‘I don’t consider myself a corporate fundraiser’ and other lessons from corporate relations officers

September 22, 2017

Virginia Harrison

By Virginia Harrison, Penn State PhD student

This summer, I set out to better explain how corporate social responsibility (CSR) relationships affect the success of their nonprofit partners, thanks to a Page Center grant. Focusing on large public universities in the United States, I interviewed 13 corporate relations officers at higher education institutions about their experiences working with corporate funders, and how these relationships impacted their universities. I expected to hear that these nonprofits relied on corporations for philanthropic support; however, I did not expect to find that philanthropy is only part of the story.

While it’s no surprise that the practice of corporate fundraising has changed dramatically in the last few decades, my interviewees very clearly conveyed that the industry is still rapidly evolving. Seemingly, no two corporate relations offices were organized the same way. Other departments were “struggling with” the question of how to measure success, citing a wide range of metrics beyond dollars in the door.

A few common trends across nonprofits emerged during my conversations. While my results are still preliminary, these are three takeaways from an initial review of my data:

1. Corporate relations is relationship building

This practice isn’t about asking many corporations for money and seeing what sticks. Reflecting relationship management theory, it’s about managing expectations, creating a space for dialogue and communicating clearly. An associate vice president for corporate relations in the Northeast said “It comes down to people give money—whatever kind of money that is—to people, and it’s all about relationships. It’s all about making sure people see the value of your institution through the relationship you create.”

2. Philanthropy is taking a back seat

A trend increasing in the past decade, corporations are asking universities to help recruit students for employment, enlist faculty in research contracts or increase visibility on campus—all without accompanying philanthropic support. Corporate relations officers have adjusted the benefits they seek from corporations. “I don’t consider myself a corporate fundraiser,” said one senior director of corporate relations from a Midwestern institution. “I’m trying to figure out, how do I foster these win-win relationships? How do I find a benefit that is a benefit to the university as well as the company?”

3. Universities also want ROI

While corporations justify philanthropic spending to their shareholders, universities are also connecting these partnerships to their bottom lines. Corporations help build curricula, lend industry expertise and hire graduates, all impacting a university’s mission of student success. “I try to put that hat on: Is it going to be good for our students? And if the answer is yes, then I like to pursue it even if I’m not going to get cash money in on the philanthropy side of the house,” said a senior director of corporate relations at a mid-Atlantic university.

Yet, what do these new definitions of corporate relations mean for nonprofit institutions? How will these trends affect nonprofits with fewer resources to offer corporations? Can all nonprofits—or higher education institutions—really afford to focus less on philanthropy? I plan to publish more detailed reports of my findings that hopefully will begin to paint a picture of current corporate-nonprofit relationships and emerging ethical questions in this rapidly changing environment.


This project was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center. For more information about this project, please email Harrison at vsh5000@psu.edu.