This year's Voluntary Sector Almanac, published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in February, makes depressing reading for PROs at the helm of small, specialist charities. It identifies the rise of 'super-charities' - a group of just 14 organisations (including the RNIB, RSPCA and RNID) that win ten per cent of the revenue available to the UK's 169,000 charities.
Although the number of charities bringing in more than £1m of donations has doubled since 1995 to 2,930, more than half (56 per cent) of all charities take less than £10,000 a year. Worse still, the Almanac says the gulf between the small and super-charities is widening to such an extent that the latter are 'increasingly likely to shape public perceptions of the sector'.
In the face of such an imbalance, it is no wonder that niche charities are struggling to make their message heard. However, if size dictates coverage, it is no wonder that charity PROs are increasingly urging their leaders to partner big business and tap into their pulling power.
Share of voice
According to a 2005 poll by PRWeek sister title Third Sector, 55 per cent of charities name profile-raising as a reason for getting involved with companies. Last month, for instance, Bowel Cancer UK - a minnow compared with Cancer Research UK, Britain's richest charity - persuaded Waitrose to support its 'eat more fruit' campaign.
But while smaller charities may be keen to forge corporate partnerships to highlight their cause, the Third Sector survey suggests that such link-ups are more successful for their larger rivals. Nearly 80 per cent of charities with an annual turnover of more than £5m agreed with the statement: 'Our partnerships have increased and improved our public image'; only 60 per cent of charities with a turnover of £1m or more agreed with the same statement.
To create a level playing field, perhaps charities should provide potential partners with a well-considered business plan, rather than plead for corporate funds. It is true that with corporate social responsibility (CSR) becoming more evident on the corporate agenda, businesses are increasingly receptive to opportunities that will cast them in a benevolent light - but the numbers must add up.
Marie Curie Cancer Care is a good example of a commercially savvy, relatively small charity. It has to punch above its weight because two of its rivals, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Research, are ranked in the UK's top ten charities by voluntary income, according to the Charities Aid Foundation. But corporate development manager Phil Wormley does not see size as a barrier to getting a partner on board. 'There is a place for all charity brands. But it is all about finding your own niche in the market,' he says.
'Many organisations will choose to work with lesser-known charities, where they can have a greater impact. And sometimes a corporate brand does not want to be dwarfed by a large charity brand. It is about finding the right fit.'
Wormley adds that some corporates approach Marie Curie, while others invite pitches from a number of charities with the view to forging a link.
'The nature of many partnerships means they have a finite time span, such as "charity of the year" relationships,' he explains. 'We have to keep ourselves in the market for new partners and move with the times, so that we can fit the ever-changing needs of CSR departments.'
Marie Curie's tenacity has paid off, and it has secured sponsors for all of its major events. Abbey National backs its Nurse of the Year award; Yell sponsors the annual Great Daffodil Appeal; the UK's largest housebuilder Persimmon supports its Back to the Shop Floor initiative, where employees raise funds to get their boss to do their job for a day; and Next sponsors the Devoted to Life walks. Each partner covers the cost of the activity, ensuring that all funds raised go directly to the cause.
Another example of a niche player winning the attention of a big brand is performing arts charity Chicken Shed's partnership with BSkyB. To make the process of choosing a charity partner more engaging to staff, Sky created a competition in 2004 where ten charities could apply to have a short promotional film made about their cause. The films were distributed internally, and Sky staff voted for a charity: in this case, Chicken Shed won.
As well as boosting Chicken Shed's profile, the competition benefits Sky. BSkyB director of corporate responsibility Ben Stimson says: 'These activities are about ensuring there's a benefit to your reputation as a company and as more companies wake up to this, you have to do something more to demonstrate you're an innovative brand. Companies are looking for novel ways of working with organisations.'
Stimson says Chicken Shed's pitch was successful because it tapped into Sky's values: 'It cleverly linked its inclusive attitude to entertainment to Sky's attitude to entertainment for families of all shapes and sizes. There was a good fit in terms of philosophies.'
Don't rush in The importance of research when choosing a corporate partner cannot be underestimated. Third Sector's survey reveals that too many charities do not recognise the importance companies give to achieving shared objectives. Only a third cited this as one of their motivations for partnerships.
One charity that does understand this concept is The Woodland Trust. In 2001, it decided to approach directory Yell.com with a view to cultivating a long-term partnership.
After Yell's former head of PR, Sara Tye, spoke at a Business in the Community Conference about the company's values and corporate community investment programme, representatives from the trust introduced themselves to her, saying they believed there was a good synergy between the organisations' values. The trust then followed up the conversation by sending Tye information and ideas on how Yell could support the charity.
'They were very businesslike, very professional; they knew what businesses they were looking for, and knew the value of their brand,' says Yell senior PR manager Susannah Finn. 'The trust was already doing well with Christmas card recycling with Boots, and the success of that inspired us.'
At that time, Yell had no budget for joint initiatives. But in 2002, when Yell's offline Directory Recycling Scheme saw 40 per cent of the books being recycled, beating its target, head of PR Susan Irwin wanted to shout about it - and the Woodland Trust sprang to mind.
Yell went back to the charity and initiated sponsorship of its tree-planting/conservation scheme. This led to Yell promoting recycling in schools and its flagship environmental programme, Yellow Woods Challenge, which was launched in 2004.
Finn's advice to other specialist charities is to 'think about the PR value of what you're suggesting'.
She adds: 'Most companies have big marketing budgets to spend on brand placement, so saying you can add a company's logo to your charity materials isn't going to cut it. Give companies an idea of potential opportunities, something that will stand out and be different. Be prepared to share responsibility and consider the benefits of the relationship .'
CSR conferences can be fertile ground for prospective partners. Valuable contacts can also be made through a charity's work with organisations as part of its service.
Action For Blind People got Birmingham Midshires involved after the building society consulted the charity about a staff member who lost her sight. 'It soon become apparent that Birmingham Midshires was fully committed to diversity and equality, so the dialogue kept going,' says Harry Meade, senior corporate development executive at Action For Blind People.
The charity supported Midshires' 'Disabled Day' in 2005, providing the former with an opportunity to gain greater exposure of the day-to-day issues affecting blind people. All proceeds from the fundraiser were donated to the charity.
Although the vast majority of partnerships are initiated by charities, there are other examples of how corporates are becoming increasingly proactive. Last year, Starbucks approached volunteering charity TimeBank because Scott Keiller, UK head of CSR and comms at the coffee vendor, was impressed by TimeBank's work. The organisations then created the 'Perk up your life' campaign, whereby café customers could go online in their Starbucks branch and easily access information on volunteering. 'Both Starbucks and TimeBank are interested in inspiring people to become involved in their communities, so this partnership made sense,' explains Keiller.
Through the link, TimeBank has access to one million Starbucks customers a week, broadly in the demographic most likely to consider volunteering. 'It would have cost thousands of pounds to reach the same audience through advertising. The online content was tightly branded and endorsed by Starbucks, making it more powerful than straightforward advertising,' says Moira Swinbank, chief executive of TimeBank.
As well as gaining cut-through via a corporate partner's media channels, partnerships can also provide compelling material for coverage. In 2004, The National Autism Society (NAS) associated mobile telephony with the complex communications problems of autistic people - and brought Vodafone on board for a campaign.
It has gained extensive coverage of the partnership across national, online, commercial radio and regional media. NAS head of corporate and events fundraising Sarah Hills says targeting regional press with a local angle has proved particularly effective: 'We always encourage our corporate partners to get their staff interested and involved in different fundraising initiatives. This has led to many features and news items.'
NAS was also included in a Sunday Telegraph feature about Vodafone's funding of an autism services database.
A charity's professionalism in dealing with the media is crucial to securing both the trust of its partners and favour with journalists. Jay Williams, creative director of PR and newswire agency 72Point, says many charity PROs expect coverage just because their campaign is for a good cause, and claims this can hinder partnership deals.
'Many pursue ideas and link-ups that are parochial, irrelevant and often badly thought out,' he explains. 'This could scare off potential corporate partners, who will want to see that their money and support is going to a media-savvy organisation.' Williams recommends focusing on human interest and case study-led stories.
In order to avoid disappointment among partner organisations, a formal agreement should be thrashed out, detailing the commercial payback for the corporate (perhaps via promotion of the partnership), and what the charity expects in terms of backing. Horticultural charity Perennial has a wealth of experience with commercial partners. One ongoing relationship is with grower Pococks Roses, which named a new rose breed, Perennial Blue, after the charity in 2003.
Perennial PR officer Nerissa Deeks says: 'Nothing leaves such a bad taste in the mouth as a partnership that fails to meet the high expectations of one or both parties. Our agreements include dual mentions and the checking of press releases before they are issued, and dual approval of printed material. It can seem cumbersome - especially when a deadline is looming and you can't get hold of the right person - but bitter experience has taught us to ignore such agreements at our peril.'
In theory, charities' corporate partnerships should benefit both parties. But Deeks warns that the time needed to manage relationships can be a drain on a charity's resources. 'For small charities, the temptation to jump into bed with whomever, just because it seems like an offer that's too good to refuse, is great but has to be resisted,' she says.
'The fall-out from bad PR as a result of making the wrong connections could be devastating. Specialist charities are dependent on the goodwill of our core public supporters.'
How to choose the right corporate partner
01. Take steps to protect your name and reputation, before entering into a commercial agreement. This may include taking professional advice on valuing your brand name
02. Set goals before entering a partnership
03. Remember that any charity, regardless of size, can consider partnerships
04. Carry out a risk assessment before entering into any agreement
05. Check you comply with the relevant fundraising legislations
06. Establish common ethical values
07. Highlight your ethical stance and commercial partnerships in your annual report and accounts
08. Consider how you will monitor and manage the commercial partnership
09. Check the credentials of the company and consult with other charities
10. Ensure you have robust policies and procedures in place which fit into your wider fundraising strategy
11. Review your policies regularly
12. Do not simply accept an agreement drawn up by a company without seeking the appropriate advice
13. Consider the tax implications of a commercial agreement
14. Is the commercial proposal appropriate and in the best interests of your charity?
15. Ask yourself: 'Is this a fair deal for your charity?'
This advice is based on the Charity Commission's study on commercial partnerships, entitled 'RS2 - Charities and Commercial Partners' (July 2002).
Rainforest Foundation UK and Comte Cathare
Bertie Eden, owner of biodynamic and organic wine company Comte Cathare, approached the Rainforest Foundation in 2002. He says he supported the charity's cause and that his firm's approach to wine-making fitted in with the charity's organisational ethos.
'To be able to do one's day job and actively support, promote and donate to a vital cause for us all has more value than any economic return,' says Eden.
The company launched a 'Rainforest' range of wines, named after medicinal plants such as Cinchona and Dioscorea, to raise funds for the foundation and highlight the importance of rainforests. The wines are sold through Oddbins, and with each bottle sale Comte Cathare donates 50p.
In 2004 the initiative expanded to include two 'Primate' wine labels, depicting an orang-utan and a gorilla, to highlight how rainforest destruction affects wildlife. The new line also incorporates on its labels the images of world-renowned photographer Brenda Eckles and wildlife photographer and campaigner Karl Ammann.