Research in Progress: Serving the nonprofit in a CSR relationship

June 26, 2017

Virginia Harrison

By Virginia Harrison, Penn State PhD student

A corporation will only sponsor your sports program if you give them exclusive business rights. A longtime corporate donor suddenly doesn’t want to give cash anymore; now they offer employee volunteers for a one-day event. Another corporation says they will give you a $1,000 grant—after you provide their employees with volunteer activities continuously for five years.

All of these situations represent real-life experiences faced during my seven-year career in fundraising. While many corporations were incredibly generous and supportive of the nonprofits I represented, other relationships seemed to come with strings attached. And often, these strings were burdensome to the nonprofit organization.

Public relations research is prolific in the area of corporate social responsibility (CSR), but nearly every study I have seen focuses on the impacts of CSR activities on the corporation, like reputation and crisis management, branding, or image. However, few studies have evaluated the impact of CSR relationships on the nonprofit beneficiaries. It is not enough to assume nonprofits automatically benefit from the funding, resources, or publicity provided by their CSR partners. We need to better understand how CSR relationships impact our nonprofit sector, for better or for worse.

My summer research project, funded with a Page Center Graduate Student Summer Grant, will begin to address the implications of CSR relationships for nonprofits. Because the research from this perspective is relatively new, the study will use qualitative methods to begin unwrapping the dynamics of CSR relationships for nonprofits. Through interviews with nonprofit fundraisers who work with corporations, I hope to determine some qualities of positive and negative nonprofit-corporate relationships and what kinds of communication produce these outcomes. I’ll pull from relationship management theory, stewardship and fundraising theory, as well as concepts like ethics of care. This summer study will focus on practices in the higher education sector, where corporate relationships and fundraising practices are well-established.

With the findings of this study, I hope to launch an ongoing research agenda to determine measures for mutually beneficial corporate-nonprofit relationships. Ultimately, I hope these findings will allow nonprofit practitioners to be more efficient and effective in pursuing positive corporate relationships.

Understanding CSR relationships from the nonprofit point of view fits perfectly with the Page Center mission to uphold ethics in public communication. Helping nonprofits to create and maintain mutually beneficial corporate relationships is a matter of empowering good organizations to continue their work and to maintain the overall health of our nation’s robust nonprofit sector. I know from experience how the right corporate relationship can make all the difference.