A friend in need: Can corporates help to save charities?

The pandemic has placed many charities in stressful positions, but for some, the partnerships forged with corporates have helped to alleviate at least some of the pressure.


Charities haven’t had an easy ride lately. Recently scandals at Oxfam and others have helped weaken public trust, and just as there seemed to be some light at the end of the tunnel, Covid-19 swept over the horizon, impacting many with a drought of revenues and a deluge of demand.

For many corporate partnerships, this has been something of an acid test – whether the partnership is that of a friend in need, or a fair-weather friend. As Manny Amadi, CEO at C&E Advisory, said in an earlier Charity Times article: “Companies that are truly purposeful are, in maintaining or adapting their partnerships with non-profits, demonstrating their commitment to their values.”

Where partnerships tend to work best is where there is a real understanding of the charities’ needs, a deep level of commitment and communication, alignment between what the corporate can provide effectively and a relationship built over time. This final point has been repeatedly made by many charities that we have spoken to – that the ‘charity of the year’, or even a three- year relationship is of less value as the amount of time pitching and re-pitching means that three years may provide only one of real benefit.

When a crisis hit – and this is by any definition a crisis – then the understanding and systems must already be in place in order for there to be an effective and timely response.

Long-lasting relationships

During the current pandemic,an example of this would be the partnership between FareShare and Hovis. Hovis increased its supply of bread to the charity to almost 30,000 loaves in April to help fight hunger during lockdown. Such an operation – almost a thousand loves a day – of close to biblical proportions, did not start from standing. Indeed the company and charity have been in a partnership since 2017, and thus scaling up become a much easier task.

FareShare’s partnership with Hovis aims to help address food poverty at a time when people are facing income reductions and, as schools are shut, placing additional strain on vulnerable families whose children were receiving school lunches.

The increased demand for the support due to Covid-19, can be seen in more than 500 new charities which signed up to receive food in March and April – 80% of which provide food parcels. Similarly, most of the existing 11,000 charities it supports have adapted their services to deliver food to people’s doorsteps or to create safe collection points.

For operational charities with obvious alignment, such as FareShare has with the supermarkets and food suppliers, the ability to scale up is both exceptionally timely as there is a clear way in which the corporate can help in the current crisis.

For other charities, the corporate partnership is just as vital, but the needs and methods of support are by necessity very different. Timothy Parry, director of communications, engagement & brand and partnerships at Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK), explains: “Our corporate partners have stayed with us, and asked us how to make more of the relationship.”

Despite some fears that the corporate attempts at fundraising might suffer, the reverse has actually been true for ARUK, and, at a time when public donations have been under pressure, it has been a very welcome surprise. This is, Parry believes, a result of the length of relationships that the many partners have developed. “The best partnerships draw from each others’ skills,” he adds, with the corporate partners offering to help in a way that the charity could dictate. The exact opposite of any form of ‘charity wash’ and a testament to the strength of relationship.

That is not to say the pandemic has not created a change – as Parry candidly notes: “Right now we just need money to safeguard the delivery of our remit.” This is a view that will be echoed by many, although, as Parry wryly notes, a strange reversal from the usual demands and merely signing the cheque book. As times change, the needs change, and the relationship must react.

“Appealing to partners solely for money could be conceived as a backward step because we, like others in the sector, have worked hard to develop partnerships that capitalise on shared values, skills exchange and impact, as well as fundraising. But right now, the pandemic is simply placing untold strain on income across the sector and services, progress and crucial projects are all at stake sadly,” Parry explains.

The role of technology

One change has been the use of technology. It’s a double-edged sword as communications are in some ways harder, but people have now been forced to become familiar with ‘virtual’ meetings and events – and so technology expansion is one of the areas that Parry sees as inevitable.

As an example, the humble pub quiz is an area where creating the event virtually means that the limitations are removed, corporate partnerships can help fundraising in the most difficult times and technology can amplify the result. For ARUK, a regular pub quiz with 50 contestants turned into a YouTube event with Stephen Fry as host with 50,00 contestants – raising around £300,000 – and then match-funded again by the corporate sponsors.

Building a relationship with YouTube-based Jay’s Virtual Pub Quiz, led the charity to become the show’s first official fundraising beneficiary. With Stephen Fry and other personalities taking guest hosting slots, and ARUK’s corporate partners providing match funding, over £340,000 has been raised in a month from the Quiz’s virally expanding audience of some 180,000 households.

In some ways, corporate fundraising and funding models might actually be enhanced and changed after this pandemic, and technology will play a major part in this. For the corporate partner, there are new needs and new ways of working too, where flexibility will be required.

Jayne Hauxwall, on behalf of the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, explains that Iceland as a food retailer had a response that was aligned, in that the company could supply freezers to help with food distribution, even though it was “on the front line” as it met increased demand. The company’s charitable foundation was in a slightly different place, and communication was at the heart of helping its partners. Although the foundation made immediate donations to new partners, quickly creating effective lines of communication.

Greater communication

“In general, the more you know of your partners the better, and a long-term relationship is a great plus,” Hauxwell explains. She also notes the way that knowledge has helped them adopt and utilise technology to make use of resources and keep providing a service. The example she uses is with the charity Backyard Nature, where the restrictions on social gatherings have stopped the majority of the charity’s traditional work – but a new opportunity arose to allow people to experience nature by sharing photographs online.

Hauxwell ascribes the ability to react quickly to communication and being able to thus see “the bigger picture”. Allowing the partners to realise the strategic aims, rather than be tied to the past tactics.

“We need to be tuned in to words and conversation to get maximum effectiveness” she adds, believing that although technology has enabled so much in the last few months, that face-to-face is still a vital part of communication.

“We have always tried to listen,” Hauxwell says. “Listening is absolutely key. We are all learning what will be a good fit in future – and it will continue to change.”

A focus on localism

Another shift that has been seen is a focus on localism. Although already a growing trend, the recent events have helped accelerate this. “We had started being more locally focussed before the pandemic,” comments Wendy Cheung, social responsibility manager at Iceland, whilst making the point that the corporate will still support its main national partners.

She acknowledges that the pandemic, and the company’s responses such as the freezers donated to foodbanks and communities, were made quickly because of the long-term relationship with business in the community.

Another example was the donation of 5,000 Easter eggs to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, although several other local charities asked for support too among an “influx of requests”. These local interactions, made at a time of need, might also have created relationships that will last long after the virus has abated. It is too early to tell, but coupled with the trends seen before, we might be witnessing a shift in corporate thinking, and public perception.

Deeper connections

It is not just charities that are seeking deeper connections that can be turned to real advantage. Consumers now expect companies and brands to go beyond money or occasional ‘team building days’ where volunteers don painting overalls. According to the Purpose Pulse survey of the UK public, philanthropic cheques are no longer thought to be socially responsible, with less than half of the public (47 per cent) thinking it is important or very important for companies to donate money to charities.

Overall, no one will say that this has not been a time of extreme stress, and there will be many that feel the sharpest of edges from it, but there may be new and productive models and relationships that can be built from it. It is a long road, but as corporates increasingly look to expand their remit wider than just profit – even BP says profit cannot be the sole motive – it promises to be an interesting journey.

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