Student Perspective: Creating Value in Non-Profit Partnerships

Rising senior Taylor Yates spent last fall’s social impact fellowship conducting research and creating a strategy for Spark, a Philadelphia education nonprofit. Today she shares what she learned along the way about strategy, assumptions, and attracting nonprofit sponsorship.

Creating value isn’t just about for-profit businesses and their consumers.

As a Wharton Social Impact Fellow working with Spark Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to explore how nonprofits can acquire sponsorships from corporations by creating value.

Spark is a nonprofit focused on decreasing school dropout rates for disadvantaged students by providing them with apprenticeships that help them apply school-relevant skills and see the value in education. My task as a fellow was to work with Spark Philadelphia to begin shaping Spark’s corporate sponsorship strategy.

hand with vinesEarly in my fellowship, I was connected with Jane Walsh, Spark’s nationwide Managing Director of Development and Partnerships, who helped me shape my research. I learned from her that Spark’s individual offices had each been handling corporate partnerships differently, as there was currently no unified corporate partnership strategy nationally.

We agreed that my final deliverables should consist of two parts: a report based on interviews with key Spark contacts at each office regarding current sponsorship approaches, and a presentation of best practices based on these interviews as well as recommendations for corporate partnership strategy.

I learned that nonprofits cannot hope to partner with corporations unless they become effective at creating and communicating value. Jane helped me to shape a corporate sponsorship matrix consisting of levels of benefits that corporations could receive from Spark with corresponding levels of financial contribution.

While creating this matrix, I grappled with how to communicate Spark’s value to corporations. I learned that things like social media mentions aren’t always the most effective in attracting corporate sponsorship, and that corporations are actually more sold on the value of Spark’s mentorship program for their employees than they are on PR benefits.

I learned that while creating value for a corporation from a non-profit is different than a large consumer goods corporation creating value for an individual consumer, the concept is the same. The value proposition is what sells.

I also learned that creating a business strategy that can bend to the demands of the real world is challenging.

About halfway through the fellowship, I had finished the comprehensive matrix, and submitted it to Jane as well as my Wharton advisor for review. Both of them quickly pointed out that although the matrix looked solid on paper, it allowed little room for flexibility. The matrix listed not only financial contribution requirements but requirements for numbers of employee mentors that each corporation would be required to provide for each level of benefits.

My model failed to account for the fact that many companies currently partnered with Spark were offering much money than they were mentors, or vice versa. The model I had created would incentivize corporations to decrease the larger of the two values, in order to not “over-offer” for the level of benefits they would receive.

All in all, my experience with Spark Philadelphia taught me that social impact organizations, when interacting with the for-profit sphere, have to play by the rules of business. While mission and impact are crucial, nonprofits must be clear and compelling in communicating these to gain the attention – and funds – of their for-profit peers.

Taylor Yates is a rising senior in The Wharton School, studying Marketing, and Social Impact and Responsibility, and minoring in Psychology. She is passionate about brand strategy and its intersection with the social impact sphere.