence.” That presence can be in manufacturing, corporate, distribution, or any other activity in which the company engages.


Corporate philanthropy can only meet the corporation’s goals—again, profile-raising and community improvement, among others—if the recipients make good use of donated funds. As such, corporate giving officers look for evidence of past effectiveness and, for younger nonprofits in particular, potential for future success. This evidence can be quantitative or qualitative, focusing either on efficient use of funds (e.g., helping a great number of people with minimal financial commitment) or on individual success stories (“human interest” case studies or testimonials). Nonprofits that can provide both kinds of evidence will find the greatest success in attracting corporate donations.


In a post-Enron, post-housing-bubble era, many businesses face an increasing demand for transparency. This is most true for public corporations, of course, but also holds for companies owned by groups of private investors or by venture capitalists. In order to preserve the integrity of their own books, most corporations look for philanthropic opportunities with nonprofits that can show how they have used funds they’ve received in the past, with nothing vague or irregular in the breakdown of expenditures.


In some cases, the “bragging rights” that accompany philanthropy drive giving officers at larger companies to seek out nonprofits with unique service offerings, unique positions within their fields, or otherwise unique perspectives on their causes. Also, since most corporations prize innovation internally, their philanthropic goals tend naturally to fall in line with that disposition.

Safety in Numbers

Another consequence of the increased demand for transparency is that corporate giving officers tend to take comfort in making donations to groups that have already attracted other corporate gifts. It may be an unfair prejudice, but donors perceive an organization as less likely to be fraudulent or otherwise troublesome if it has received many corporate gifts in the past. By donating to well-established recipients, officers protect their own reputations and those of their employers. Attracting many donors may also be seen—again unfairly—as likely to correlate with a nonprofit’s success.

Don’t Hammer Screws: Nielsen on Social Media Outsourcing

In his latest AlertBox entry, Jakob Nielsen effectively shows that “usability suffers when an organization puts its website content on social sites without adapting it to the particular site’s features.” This is true enough: One should no more use YouTube in the half-hearted ways Nielsen identifies than one should use a hammer on screws.

However, Nielsen also claims that this argument “count[s] in favor of keeping social features on your own site where you can design them to provide a better user experience for your customers.” I take issue with this claim: Nielsen’s blaming bad UX on social media platforms, when it rightly belongs with development teams (as it usually does).

In other words, it’s not that you can’t design good UX with social media outsourcing in place; it’s that the makers of the sites Nielsen points to just didn’t—whether for lack of vision, budget constraints, insufficient technical expertise, or laziness.

(In most cases, I suspect the difference comes down to people using site-provided widgets or embed code rather than APIs. Whether this is a failure of strategists, UXers, designers, or developers probably varies.)

Nielsen seems to acknowledge this distinction in his qualification to the first claim I cite above. That is, when he writes, “without adapting it to the particular site’s features,” he seems to understand that good UX featuring social media outsourcing is indeed possible.

As proof that it can be done, I offer up the following, a simple example of a site that does social media outsourcing right. (Full disclosure: I led the charges on strategy and UX for this site while working for Mind Over Media.)

Case Study: WUTube

Waynesburg University asked us to devise a media-rich, recruiting-focused site that featured students in their own environments. We wanted to outsource some of the material to YouTube and Flickr for a number of reasons, some of them likely familiar:

  • The budget for the project precluded dedicated media servers or high-end hosting.
  • Waynesburg’s target audience—prospective students (and their parents)—already lived on YouTube, and identified themselves as looking for a Waynesburg presence there.
  • The school’s staffing situation made an easy-to-use, low-cost data and media administration tool a mandatory for the project.
  • In a way that was admirably forward-thinking at the time, the school recognized the need to play a role on maintaining their online presence outside the classic “admissions microsite” model. In short, maintaining credibility demanded increased activity on YouTube in particular.

Note that the finished product, WUTube, avoids the pitfalls Nielsen identifies, in part through good design, in part by making heavy use of APIs for the various social media sites involved. Heavy customization, to be sure, but surely Martha Stewart and Harvard Business Publishing (two of Nielsen’s examples) could have sprung for it.

In particular, WUTube overcomes these obstacles (links are to screengrabs on Flickr):

  1. Nielsen’s categorization problem, wherein relying on the social media site’s default means of organizing content serves nobody. Instead, WUTube organizes all content—inluding videos—by student, which is to say, by the main draw to the site.
  2. Lousy titles for the media. WUTube’s administrators and the students involved have been diligent in creating fine, descriptive titles for the images and videos used on the site.
  3. Obtrusive, distracting branding. WUTube includes a set of branded hyperlinks, but they’re located out of the way on the home page. Otherwise, the content feels much more integrated with the site than in Nielsen’s examples.

Again, the problem Nielsen’s pointing to isn’t with the tools; it’s with organizations using them poorly.