SXSW 2015: What makes a great nonprofit-business partnership?

It seems like the perfect match: Businesses need to align their brand with a good cause and nonprofits… well, nonprofits need the money. And it’s all good because… aren’t nonprofit partnerships with for-profit companies really just about the money?

Ask Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, a nonprofit spay and neuter clinic that offers veterinary services to the pets of low-income people. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you really just want a check and and then for your partners to just go away?'”

In their SXSW Interactive session “VodkaforDogPeople: Matchmaking a Business Heart”, Mills confessed that she’d had that experience before — and advises against it. “The promise of the really big check makes you do things that are not really one-hundred percent a good use of your time.”

tito
Tito Beveridge and his beloved dogs.

Instead, Mills advised that nonprofits start with organic relationships that might already exist. Take Emancipet and Tito’s Vodka. Tito’s distillery and operations takes place in the same East Austin neighborhood as Emancipet. For years, owner Tito Beveridge and his employees were caring for, rescuing and fostering stray dogs that were roaming around the distillery. The Tito’s team was taking many of the dogs to nearby Emancipet for services.

“The dogs were becoming part of Tito’s culture and identity,” said Beth Bellanti, head of Tito’s relationship marketing. “And we started building this relationship with the clinic next door.”

Tito’s began donated product to Emancipet for its fundraisers. Its employees started to attend Emancipet luncheons, learning more about the organization. The relationship was getting deeper.

“We got to the point where we asked ourselves, ‘How do we help them and stay true to ourselves?'” said Bellanti. The conversations between Emancipet and Tito’s led to an exploration of a future together.

“A lot of people from the business world want to tell you how to run your nonprofit like a business. But Tito’s never did that,” said Mills. Instead, Tito’s started asking Emancipet bigger questions. Emancipet had long had a growth plan, but with Tito’s experience in national distribution, the beverage company could see beyond what Emancipet had planned for itself.

“Even though I knew and our board knew that we really wanted to grow, we didn’t dream really big. It took someone asking us, ‘What would you do if you had all the resources you need?’ It was almost like having an imagining partner who could sit down and tell us what this could look like.

A photo posted by Tito (@vodkafordogpeople) on

From that, a marketing partnership was born. VodkaforDogPeople.com was created to raise money for and awareness of Emancipet. The e-commerce site leverages Tito’s customers’ affinity for the vodka and for dogs by selling dog-related products like leashes and water bowls with Tito’s branding. One hundred percent of the sales of these products go to Emancipet.

But the messaging on the site is important, too. VodkaforDogPeople introduces visitors to Emancipet, explaining its mission and why Tito’s in involved. Tito’s promotes the site via social media but, Bellanti said, most of the traffic is organic, coming from press, “and letting dog people kind of find us.”

The site gives Emancipet a presence in all 50 states, plus Emancipet gets marketing support. For example, Mills said that while she knew what the Emancipet brand stood for, working with Tito’s to create a branding style guide that documented key elements of the brand was an important step. Earlier this month, Emancipet announced it would open its first clinic outside of Central Texas in a Houston neighborhood overrun with stray dogs.

And for Tito’s, “we get our values aligned into a unique identity,” said Bellanti. “We have a way for our staff to feel invested in making the world better, and that’s strengthened our workplace culture.”

“It’s not that nonprofits don’t have any money,” said Mills, “it’s that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on nonprofits not to spend money on what’s not necessary and to avoid risk.” The $9 million nonprofit still purchases it computers from Discount Electronics, for example. “This project is with a partner that encourages us to take risks. So the relationship with this partner is different from other partnerships.”

So how do you find that visionary partner at a for-profit company?

Mills said connecting with a person is more important than connecting with a business. “At big companies with corporate social responsibility programs, there’s always a human being. Don’t think of that person as that organization.”

That’s how it came about with Tito’s, said Bellanti. “We put it out to our people, and we just naturally had a good story to tell.

“Honestly, it’s an experiment,” Bellanti continued. “We don’t have a long-term plan. We’re just trying to do the right thing.”

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